As a lifelong fan of comic books in general and Marvel comics in particular, one of the things that always bothered me about early superhero movies was how isolated they all were from each other. For years, Hollywood licensed superhero properties one at a time, not really knowing how to properly bottle the lightning from a great comic and transfer it to the screen. So when we had movies of heroes from the same field of comics, we were supposed to take them as if they had no connection to each other, when we all knew they did. The shared universe that makes so many superhero comic book families so terrific just wasn’t present in the movies, and it was just one of the many things that made so many superhero films feel less than what they ought to have been. That is, until Marvel Studios changed everything in 2008 with the first release of its Marvel Cinematic Universe: Iron Man.
The story centers on Tony Stark, a rich, spoiled playboy arms manufacturer who has inherited the munitions company built by his father. While visiting Afghanistan, Stark is gravely wounded, taken hostage, and forced to build weapons for the same terrorists he’d been helping to kill for years. Instead, he builds a miniature reactor to implant in his chest that keeps the pieces of inoperable shrapnel in his body from piercing his heart. That same reactor powers a hodgepodge suit of combat armor he uses to battle to freedom and get back stateside, where he has been presumed dead. Once home, though, Stark finds out that Obidiah Stane, his company manager, is trying to push Stark out, and isn’t happy with Stark’s sudden decision to stop producing weapons. As Stark holes up in his personal lab making a far more sophisticated suit of armor than the one he built in Afghanistan, his world begins to fall apart as Stane moves against him. Leaning on the help of his driver Happy Hogan, artificial intelligence Jarvis, Air Force liaison officer James Rhodes, executive assistant Pepper Potts and SHIELD Agent Phil Coulson, Stark doesn’t just put on a suit of armor to fight Stane and the evil forces he represents. He becomes something more. He becomes…Iron Man.
In many ways, Iron Man fits the familiar pattern of so many superheroes tasked with establishing their titular character: establish our hero’s origin, show him learning how to become a superhero, establish a villain, have our hero’s first big test in a costume, learn to live with his new identity, set the stage for a sequel…maybe. You get why so many superhero movies did this, but calling it predictable is a bit of a kindness. But Iron Man transcends this, thanks to a couple of aces up its armored sleeve, the first of which being director Jon Favreau. Himself a longtime Iron Man fan, he seemed to understand over the course of the production that the costume matters less than the person wearing it. As he opted for a naturalistic feel to the movie, allowing his actors to improvise many of their lines, there developed a genuine sense of chemistry among these unusual people in even more unusual conditions, and it worked in ways no other superhero movie ever really did before. The superhero spectacle made us cheer, but the people behind it made us care.
The second ace was the clear intent for this movie to be the first in a massive, shared-world. We were used to seeing superhero movies make light reference to the other creative worlds they touched, but here, we actually saw glimpses of the vast Marvel Universe being referenced as bona fide story elements. The appearance of Nick Fury—and played by Samuel L. Jackson, no less, as if right off the pages of Ultimate Marvel—sealed the deal. Marvel wasn’t just making movies. They were making the movie version of the Marvel Universe itself. Excelsior!
The third ace was Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man. By 2008, RDJ’s brilliant acting chops and near-fatal drug abuse problems were well known. But the actor had taken substantive steps to rehabilitate himself, and when it came time to find Iron Man’s star, he was the perfect choice. Digging into his own personal transformation, he made us really believe the rehabilitation of Tony Stark from a charming but abrasive asshole into a slightly more charming, slightly less abrasive asshole. RDJ’s performance had a personal vulnerability to it that went far beyond an actor pretending to be some guy from the comics. RDJ didn’t just play Tony Stark. He is Tony Stark.
And that brings us to the moment of truth. By the end of Iron Man, we’ve seen Stark learn some valuable lessons with his brush with death, his long return to health and power, and his shift in persona from a me-first egotist to a guy coming to understand that there’s a world filled with very special people, and he can actually be one of them if he can just start thinking about other people for once. As he fights the terrorists who once held him, and as he battles the titanium doppleganger of his original suit, piloted by Obidiah Stane, he isn’t just fighting some bad guy. He’s fighting his past, his dark side, the version of himself had he never seen the light. He’s still arrogant, lovable, jerky Tony at the end, but he’s profoundly changed, as well. When it comes time to explain things to the media, he is supposed to go with the playbook we all know: deny everything, assume a secret identity, and pretend like nothing has changed when in fact, everything has. He considers that for a second, until he thinks, nope. Can’t do it. I am Iron Man, he tells the world. And every single person in the audience, in that moment, is thinking the exact same thing: You’re damned right, he is.