Iron Man

Iron Man walks away from an explosion in Iron Man

“Let’s face it—this is not the worst thing you’ve caught me doing.”

It’s hard to imagine this time, but superhero movies used to be, well, pretty terrible. DC Comics franchises had a surprise hit in 2005 with Batman Begins, but Marvel Comics franchises had been mediocre at best. We had the X-Men movies, and the Spider Man movies, and a few oddballs like 2003’s Hulk and Daredevil. Each of these had problems. Lower budgets meant special effects suffered in places where they really shouldn’t have suffered. Characters were often shallow, and the acting matched. The direction of the movies gave them this larger-than-life feeling that felt far removed from what we saw everyday. What we needed was a down-to-earth, relatable hero, played by a charming actor or actress, placed into extraordinary circumstances with a special effects budget to match. In 2008, Iron Man finally delivered.

Directed by Jon Favreau (Elf, The Jungle Book) and starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jeff Bridges, this was a surprise hit for many reasons. Of course the track record for Marvel-franchise movies was bad, but director Jon Favreau hadn’t directed anything like Iron Man before; star Robert Downey Jr. had been in and out of rehab and wasn’t known as a reliable actor; and the character of Tony Stark was very different than the heroes we had seen in film thus far: arrogant and full of vices. But Iron Man worked better than I think any of us were expecting it to, introducing viewers to the now hugely successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, which pulls in hundreds of millions of dollars every year. Comic book movies had, up until this point, been mainly for die-hard comic book fans, but this film opened up the genre to general audiences and opened the door for some of the amazing movies we’re getting today.

The story opens with weapons manufacturing superstar Tony Stark, head of Stark Industries, in Afghanistan, giving a presentation of his new missile system to the US military. The demonstration is a success and the military agrees to buy, but the celebration is interrupted by a group of terrorists who kill the small military group and kidnap Tony Stark. Tony awakens to find an electromagnet on his chest, keeping tiny scraps of shrapnel from digging further into his heart, and the terrorists demand that he create weapons for them. Tony is appalled to see that this group already has many of his weapons, presumably illegally, and is using them to kill innocent people. He initially refuses their offer, then lies to the group and begins creating a suit of armor to help him escape. After his escape and subsequent rescue, he has a moral crisis and decides to shut down the weapons manufacturing division of Stark Industries (which is the vast majority of what they do). This causes some conflict with the rest of the company, including the company’s second most powerful figure, Obadiah Stone. Meanwhile, Tony gets to work building a new suit of armor that he hopes will give him the power he needs to fight the evil he encountered in Afghanistan. He soon discovers that neither the evil in Afghanistan nor the troubles in his company are as simple as he imagined.

I’m just not the hero type. Clearly. With this laundry list of character defects, all the mistakes I’ve made, largely public…

The best part about this film, without a doubt, is the character of Tony Stark, and the main reason Tony Stark is so great is because of actor Robert Downey Jr., who brought a charisma to the character that hadn’t really been seen before in superhero films. Director Jon Favreau didn’t have a final script when filming started, so he let Downey Jr. ad-lib his lines. This went so well that he continued to do so for most of the film. Some scenes were shot many times as Downey Jr. tried different ways of playing out the scene and the other characters had to react accordingly. (Co-star Gwyneth Paltrow expressed some frustration over not being able to ad-lib as quickly as her quick-talking co-star.) The plot of Iron Man is good and the other actors do a fine job, but Tony Stark really carries this film—so much so that even viewers with no interest in comic book movies took a liking to this film because of that character. When this film came out in 2008, Tony Stark was undoubtedly the most human character we’d ever seen in a comic book movie, and that was a large part of the film’s success.

Robert Downey Jr. credits this role with saving his career. Prior to this, Hollywood knew two things about him: that he was a brilliant actor, and that he was extremely unreliable due to his excessive drug habits. Downey Jr.’s self-destructive behavior began in the late 80s, but went totally out of control in the late 90s and earned him several stints in jail and rehab. When he was released in 2003 and subsequently cleaned up his life, he had trouble finding work not only because studios didn’t trust him, but also because insurance companies didn’t trust him—he was often deemed too risky to insure, causing otherwise interested filmmakers to pass on him. Marvel Studios initially pushed back on Favreau’s decision to cast Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, citing all of the obvious reasons, but Favreau fought for his choice—and won. Downey Jr. saw in Stark many aspects of himself, from personality and character flaws to career and relationships, which enabled him to play the character so brilliantly. It’s somewhat poetic that a film about a self-absorbed and self-destructive brilliant weapons manufacturer finding redemption was also the redemption of a self-absorbed and self-destructive brilliant actor, and it was good news for viewers too, who got to see Downey Jr. in one of his best performances.

Tony Stark strikes a dramatic pose as missiles explode in the distance behind him
No one but Robert Downey Jr. could have made this larger-than-life persona so believable—and likable.

Though later Marvel Cinematic Universe films got somewhat dark and serious, this one stays light enough to be fun without weighing too heavily on viewers. The jokes all land, and Favreau’s eye for comedy is out in full force. But the plot is also refreshingly optimistic. Most superhero origin stories showed new superheroes struggling with the new burden of responsibility placed on them, but Tony Stark lived for the new responsibilities while constantly struggling with his dark past. He wasn’t a normal person struggling with fantastic new abilities; he was a fantastic, and terrible, person just trying to be a better person. The film doesn’t really harp on that, so it never wears out its welcome or gets tired, but I just loved watching Tony try to be the man he wanted to be. At the same time, many of the forces Tony fights against in the film are forces that he enabled or set up in the first place. As such, this stands out from the sea of mediocre superhero origin movies we’d seen as something considerably more interesting and nuanced.

Is Iron Man a superhero film for everyone? It just might be. This was the first superhero film—or, at least, the first in a very long time—to really appeal to all audiences rather than just the loyal comic book fans. This is also the film that kicked off the now extremely successful Marvel Cinematic Universe and still serves as the best introduction to that world. There’s some language and adult themes, all very PG-13, that set up Tony’s vices, so that might be a consideration before letting children see this, but teens and adults should be fine. Jumping into the MCU now may seem daunting—and, admittedly, it really is—but if you want to go back and make that leap, this is the place to start.

View my complete list of classic, essential, or just plain good movies!

Runtime: 2:06

Director: Jon Favreau

Year: 2008

Genres: action, superhero

Rating: PG-13

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