In honor of the release of Captain America: Civil War, We Minored in Film’s Julianne Ramsey will examine the Marvel Cinematic Universe as it stands. We’re calling it the Marvel Rewatch.
Day 1: Iron Man (2008)
It’s hard to remember now, eight years removed from its release date, but Iron Man felt like a massive gamble. After all, Iron Man was a character with minimal recognition outside of comic book aficionados (and to those who did recognize him, he was seen as a fairly unlikable character). Add to that the casting of Robert Downey Jr., a talented but troubled actor who was hardly a box-office draw and the concept of creating a cinematic world in which each film built on the one that had come before it, and one couldn’t help but feel that Marvel was possibly committing financial suicide. Yet, it was the sole first superhero film in a summer of sequels (Hellboy II, The Incredible Hulk, The Dark Knight) and that gave it a dose of novelty. Looking back at its box office take, it didn’t exactly set the world on fire. It made less than 600 million worldwide and was certainly the bridesmaid to Warner Brother’s Dark Knight bride, but the film showed that name recognition wasn’t inherently necessary to get audiences into the theatre. If your film was strong enough, audience word of mouth would give it some success. It became the pleasant balm to The Dark Knight’s brooding nihilism. Looking at the two films, it not difficulty to see the approaches that would elevate Marvel and ultimately sink Warner Brothers.
The film’s plot isn’t really all that important, as it’s ultimately the skeletal structure upon which Tony Stark’s snarkiness and metal fight scenes are placed. It centers on billionaire, M.I.T. wunderkind, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Stark manufactures weapons, he gambles, he parties, he has indiscriminate sexual encounters, and he does so without a care in the world. Then he’s captured by Afghan terrorists. He awakens to find he now requires an electromagnet to keep shrapnel from entering his heart and his captors want him to make a nuclear missile. Alas, they don’t supervise the creative process nearly as well as they should, and he instead makes a metal suit he uses to escape.
Once he’s back in the States, he decides to don an improved metal suit and make the planet safe for humanity, all the while quipping and cracking wise. He goes from weapons manufacturer to weapons demolisher, while never quite losing his cavalier sensibility.
Looking at Iron Man now, its flaws are more apparent. I’m not entirely certain Obadiah Stane’s plan actually makes that much sense. He arranges to have Tony Stark, the man who’s genius intellect are responsible for the company’s success, killed due to…reasons, I guess.
The film also dabbles with real world implications only to drop them when it’s no longer convenient. Sure, Tony Stark wants to defeat terrorists, and he has a few moments when he ponders his responsibility for all the carnage he’s seeing on news reports, but those moments are brief and more of a plot footnote than actual plot development. The concept of post-traumatic stress disorder is also raised and abandoned just as quickly. In addition, the film ticks a lot of superhero cliché boxes: A shadowy, bald business partner (Jeff Bridges) who seems just a touch too avuncular (check); a world-weary buddy (Terrence Howard) who wishes our hero would just pull his personal stuff together (check); a potential love interest (Gwyneth Paltrow, more likable here than she’s been in a long, long time) who worries her goofball of a boss is going to get himself killed (check); a climactic fight scene that can’t quite make you forget you’re watching 2 CGI creations bash each other senseless for 20 minutes (oh yeah, check).
However, what makes the film work, for all the familiarity there is in its plot mechanics, are the little details it gets so right. Casting Robert Downey Jr. in a big-budget superhero film was hardly an expected or safe choice, but looking at it now, who else could play Tony Stark? Downey brought that perfect mix of gravitas and wry amusement to the film.
Iron Man may be the best use of his fast-talking, self-aware persona. He’s capable of playing both the grim determination required to make a guy dressing up in a flying metal suit to fight crime believable and the mocking self-deprecation required that keeps the audience laughing with the film, rather than at it. The film works because he’s in the lead, and he keeps likable a character that could feel insufferable. The cast, and director Jon Favreau, realize attempting to match his tone would make the film near unwatchable, and they play it straight, occasionally parrying Tony Stark’s fast-talking jocularity with a wry retort (Gwyneth Paltrow is especially good at portraying Pepper Potts as a character who is more than capable of matching Tony quip for quip, but she does so in a subtler, drier way), but letting most of the comedy heavy-lifting lie squarely on Downey’s well-sculpted shoulders.
It’s the right approach for the film, and casting seasoned actors lends the film the same believability Christopher Nolan found when he populated his Dark Knight trilogy with A-listers. Iron Man doesn’t shatter the mold, but it stretches it in interesting ways, especially its ending which takes the idea of secret identities and casts it aside entirely.
Coming back to Iron Man for the first time in a few years, it’s nice to realize the film still works. There’s a sense of fun present here that permeates the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The action sequences work, Paltrow and Downey have a nice chemistry that gives the burgeoning romance between the two a grounded quality often missing in superhero romances, and the humor mostly lands. Ultimately, however, this is Robert Downey Jr.’s film to carry, and he uses his manic line delivery and that cat-that-ate-the-canary grin to keep Iron Man flying when it should plummet. Whatever hoops through which Marvel was forced to jump that landed Downey, they were more than justified.
Up next, Julianne gives up over 2 hours of her life to rewatch The Incredible Hulk.