Marvel Cinematic Universe Retrospective Part One: Iron Man

2018 marks the 10th anniversary of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: ten years of great spectacle, about three good villains, and questionable diversity make the MCU the only cinematic universe (a concept which it was the first to convincingly pull off) that is loved by both fans and critics. This article isn’t about the legacy of the MCU, the upcoming Black Panther or Infinity War (not yet, although that’s what this series will be leading to), or how many movies each actor has left before they’re free. This article, and this series, will look at each MCU movie as part of the wider franchise while also analysing them in their own right. First up: Iron Man.

Directed by Jon Favreau, 2008’s Iron Man is a great blueprint for starting a cinematic universe. Superhero movies had been hinting at a wider universe just out of reach before Iron Man: Thomas Jane’s version of Frank Castle turns up in Spiderman 2 (don’t worry, you missed him and he doesn’t matter), and Chris O’Donnell’s Robin (from Batman & Robin) is why Superman works alone, but these were just Easter eggs for a savvy fanbase.

Iron Man took an admittedly second-tier Marvel superhero and turned his story into the first chapter of a cinematic epic, mainly because the rights for big-league heroes like Spiderman and the X-Men were owned by someone else; what a difference a decade makes. The beauty of Iron Man is that key players like Tony Stark and Pepper Potts outright ignore the call of the bigger picture – much to Agent Coulson’s chagrin. Keeping SHIELD in the background until the film’s final press conference (this film has too many press conferences, by the way) meant that the bigger franchise concerns didn’t interfere with the story Favreau wanted to tell.

So, outside of the wider narrative, how does Iron Man hold up? It’s easy to forget about Iron Man as a full movie, especially since Robert Downey Jr’s performance dominates much of proceedings. Despite having seen it a few times I could barely remember the plot, which is surprisingly brutal in places. You remember Tony Stark, right? Lovable cad who made an oopsie with Ultron but is a good, if aloof, mentor to Peter Parker – that’s him, right? Well, he’s a straight-up killing machine in his first movie. Despite Iron Man having a mere quarter-hour of action, practically reserved compared to the movies that would follow, Tony racks up an impressive body count. He blows people up, burns them alive, and shoots five guys at once in the head without breaking a sweat. Morally tortured billionaire he is not, though he gets blown up nearly as much as he has press conferences.

The focus here is undisputedly on Tony, and that is the movie’s biggest strength. Downey Jr is very impressive in his first outing, playing Tony as a privileged manchild genius, but doesn’t forget about the creep factor. He leeches off all of his friends and employees (more about Pepper in a bit) and is generally a complete prick. Then he gets blown up by terrorists using his weapons, and wakes up with a car battery powering his chest. After he defeats said terrorists he turns over a new leaf and halts his company’s production of things that blow people up as he starts contemplating his legacy. This leads to the building of the Iron Man suit – though it’s not actually made of iron – but it’s really Tony building a new version of himself.  The irony is that he is killing people himself rather than by proxy, but they’re bad guys so let’s not think to hard on that. Iron Man isn’t a complex movie – it has Tony fight Jeff Bridges dressed as the Iron Giant, for fuck’s sake – but it’s a solid character study of its hero. It’s with the rest of the cast that the movie suffers, which leads me to the beginning of two regular features of this series:

Ticking the romance box

In a 2018 context, Tony and Pepper’s romance is a little disturbing. Before getting blown up, Tony was a massive pig to the women in his life, even using Pepper as the Chandler to his Joey, but without the pancakes. It’s not until Tony turns a new leaf that he looks up from his dick long enough to realize that Pepper, his assistant/mother/human safety blanket, is the spitting image of Gwyneth Paltrow. True to lack of reform, Tony immediately makes Pepper’s workplace a red-flag zone. Seriously, its lucky that she’s into him otherwise HR would be having kittens. Still, the MCU’s track record with romantic partners is usually rubbish, so at least Pepper is part of what brings the villain down.

Wasted Villain Corner

Which brings us to the villain of the piece. The MCU is just as famous for their lame villains as they are for their iconic heroes, and Obadiah Stane is the genesis of this. As hard as Jeff Bridges tries, Stane just isn’t that interesting: he’s an obvious mirror for Tony, and nothing more. I will give the movie credit for not going down the “and I also killed your father” route with Stane.

If you think Iron Man is a great movie then you probably haven’t seen it in a while. It’s not terrible; there are a few okay action scenes, Downey Jr is great, and you can almost see Terrence Howard get screwed in real time. What Iron Man is though is a good start.

Tune in next week as we revisit the not-so Incredible Hulk.

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By Kevin Boyle

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