In preparation of Avengers: Infinity War, I’m taking a look back at each of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. First up is the one that started it all: 2008’s Iron Man. In it, we see the transformation of military-industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) from self-indulgent millionaire playboy to one who sees the ill-effects of his life’s work and attitudes. As we see the Marvel films get bigger and bolder in their choices and settings, it’s surprising to see how contained this film is in its scope and overall story arc. While there are more “personal” films to follow, Iron Man flies in with quick-witted dialogue and action everywhere it is needed. It’s obvious in watching it what made it a runaway hit for the upstart of it all. If Iron Man hadn’t worked as a film and as a character, I wouldn’t be writing this today, but RDJ is the primary reason it all does. One cannot understate how phenomenal his casting was and is for the role. Not only can he play all the emotions, he brings his own wit and charm to the part of a comic book character who was not always likable. No worries of that here.
The film immediately gets up and running, throwing us into the crux of the film alongside Robert Downey, Jr. owning it all with an immediate confidence that has done the overall series innumerable favors, even before the title card is shown. While the origins of Tony are adapted to the more modern, post-9/11 origins of Middle Eastern terrorist attacks as opposed to the original Vietnam-set abduction, the core story of it all stays the same, with the spirit from the pages penned by Stan Lee brought to life. Abducted by terrorists bent on using Stark to create weapons for them, Tony, with the help of another prisoner, Yinsen (Shaun Toub), creates an armored suit and electro-magnet “arc reactor” to power his escape. Seeing how his weapons are being utilized by armed forces and terrorists alike, Stark returns home to the U.S. on a mission to rectify his legacy and help the world, instead of hurt it. That crisis of conscience is what propels this film along, as well as his following films, and while we may not be in the business of making bombs, I think that his dilemma is one that all, at some point in life, will relate to: how to come to terms with who we are, what we are doing, and the impact that has on the world around us, here and later.
Following 2007’s Transformers, this film was made to entertain along the same lines. I remember watching it upon release that, like the spinning and whirring of the Autobots & Decepticons transforming, the intricacies of the late Stan Winston‘s original suit designs in this film were a delight to watch; that hasn’t changed in the slightest. We may have gotten used to Tony continually reinventing his armors and arsenal over the course of many films, but his moments of “suiting up” in this film are just as entertaining as they’ve ever been. It’s often said that “mask” films leave viewers aloof, because we can’t see the person underneath fully emoting, but this film (and all subsequent ones) rectify this problem by allowing us opportunities to see Stark close-up within his helmet. Whatever he sees, hears, and says, we are right there alongside as an audience. It’s definitely the most effective way to get us to root for our hero and understand him, and overall, I think it makes the experience of watching it all much more experiential.
To be fair, the story and plotting here are all pretty standard stuff, but the casting all-around and production design make the film a delight to watch, even 10 years post-release. Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts), Jeff Bridges (Obadiah Stane), Terrence Howard (James “Rhodey” Rhodes, played by Don Cheadle in sequels), and Clark Gregg (Agent Phil Coulson) all perfectly fit their parts here and truly bring them to life with every bit of the talent we come to expect from all of them. I keep my reviews as spoiler-free as I can (yes, even for movies that have been out for a decade), but I will say that Jeff Bridges does some very good, under-appreciated work here as Stane. Every time I have watched it, I pick up on a little more of what he was going for. I was surprised at, overall, how little happens, in regards to Earth-shattering, “rock-em-sock-em” action. Many comic-book adaptations nowadays blow up the world and then put it back together again (or not), but here, aside from some Middle-Eastern war torn villages and caves, a few spots in Stark’s penthouse, and some California streets, there isn’t wanton destruction with billions in damages left behind after the credits roll. “Economical” is a word I would use to describe the film, a fact related by director, Jon Favreau, on the approach taken when making the film. Beyond a cost of what we see on screen, it dashes in just enough comedy, action, romance, etc. on top of an easy-to-understand “change of heart” story, making a really great experience all around for just about anyone who could watch it. This is exactly the type of movie you can put on, just about anytime, and get some enjoyment out of it, even if you can’t invest your full attention.
Establishing the MCU, this film does some things that parents should be aware of: there are several instances of language and some sexual content & innuendo throughout. Obviously, none of it is R-Rated, but Tony Stark, while idolized within his “robot suit” by young boys the world over, does have some rough edges that shouldn’t be mimicked or emulated by them. With regard to Christian content, nothing is there at face value, but seeing someone think about how they want to be remembered and course-correcting their behavior (“repenting”, if you will) is definitely a Christian message; hopefully, that is your Christian story in life, as well. I could see someone using this movie to illustrate that we are all a work-in-progress (hence, the further character-development of Stark and the countless revisions to his armor), but all of us can and should make a change if our lives are leading others (and ourselves) to ruin.
All in all, I would definitely recommend a revisit here for fans ready for more, as well as for the uninitiated who want to know what all the fuss is about. It’s fun to see where the “easter eggs” start, and aside from getting used to some recasting that comes later (Sorry, Rhodey and Howard Stark), it all gets the shared universe of films started off nicely. Granted, it might seem a little daunting getting into the MCU ten years out, but if you’re going to start somewhere, this is absolutely the place to do it, even if you feel led to skip some films along the way. Few of the films in the series-at-large are as accessible as this one, and while you may not love it in your top-ten films of all-time, you can’t beat the good time this film brings, whether you watch it once or several times.
Oh, and don’t miss the after-credits; of course, that all started here too!