After escaping from being held captive by terrorists in Afghanistan, billionaire engineer Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) creates a unique suit of armour to fight those who hurt others and to try and right his wrongs.
Looking back on Iron Man, almost eleven years after its release, it’s truly a remarkable film and one that has had a lasting impact on not only the superhero genre, but on how film studios attempt to build their franchises. It’s easy to forget that the film that kickstarted the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was looking to be easily overshadowed by a DC superhero movie being released the same year. The Dark Knight was the Batman sequel everyone had been waiting for, and then there was Iron Man, a film about a superhero that was little known to people outside the world of comics and the first film from a newly formed film studio.
It wasn’t just the character itself that had the potential to be a hard sell to audiences, but the actor that was bringing him to life. Robert Downey Jr. is a man who while having appeared in many smaller budget films, often with critical acclaim, was not considered traditional A-List blockbuster material. Not only were his past film roles against him, but also his personal life didn’t work in his favour. Downey Jr. was arrested numerous times from 1996-2001 due to drugs-related charges causing his career to nosedive as producers did not want to pay the insurance required to have him star in one of their productions. Nowadays it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role, with Downey Jr. giving a nuanced performance as Tony Stark, a man who has a lot of mistakes to atone for but is also so incredibly confident in his intellect that he often is more of a narcissist.
Then there was director Jon Favreau who was the man tasked with the job of making Marvel Studios first film a hit. Both an actor and director, Favreau, like his cast, was more influential on the independent sector than in mainstream Hollywood. The few films he had directed for subsidiaries of major Hollywood studios were children’s films such as Zathura, which had less than half the budget of Iron Man.
Maybe the planets aligned but with a great cast, engaging script and fun action sequences; Iron Man was a critical and commercial success.
The film starts with a bang as it opens with Tony’s convoy being attacked, it then jumps back a few days to show you not only how Tony got into this situation but to gain an insight into his character before he goes through this traumatic event. Through this flashback you are introduced to the characters closest to Tony; his best friend Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Terrence Howard), his personal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and his business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges). Seeing Tony’s life before, and after, he’s kidnapped gives you the chance to see not only how much he grows as a person during the film, but also how his relationships with the people closest to him can change as his priorities change.
During the course of Iron Man, you spend more time with Tony Stark, the man outside of the suit, than the titular superhero itself. It would almost be impossible to be able to relate to a character like Tony Stark, he’s richer than your wildest dreams, as well as being brash and self-centred, but thanks to Downey Jr.’s performance, you get to see that that’s not all Tony Stark is. Downey Jr. balances Stark’s narcissistic tendencies with his vulnerabilities, making him an unusual and surprisingly layered hero. Downey Jr. just oozes charisma as Stark and his chemistry with Paltrow is palpable from the first film. The powers that be were smart to expand on that and invest in Tony and Pepper’s relationship over the course of the franchise.
One of the big themes of Iron Man is accountability. It’s something that Tony Stark struggles with in the film and continues to as the series progresses, becoming a major point of conflict down the road. The reason why Iron Man works, is because of its characters. The actors’ charm and chemistry are brilliant and even with Tony’s many flaws and abrasive attitude, he’s still likeable. Seeing his character arc over the course of eight films (nine if you count Avengers: Endgame) is truly something to behold. In many ways, Tony Stark, and Robert Downey Jr., are the foundations that the MCU is built on. The key elements you have in Iron Man; the humour, the heart, the action and the compelling character dynamics, is the template for future films in the MCU.
Potentially it’s more noticeable in hindsight, with the dozens of superhero films we’ve seen since Iron Man’s release, but the stakes in Iron Man are quite personal and it’s all the better for it. It’s a story of a man trying to atone for his past and fix the things he, and his company, have unwittingly broke. It’s a story of friendship and betrayal and the final showdown being not one of epic world-ending proportions, but instead being a scrappy fight between the hero and the villain on a highway and then a rooftop, makes the conflict more character-focused.
In Iron Man’s closing scenes, the shape of superhero films really were changed forever. Previously, it’s been all about the hero having a secret identity, to keep those they love safe, and to have a normal life. But Tony Stark has never had a normal life, he’s a billionaire businessman that lives a celebrity lifestyle. Having his best friend Rhodey and potential love interest Pepper Potts knowing about his superhero alter ego was a big enough surprise as so often the heroes are forced to go it alone. But still, Tony Stark saying those infamous words “I am Iron Man” at the end of a press conference gave us a superhero that was known to everyone in the world they lived in.
Iron Man was a fantastic first outing for the character and was a brilliant foundation for the rest of the MCU. With a charismatic lead, witty dialogue and the right blend of action and fun, Iron Man is pretty much the perfect superhero-origin story.
In the words of Tony Stark “The suit and I are one”. Much like Tony Stark is Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. is Tony Stark. Years into the future when there will no doubt be reboots or reimaging’s of the character, it will be incredibly difficult for someone else to step into Robert Downey Jr.’s shoes and play Tony Stark.
Directed by: Jon Favreau
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard