Released: 2 May 2008
Director: Jon Favreau
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Budget: $140 million
Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Shaun Toub
Billionaire industrialist and arms manufacturer Anthony “Tony” Stark (Downey Jr.) finds himself humbled after his own weaponry leaves him near death. Captured and forced to make weapons for the terrorist group the Ten Rings, Stark instead constructs a suit of armour and, upon escaping, resolves to put his genius intellect and resources to good use as Iron Man.
The development of a live-action Iron Man movie can be traced back to 1990, with stars Nicholas Cage and Tom Cruise both once attached to the titular superhero, but the various scripts and film rights languished in development hell for nearly fifteen years with nothing to show for it. Once the film rights reverted to Marvel, the publisher created Marvel Studios and, encouraged by their success at licensing their more popular characters, began developing movies based on their remaining properties. The first of these was Iron Man; the film’s armours were created by legendary special effects maestro Stan Winston and actor/director Jon Favreau was drafted to direct the film and immediately saw the story as being one of redemption and reinvention. Nowhere was this emphasised more than in the casting of Robert Downey Jr. in the title role; Downey, whose career and life had been in a downward spiral, shot to superstardom after being cast and almost immediately became the linchpin of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) that Iron Man kicked off. Against all expectations, Iron Man was an unprecedented success; it made nearly $590 million at the box office and received rave reviews. Its success led not only to a two sequels but also a slew of other MCU movies and easily the most successful series of superhero movies in modern times as the MCU dominated cinemas over the next ten years and beyond.
Iron Man opens in the war-torn deserts of Afghanistan to the tunes of “Back in Black” by AC/DC; here, we find billionaire industrialist, investor, and consummate playboy Tony Stark sharing some bants with some American soldiers. Stark’s jovial, boastful mood is rudely interrupted when the convey is suddenly attacked, all of his detail killed, and he is caught in the blast from one of his own Stark Industries missiles while trying to message for help. Tony finds himself injured and held hostage by Raza (Faran Tahir), the leader of the terrorist organisation known as the “Ten Rings”, and, from here, we flash back in time some thirty-six hours for a quick recap on Tony’s life. Heralded as a genius, philanthropist, and American patriot, Stark was orphaned as a teenager and, at age twenty-one, took the reigns of his father’s company.
Stark is touted as an acclaimed keeper of the peace though his advanced and innovative weapons technology but, for all his genius, he is aloof and bored with such trivialities as receiving awards or really stopping to think about the moral implications of his actions and would much rather be playing craps at Caesar’s Palace and picking up random woman, even reporters who brand him the “Merchant of Death”. Tony is an impulsive and easily distracted individual who simply does rather than thinking since he is so smart that he is often a few steps ahead of everyone else and prefers to be tinkering with his vast collection of cars and in his personal workshop in his grandiose house rather than remembering things like birthdays and keeping his appointments, all while putting himself, his father, and his company on a pedestal for the world-changing technologies his weapons manufacturing has produced and funded.
Tony’s lackadaisical, self-centred attitude may win over the general public and be a hit with the women but it grates against his closest friends, such as his chauffeur, Howard “Happy” Hogan (Favreau), Obadiah Stane (Bridges), and Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Howard), who are left to make excuses in his stead. None are left with more trash to clean up, however, than Stark’s personal assistant, Virginia “Pepper” Potts (Paltrow), who constantly finds herself having to chase after him for decisions, signatures, and directions relating to Stark Industries. Each of these characters deals with Tony’s childish ways differently; Happy is happy to indulge Stark’s whims and play along on the sly, Rhodey chews Stark out for disrespecting himself (and Rhodey) with his attitude, Pepper is exasperated by his ways but endures them out of loyalty and a mutual attraction between the two, and Stane is seemingly perfectly happy for Tony to do as he wishes since his brilliant mind helps keep him, and the company, extremely profitable.
The attack in Afghanistan forces Stark to witness first-hand the consequences of his actions; trapped in a dingy cave and kept alive by a car battery and some cables, Stark is about as far from his faithful artificial intelligence, Just A Rather Very Intelligent System (J.A.R.V.I.S; Paul Bettany), as he can possibly get. His cellmate, Ho Yinsen (Toub), brings him up to speed with his predicament; shrapnel from the missile is lodged dangerously close to Stark’s heart and only the electromagnet imbedded in his chest is keeping him alive. The Ten Rings demand that Stark construct for them an arsenal of his famed “Jericho Missile” and he is subjected to constant torture when he refuses. Horrified to see the terrorists are wielding his weaponry, Stark resolves instead to build a miniature version of his famed “Arc Reactor”, a clean energy device that will more effectively stave off death and plot their escape.
What follows is an incredible sequence where, torn away from his luxuries and faced with the cold reality that he has been causing death and destruction across the world, Stark sets to work constructing a powerful exoskeletal suit of armour to fight his way out of the terrorist camp. This is a fantastic scene that shows Stark’s adaptability and ingenuity and that he is a formidable foe even without the benefits of modern technology; with a few scraps, his unmatched intellect, and some old-fashioned welding techniques, Stark is able to fool his captors long enough to complete the suit, a clunky, grey monstrosity with just enough power to fight past the guards and blast away to safety. Sadly, Yinsen sacrifices himself to cover Stark when the suit is powering up; with his dying breath, he begs Stark not to waste his life and, humbled by his experiences and Yisnen’s sacrifice, Stark takes his revenge on his captors and resolves to end all weapons manufacturing once he is recovered by Rhodey.
Haunted by his experiences in Afghanistan, Stark is angered at his weapons and technology being misused by terrorists and, after a few trials and working out some kinks, finally perfects his armour design into a sleek red-and-gold suit that rockets through the sky, fires missiles and Repulsor Rays, and is fully connected to all available networks and communication devices thanks to J.A.R.V.I.S. Stark wastes no time in attacking Ten Rings sites, freeing those subjugated to their terrorism with extreme prejudice and, in the process, attracts the attention not just from the U.S. military but also Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) of the mysterious Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.), who wishes very much to “debrief” Stark on the particulars of his escape and extra-curricular activities.
Although having shifted his focus onto a more honourable goal Stark remains as arrogant and obnoxious as ever after becoming the “Iron Man”; both Pepper and Rhodey despair at him when they discover what he’s been up to and believe that he is self-destructing but the truth is that his experiences have finally given him something worth living and working for. His actions, however, have far-reaching consequences; Stark is devastated to discover that Stane ordered the hit on him as the two were depicted as being firm friends up until that point. When Stane then steals Stark’s Iron Man technology and garbs himself in a bigger, more menacing exosuit as the Iron Monger, the stage is set for an epic showdown full of personal animosity between the two armoured men.
Even now, Iron Man remains almost timeless in its presentation; thanks to a fantastically old-school method of blending live-action suits with high-quality CGI, the film holds up incredibly well and is just as good now as it was the first time I saw it in cinemas. A rocking soundtrack full of classic heavy metal tracks and a rousing, industrial theme only serve to punctuate the special effects and the whole film seems to have been made with the actors given free reign to ad-lib their dialogue as interactions and banter are all incredibly natural and amusing. Indeed, Stark’s sudden declaration of “I am Iron Man” was an ad-lib and, with that one line, largely dictated the course for the MCU, which generally treats it superheroes like celebrities rather than falling back on the “secret identity” cliché. While I am perfectly happy to see secret identities in superhero films, it was massively refreshing to see a comic book movie buck that trend and made Iron Man even more memorable in the long run.
One thing that makes Iron Man stand out is the quality of the actors; both Iron Man and Batman Begins (Nolan, 2005) changed the game, as far as I am concerned, by featuring high-quality actors like Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine. I remember being incredibly surprised that Jeff Bridges was a part of this film; almost unrecognisable as Obadiah Stane, Bridges is a charismatic, bombastic father-figure who both nurtures and tries to temper Stark’s genius and impulsive nature. His delivery and magnetism steal every scene he’s in and, yes, it’s probably a littler derivative that Stark’s first adversary was basically a dark mirror of himself but Bridges is such a gem that it’s effortlessly entertaining even if it is at the expense of Iron Man’s more famous foes. Stane constantly exudes an odd sense of menace even before he’s incapacitating people with his little ear gadget; when one of his technicians is unable to miniaturise the Arc Reactor technology, Stane simply disables Stark and rips it right from his chest in order to power his own massive suit. Upon donning the Iron Monger armour, Stane immediately becomes obsessed with its power and as drunk on the feeling of freedom and empowerment as Stark is on his own self-adulation (and alcohol, half the time), which ultimately becomes his downfall as he becomes irrationally fixated on taking his frustrations out on a weakened Iron Man. Seeing Stane suited up in the massive Iron Monger armour was pretty fantastic and it serves a stub-plot of the film, and the entire MCU, of Stark confronting his past and overcoming it and his unresolved issues with his father.
All of this leads me to the biggest draw of the film: the suits themselves. Even now, it is absolutely bad-ass to see the original Mark I clunker of a suit in action which is made all the more visually impressive by just how much of it was actually a practical suit of armour. Stark follows this up with the all-silver Mark II suit, which he wears to test out the limits and capabilities of his Arc Reactor technology (and, in the process, discovers the suit’s tendency to ice up when breaching the upper atmosphere). The final red-and-gold suit is as close to a live-action Iron Man armour you could ask for and looks like one of Adi Granov’s illustrations has literally sprung to life. Iron Man even solves the problem faced by a lot of masked superheroes by switched to a view from inside of the Iron Man helmet so that we can still see Stark’s face and stay emotionally connected to the character even when he’s in full armour and Iron Man is made all the more interesting since we see Stark building, testing, and perfecting the armour and because he constantly remains adaptable and flawed throughout the film.
Finally, there are the hints towards a much larger world. I remember watching Iron Man for the first time and never twigging that Coulson worked for S.H.I.E.L.D. since the acronym isn’t used until right at the end of the film and feeling like an idiot when they finally dropped the organisation’s name. Look closely in the background of one scene and you’ll see that Stark has Captain America’s shield in his workshop, Rhodey very nearly jumps into the Mark II suit for himself at one point, and the film ends not just with Stark’s impulsive declaration that he is Iron Man but also a visit from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Again, I remember hearing rumours of this cameo back in the day and specifically waiting for the credits to finish to see if it was true and being absolutely blown away by the implications of the “Avenger Initiative” but I could never imagine what Iron Man would set in motion for superhero cinema (and cinema in general).
My experiences of Iron Man were extremely limited when the film first came out; I enjoyed watching his cartoons and saw him pop up in a few comics from time to time but, for me, he was definitely a low-tier Marvel superhero and I think it’s fair to say that’s true for a lot of people and the general audience at the time. Iron Man, however, changed all of that; more than that, it changed the superhero genre forever and brought some big names, big money, and big audiences to see these films in a way that no one could have predicted and which certainly hasn’t been replicated since. Even without the larger MCU to help bolster it, Iron Man is a hugely enjoyable science-fiction/superhero romp full of charismatic actors, impressive performances, amusing banter and dialogue, and top-notch special effects. Iron Man may have been a massive gamble for Marvel Studios, and may have been eclipsed by other, bigger films in the MCU, but it’s not to be underestimated. Even at the time, I remember sensing that I was witnessing something very special, something very different from other superhero films, and I’m happy to say that neither time nor repeated viewing has diminished Iron Man’s appeal in any way.
What do you think about Iron Man? How did you find it as a story and as an origin for ol’ shellhead? Do you think it still holds up to this day? What did you think to the cast and the performances in the film? Were you a fan of the film’s special effects and soundtrack? What did you think to the use of Obadiah Stane as the film’s villain? What was your reaction when Nick Fury walked out of the shadows and when Stark admitted to his dual identity? What are some of your favourite Iron Man characters or stories? Where does Iron Man rank in your hierarchy of comic book characters? Are you doing anything to commemorate Iron Man’s debut appearance and, if so, what is it? Either way, I’d love to hear your thoughts on Iron Man so leave a comment below.