Well, with Avengers: Endgame on its way, it seems there will never be a better time to do a re-watch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (actually, if anything, I’m getting a rather late start on this, considering I have over twenty films to get through!).
Just so that it’s clear where I’m coming from, I have seen all the MCU films at least once prior to this, but for the most part am only familiar with the original comics by what I know from other sources, such as other media, summaries, and the like.
Also, I’m putting out a general principle that this series will involve spoilers for each film, so be warned. I am writing assuming the reader has seen the movies. With that out of the way, let us begin.
It all seemed like just another superhero film; a second-string Marvel hero little known outside of comic book fandom, like so many other such characters that got their own films in the 2000s, when people were already starting to make noise about whether comic book movies were on their way out.
The story is that Tony Stark is a genius inventor playboy celebrity: a modern-day Howard Hughes without the psychiatric issues (well, for the most part). He revolutionizes military technology with his engineering genius, as well as lighting up the tabloids with his carefree jet-set lifestyle. That is, until one day he’s ambushed during a weapons demonstration in Afghanistan and finds himself the captive of a ruthless terrorist organization called the Ten Rings Group (a nice shout-out to the Mandarin, though…we will get to that). In captivity, he’s forced to come to terms with what his life has actually amounted to, while at the same time turning his technical know-how towards a plan of escape, which will ultimately lead to his being reborn as Iron Man.
So, what to say about Iron Man after all this time?
One thing that stood out to me this time was how well the film establishes Tony Stark’s character. When we first meet him, he’s chatting with some soldiers in the back of a Humvee: he’s cocksure and arrogant, but not unkind. Seeing that they’re intimidated by his celebrity status, he tries to put them at their ease by joking and inviting them to talk. I especially liked the touch that, surprised to learn the driver is a woman, he smoothly covers by humorously talking about her excellent bone structure, playing on his reputation with women (established in the same scene) to make them relax.
This is important because, after the ambush, the next few minutes are pretty much all about establishing what a jerk Tony is. If those scenes had taken place before the scene in the jeep, we the audience would most likely have been indifferent to his fate. Instead, the film cannily lets us see Stark in a comparatively good light before showing us his flaws. This is smoothly accomplished with an award ceremony, where Stark is set to be honored and thus a slideshow of his life and career is naturally presented. Only, Stark isn’t there; he’s blown off the ceremony to go gambling, showing both that he thinks nothing of embarrassing his friends in pursuit of his own amusement and that he thinks so much of himself (and has received so many accolades) that he’s completely indifferent to being honored by anyone (when he gets the award, he hands it off to a casino worker on his way out).
This is followed by a scene of him casually seducing an earnest reporter, who then wakes up alone in his Malibu mansion while Tony works in the basement until his assistant, Pepper Potts, can send the girl on her way. This whole sequence not only efficiently establishes Tony, but also his friends Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes, business partner Obadiah Stane, and Pepper (as well as Tony’s house AI, Jarvis), and their relationships to him, in particular the complicated one between Tony and Pepper: he selfishly makes her deal with his ‘conquests’, but also is hinted to have genuine feelings for her. When she tells him that she has plans that evening, he says, “I don’t like it when you have plans.” But it’s clear that he doesn’t take his life seriously enough to really pursue her, while she knows exactly what he’s like and is too mature and self-possessed to allow them to be other than friends. Meanwhile, all this takes place while he’s letting Rhodey wait on a tarmac for three-hours, more or less just because he can (prompting Rhodey to comment that he is “constitutionally incapable of being responsible”).
All this lets us see that Tony is extremely selfish without making him seem malicious or completely unlikeable, as would be the case if they had simply had him, say, tossing out random insults at people. Even though he’s a jerk, you don’t wonder that anyone puts up with him, since he’s a very charming jerk, as well a very talented one.
It’s also appreciated that, even at his most callous, Tony at least has a theory that he’s doing good. He lays out several very good arguments why he doesn’t think his weapons dealing is immoral, and as shown in the scene with the soldiers, he does legitimately care about the people he thinks he’s protecting.
All this, of course, is a set up for his time of reckoning in the cave, where he discovers that the weapons he made to protect Americans are being used against them, and that his legacy, at this point, is nothing but a lot of very dangerous weapons in the hands of very dangerous people.
This point is nicely symbolized by the pile of shrapnel from one of his own bombs that ends up inside of Tony’s chest, eating its way to his heart: he is literally being killed by his own weapons trying to get at his heart. And to save himself, he essentially has to replace his ‘heart.’ Rather, his fellow prison, Yinsen (a doctor from a small Afghan town) installs an electromagnet to keep the shrapnel away, initially powered by a car battery (a wince-inducing concept) until Tony replaces it with a prototype ‘arc reactor.’ So, Tony almost literally has a ‘change of heart.’
This symbolic motif carries through the whole film, by the way, with the glowing arc reactor, like a burning heart, indicating his new resolve and more generous outlook. Pepper helps him to change his ‘heart’ at one point, then has the original made into a momento reading ‘Proof that Tony Stark has a Heart.’ Obadiah later rips Tony’s heart out while promising to turn his legacy back to one of blood and horror, while Tony is saved by the fact that he previously showed himself to have a heart. It’s all remarkably well-done; a fine example of using symbolic props to tell a story.
Of course, using his new arc reactor, Tony builds a prototype iron suit and escapes (Yinsen dies to give him the chance, begging him not to waste his second chance), then resolves to use an upgraded model to track down and destroy the weapons he built that have ended up in the hands of terrorists. A good deal of the middle act of the film is occupied just with him working on the suit, running tests, and perfecting the design. This includes a thrilling test flight where he puts the newly made suit through its paces and immediately tries to break the altitude record, with amusingly unfortunate results.
(Though one of the film’s more glaring mistakes shows up about here; did no one notice the giant hole through the roof that Tony makes? It’s never brought up, though he flies out of it later. I’m guessing that was a cut scene, but it still feels odd).
The acting in this film is uniformly excellent, especially Robert Downy Jr. I love the scene where he calls a press conference upon returning from captivity (only after getting a cheeseburger); it really feels like he’s adlibbing, just taking time to savor the moment and reflect even as he’s addressing the press. One of the first things he does is comment on how he never got to say good-bye to his father, wondering what he would have thought of what his company had become (Tony’s complicated relationship with his father will be with us for the rest of the series).
I also really like Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane, who is one of the few backstabbing friends I can recall who legitimately seems like a friend at first. He and Tony have an easy, familiar way with each other, trading quips back and forth and making casual references to shared memories, while Obadiah honestly seems delighted when Tony comes home (at the start of the aforementioned press conference, Tony pats him on the shoulder and says that it’s good to see him). Even going in knowing that he’s a bad guy (the trailers made no secret of it), it’s still something of a shock when his true colors are revealed.
Though again, the film does a very good job of setting the stage even from the opening scene, where we learn that Obadiah had run the company as a kind of regency before Tony came of age, implying potential friction between them. Obadiah’s betrayal is jarring, but it doesn’t come out of nowhere.
The one semi-weak-spot in the cast is Terrence Howard as Rhodey. He isn’t bad, but he doesn’t convey the impression of a tough Air Force Officer; he comes across as too gentle and too much of a lightweight. He has a lot of good moments, like the suppressed emotion when he rescues Tony in the desert, but the actor simply doesn’t fit the role.
On the other hand, Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts makes for an excellent love interest, all the more so because the film doesn’t end with her and Tony getting together. It’s smart enough to know that the situation is too complicated for things to go that fast. When Tony sweeps her into a romantic dance and an intimate moment on a balcony, Pepper is both thrilled…and keenly aware of how inappropriate the moment is. As she points out to him, he’s her boss, and everyone knows what he’s like with women, so him making a move on her, however sincerely, is highly embarrassing for her (this is foreshadowed in the opening scene where Tony’s one-night-stand takes a swipe at her relationship with him).
But, at the same time, the film shows, without putting it in so many words, that they are indeed in love with each other. After she helps him change out his reactor (in a hilarious gross-out moment), she insists that she will never do that again, to which he lets slip “I don’t have anyone else,” words that she repeats back to him when she discovers his plans with the Iron Man suit. More to the point, when she learns this, she refuses to have anything to do with it, not because she thinks he’s doing the wrong thing, but because she’s terrified he’s going to get himself killed. This dynamic, of Tony being torn between Pepper and ‘the mission,’ between what his heart wants and what it knows to be right, will be with us throughout (with the deliciously tragic irony that, had he been mature enough to pursue her earlier, they might already be together; implying that, though he’s been given a second chance, some things may simply be gone forever).
Meanwhile, there’s also Paul Bettany as JARVIS, Tony’s AI assistant, who runs his house and computer systems (and later his suit) while tossing off very proper quips at his master’s expense. Tony also has his two robotic arms, whom he gleefully criticizes and abuses throughout the film (and one of which gets an unexpectedly heartfelt payoff). This is an interesting touch in light of the rest of Tony’s character; it’s as if he’s more comfortable with his machines and with making his own ‘friends’ whom he can call up and shut down at will, whom he can always override, and who will never get fed up and leave him. Though Tony isn’t a Howard Hughes-like eccentric, he very clearly isn’t emotionally well-balanced even before his traumatic experience. Pepper is almost as much a nurse as she is an assistant (when he jokes about firing her, she comments that he couldn’t function for a week without her): keeping him focused, on task, and dealing with the responsibilities that he can’t or won’t handle.
Basically, Tony does not ‘play well with others;’ he thinks best in terms of machines, of things that work efficiently and predictably, that don’t ask anything of him, and that can be adjusted or put aside when they bother him (this is in contrast to Rhodey, who rejects the idea that any machine could equal a human pilot’s judgment). When it comes to people, he deliberately keeps them at a distance and expects them to act according to his whims, and though he improves upon returning, he still doesn’t quite get what is and is not appropriate behavior (as when he dances with Pepper or when he teases Rhodey in front of his trainees). He is heroic and determined to do the right thing now, but he hasn’t simply become a different person altogether, and his natural flaws and emotional baggage remain.
In sum, there’s a reason why Tony Stark has become such a beloved and respected character and has rocketed to the forefront of the Marvel lineup, and it’s mostly due to this film’s excellent writing and Downey’s inimitable performance.
Meanwhile, the film delivers plenty of audience-pleasing set-pieces, including Tony’s immensely satisfying escape from captivity, his thrilling test flight (which makes good on his preceding summation, “Yeah. I can fly”), and a fantastically cathartic scene where Tony sees a report of atrocities being committed by the Ten Rings group (against the same villain Yinsen came from), straps on his suit, and singlehandedly puts a stop to it. It’s a great moment in-universe, as it sees Tony taking revenge on the men who imprisoned and tortured him and honoring Yinsen’s memory by protecting his home. But, from an audience point of view, it appeals to the sense of frustration and helplessness that (I believe) many of us feel when we see this kind of story on the news: we want to be able to do something about it, but for most of us there’s really nothing we can do. Iron Man gives us an image of someone who can and does do something about it, by slamming down into the middle of the village and punting terrorists around like beach balls before leaving the leader for his would-be-victims to deal with. It’s a perfectly conceived moment of righteous satisfaction (though I do have to wonder at the logistics of Iron Man flying half-way around the world in his suit).
The village scene is followed by a sequence of Iron Man being pursued by two jets, and him risking his life to save one of the pilots when he accidentally crashes into him. The jet sequence, together with an earlier encounter with a tank, sets the important precedence that Iron Man, for all his power, is not invincible, and that sufficiently heavy weapons can damage his suit, so that when the climax happens, we’ll know that Tony is in legitimate danger.
Then of course there’s the final show-down with Obadiah or Iron Monger, and it must be said that third act is the film’s weakest part. The fight between the two ultra-powerful metal suits is extremely cool, and there are some great bits that seem to come straight out of a comic panel, but Iron Monger only even shows up for perhaps ten minutes, if that, and there’s also the question of just what Obadiah is trying to accomplish here; given that Pepper’s already given proof of his crimes to the government (discovered in a very nicely staged scene where she hacks his computer, Obadiah comes in, and it’s not clear how much he has and hasn’t seen), and that these are the same people coming to arrest him, it’s not like he’ll be able to keep running the company. I suppose he’s planning to take the suit for replication on the black market, but that could have been made a lot clearer. As it is, he’s kind of just going nuts for the sake of it. And there are some odd bits of continuity, as when Iron Monger bursts out of the pavement to attack Pepper, Iron Man intervenes and saves her, then after a several-minutes long battle, she’s still standing in the exact same spot: wouldn’t she have tried to get to shelter or called for help or something? And where did Agent Coulson go during all that? He was last seen fleeing Iron Monger with his men, then just disappears until he shows up for the post battle summation. Also, why didn’t the blast from the big reactor not kill Tony? We were told that it would, but then it just…doesn’t.
So, after an extremely solid first and second act, the film stumbles a little in its climax, which remains its most notable flaw. It doesn’t break the story, but it does feel like a bit of a let down.
On the other hand, we have our introduction to Agent Coulson of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division: a great, non-obvious set-up in the form of a running gag (“That’s quite a mouthful.” “Yeah, we’re working on it”). Coulson and the now-famous post-credits sequence are the only hints that Iron Man was “part of a larger universe.” Of course, this was before shared universes became standard issue, which of course only happened due to this film and its successors. But, a large part of why this film succeeds so well is that it focuses on telling its own story, not in laying a foundation or getting people excited for the next one. It’s a very strong comic book film, stringing fantasy-fulfillment set-pieces on a core of excellent character writing.
All in all, Iron Man is a great opening act and a good indicator of things to come.