Fun fact… I started on these reviews back before Avengers: Infinity War came out. I got this great idea to watch all the Marvel movies, and this insane idea that I should write up some thoughts and reviews for them. So strap in, because we’re starting this all the way back with the one that kicked it off and walking through everything to get there.
Because this is a retrospective as a whole for all the Marvel movies between then and now, there will be… spoilers, I guess, for stuff going forward. No holds barred on some of these, I will reference it all from Iron Man to Captain Marvel (though I may just pretend that the Incredible Hulk doesn’t exist).
To think that the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies have been coming out, fast and furious (full disclosure, that series is ridiculous and I love it)… for only eleven years now. It feels like longer than that… probably because they’ve churned out so many over the years. I know there’s a lot of talk of super hero fatigue, and the obligatory comment that people are sick of comic movies (though the box office numbers seem to say otherwise), and I’m sure there will be more articles about that cluttering up sites all over the internet before Endgame drops in a few weeks.
It’s even weirder to think that, once upon a time, that this particular movie was seen as a huge risk… but there’s so much about it that is. Robert Downey Jr. was a washed up actor when it came out, Iron Man was a B-list hero at best, Marvel was an independent company that had barely survived its financial meltdown and bankruptcy, and all of the “best” characters were licensed to other companies (though Fox and Sony had both managed to screw up the promise of their characters at this point).
Looking at it now, a new MCU movie is an event, but in 2008, Iron Man wasn’t the most anticipated super hero movie (that would be the Dark Knight, also awesome), the most star-powered superhero movie (that’s Hancock), or even the most anticipated Marvel movie (that would probably be the Incredible Hulk). But nothing has had the lasting impact on cinema that Iron Man has had, given that the MCU movies have gone on to make somewhere around all the money, and seven of the movies have gone on to make more than $1 billion worldwide.
There’s a lot about this movie that feels so weird and off compared to later Marvel movies. Parts that haven’t aged well at all, like the jokes about Maxim cover models, the weird scene with the reporter at the beginning that is some of the most T&A we get in Marvel movies (that was pretty much all saved for the Netflix shows after this one… may they rest in peace).
One thing that stands out so much, though, is just how inspired of a casting RDJ was for this role. As a fan of Marvel in general, there are just so many little parallels, and probably more than any other character in Marvel, he is linked forever to the role of Tony Stark. I’ve made a comment before that what makes Batman interesting isn’t the suit… it’s Bruce Wayne. Marvel hit that early here, because this is a movie about Tony Stark, not the superhero Iron Man. This entire movie is about his journey, from playboy genius that’s a bit aimless to playboy genius that’s horrified at what his life has wrought.
The early Phase I films were all about origin stories, and Iron Man has that more than most. Despite that fact, it still just… works, probably more than any movie that came after it not called Captain America. The first 40 minutes of the movie are just introduction, and most of it spent in a cave. Some of the film-making feels kind of dated, especially at the start.
There are several montages in the movie, a lot of reverse shot reaction stuff likely there to save money on costs for what was a fairly CGI-heavy movie (it had a hefty budget of $140 million for its day, but that was less than Dark Knight, Hancock, and the Incredible Hulk). The biggest names in the movie were probably Bridges and Paltrow, but I’m not sure anyone in the cast was draining the coffers overall (compared to what a lot of the stars are making now, anyway).
There are so many little things that they were able to build on with this movie… since the whole idea of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” hadn’t come into being yet. Sure, some people probably had ideas, but there was no guarantee that this would be a success or that there would be anything made after the Incredible Hulk.
The success of this, and the forethought of those running it, brought the cinematic universe idea to the forefront, and no one has been able to do it as effectively as Marvel has. It’s a stunning comparison to look at what Marvel did in that time, and what DC tried to do, and see how the fortunes have reversed. Sure, we’ve gotten a couple of good DC movies, but their whole effort to stitch it together failed… badly.
So much groundwork for the next eleven years is laid in the movie, despite it not being formed up yet. We get SHIELD, the characters of Pepper Potts, Happy Hogan, Agent Coulson, and Nick Fury. There are a ton of little things in the movie as well that are set up. The different Marks for the armor, little bits of technology that will continue to pop up, and even Tony Stark’s green smoothie that played a bigger role in Iron Man 2.
One of the weirdest legacies that Iron Man introduced, however, is something that plagued the Marvel Cinematic Universe for such a long time… great actors playing forgettable villains. I mean, Jeff Bridges is an amazing actor… yet do we ever talk about Obadiah Stane in the discussion of Marvel villains? He’s quite possibly the weakest villain in any of the three Iron Man movies, to be honest, if for no reason other than he’s motivations just seem to be completely insane.
I’ll talk about Whiplash in Iron Man 2, and while that whole story was dull, at least they gave him some real motivations. And with Iron Man 3… there are many problems, but I don’t think the Mandarin was among them. Here though… I want to say that maybe he was tired of living in Tony’s shadow or something, but he clearly had no plan other than “kill Tony Stark” in this whole thing for reasons that were never made clear. “You dream of Stark’s throne” is what Raza said… but he basically had that already. He may not have been CEO, but he certainly pulled nearly all the strings of the company. He was the business guy, and his motivation seemed to be all about money.
No character that comes out of this movie goes on as uneven a ride as Pepper Potts. She’s probably the best she will ever be in the first movie, and end up so wildly uneven in the later movies (also not helped by the fact that Gwenyth Paltrow is a pretty terrible and out-of-touch human being). In this movie, she’s actually pretty awesome, motivated, and actively involved in the whole affair… agency that is sadly going to go missing for a lot of characters between now and Peggy Carter.
It sets up very well that whole dynamic between Tony Stark and Pepper is a defining part of the character of Iron Man. He’s always been a mess, reliant on other people to just survive his life: Pepper Potts, Happy Hogan, and Jarvis in the comics, and we see all of them here (though Hogan is very lightly used… Gutter was too busy directing the movie, I guess).
Unlike a lot of the stuff that comes after it, the stakes of the original Iron Man are actually somewhat low. Sure, the potential of the Iron Man weapon is there, but this is a conflict that’s firmly grounded between a handful of characters. The world isn’t any more at stake than it would be without it… those wars are still going on in the background and there are plenty of other people that will fill in the weapons’ market after Stark exits.
The last act only works because of that narrow focus… and that the writers don’t seem to know what shrapnel in the heart would do, because I really don’t get why he goes all half zombie after the reactor is removed.
Maybe this is more that it was recast, but I do think that Terrance Howard was kind of underwhelming as Rhodey in the movie. I can’t see the character as anyone else other than Don Cheadle in the role. They get the interaction so much better as two trusted buddies in the later films, and I didn’t feel that here. Even at the time, he was a fairly forgettable part of the movie.
It could also just be that his throwing of Shade at RDJ for not backing him up during the contract dispute that led to the recast could have something to do with it. Fun fact… he was paid more than Downey Jr. in this movie (the dispute was how much of a raise RDJ got for 2).
The final fight is strangely anti-climactic, overall. Maybe it’s the blend of almost slapstick comedy when out on the highway, or the idea that Iron Monger can’t aim a machine gun to hit an immobilized Tony Stark from 15 feet away because his targeting sensor is gone. The fight also introduced the idea that “the bad guy has to die” that seemingly stuck around for awhile, though thinking back, I suppose not. Stane may have been kind of a dud in the movie, but there was promise to be had later in an underlying conflict that ended up being sorely lacking in the next two films.
It’s what comes after the final fight that was probably the most fantastic part of the film, though. Homage and respect to the source material, calling him “a bodyguard” (the original cover story), Pepper Potts absolutely smacking down Tony, and the whole of the press conference. “All the mistakes I’ve made… largely in public,” and that wonderful awkwardness.
Of course, we cannot overlook the thing that probably cemented what the Marvel Cinematic Universe could be in the hearts and minds of everyone that watched the movie… the stinger at the end. Marvel didn’t invent the idea (The Muppet Movie had one in 1979, and prior to this the most famous example was probably the one in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) and this wasn’t the first marvel movie to do it (Ben Affleck’s Daredevil and X-Men the Last Stand both had them). Usually, they were just ways to set up something for the sequel, a way to market what was to come next… and this most certainly did that.
The appearance of Nick Fury here did something more; it tapped into something that comic fans have always known and loved about the medium… how interconnected it is. “Do you think you’re the only super hero out there?” He dropped the word “Avengers Initiative,” and in hands other than the people like Kevin Feige, that may have been it.
It was actually Feige’s idea around the Avengers, and there plans to do some interconnected movies that led up to Avengers (they’d secured funding to do it and formed a studio specifically to that end). But if Iron Man had ended up flopping, it could have all been just swept away as another throwaway line as they moved on to try some of the other heroes. It obviously didn’t, though, and the stage was set. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the most successful franchise of all time. These movies, combined, have made more than double what Star Wars has, or Harry Potter, or anything else out there.
Even eleven years later, Iron Man is a fantastic superhero film. Even though some parts haven’t aged well, how it does an origin story, the casting of the main character, and what it launched are just great. The ratings may not matter as much on the movies, but I’d still call this one a five out of five in my book. When I get through more of these reviews, I’ll maybe do an overall ranking of where I put all of the Marvel movies, and my reasons for that, but rest assured, this one would still be towards the top (I know that no one is actually worried about that, but it seemed like the thing to say).