This Spring will see the culmination of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe with the release of Avengers: Infinity War. The Third Avengers film, and the 19th film in the shared cinematic Universe. Once a week, leading up to the release of the film we’re going to dive into each of the Marvel films that led up to it. Today we’re starting things off with the first film in the MCU, Iron Man.
The most important thing to remember with Iron Man is that it came out without anyone expecting anything. Not just for the MCU, but also for what it would become. The film was going to star Robert Downey Jr., an actor who had seen some tough times and was slowly rising back to fame with a recurring role on Ally McBeal, and a few cult favorites in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, A Scanner Darkly, and Zodiac. It was directed by Jon Favreau, who had only previously directed Elf and the Jumanji spinoff Zathura. It was based off a Marvel character that wasn’t a household name. To put it lightly, there was no guarantee here that it would work. But it did. And it still does.
The best part of this film, above all else is Tony Stark. And every aspect of the character. We’re not just talking about Downey Jr.’s performance, but we will. The writing, the way he’s framed in each shot, the way he’s dressed, the way he’s presented on every level, makes this film. The opening scenes of the film may be the most telling and the most important. The film opens on an Army Humvee and some soldiers, We then get a shot of a man in the Humvee with the soldiers. But not his face. Not his suit. We get a hand, holding a glass of what appears to be whiskey. We then see his face, which is sculpted and framed by some sunglasses, his signature goatee and slicked back hair.
He starts talking and he’s sarcastic, obviously narcissistic, somewhat sexist, and clearly flawed. He’s putting on a nice show for the troops, but we know he’s an asshole. There’s no hiding it. There’s no filter. He’s someone who can be an asshole to troops, people we hold in high regard and always tend to hold respect for no matter what. And while he’s being playful he’s still being a sarcastic asshole. (There’s also one line, maybe the only line that truly dates the film as he tells a soldier not to put the picture on his myspace page.) But just as quickly as we see this side of him, the Humvee is attacked and the soldiers are all killed. He tries to run for cover and safety and is wounded by one of his own rockets. He’s kidnapped and held hostage while the group of terrorists that are holding him record a video with him reminiscent of kidnapping videos from real life terrorists. It’s a striking image in a superhero film, especially right out of the gate, and it immediately makes us worry for the sarcastic asshole we just met.
The funny thing in all of the opening is that they never say his name. Not once. The only indication is the fact that the missile that lands next to him and ultimately causes his wounds, says Stark Industries. Now obviously, anyone watching the film know who Robert Downey Jr. is playing. But the most interesting part of this is that all of that is followed first by the title card, “Iron Man,” then by an announcer saying “Tony Stark.” Which is a lead in to a video presentation at an awards ceremony that took place a day or so before the ambush and kidnapping. By doing all this Favreau is essentially saying, this guy is Iron Man, he’s Tony Stark, but above all else this is your superhero. He’s not perfect, he’s not always nice. He’s a sarcastic asshole, and he’s always going to be that way.
The next scene is important to as it helps to subtly show establish the motivation behind Obadiah Stane’s villain. The montage of images from pictures and “magazine covers” explains Tony’s backstory, how his parents were killed, Stane took over the company and then Tony came in and took over from Stane. Growing into the cocky, alcoholic, figurehead for the company while Stane remained the real businessman taking care of things, but with none of the glory. Then when the award is supposed to be presented to Tony by his best friend, Stane has to accept it because Tony is off gambling in a different part of the Casino that the ceremony is being held at. In one quick scene we see how Stane was given power, had it taken away, still had to carry the brunt of the work, and even when their achievements were awarded, they were given to Tony who didn’t even accept the award. Stane could have gone after Tony with a gun in the next scene and it would have been understandable.
From here on we get what led to the ambush and kidnapping. Tony leaves the casino with a reporter, she spends the night and is kicked out of Tony’s place by Pepper Potts. Pepper tries to get Tony to leave for his demonstration in the middle east to convince the US military to buy Stark Industries’ new Jericho missile. He finally does and gets on a plane with his aforementioned best friend Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes. He gets Rhodey drunk and they go to the presentation. Tony gives a speech, it all goes well and he heads to the Humvee. He tells Rhodey not to come because it’s the “fun-vee” and Stane checks in with him to ask if it went well. Knowing that Stane is the architect of what’s about to happen, this is probably him preparing to tell the kidnappers to attack, or something along those lines.
We get a montage of the attack seen at the start of the film, and we go into Tony in the cave. The villains, a terrorist organization known as The Ten Rings, has kidnapped Tony Stark and wants him to use pieces from other Stark Industries material to recreate the Jericho missile that he demonstrated for the military. Instead of making the missile he decides to make a suit of armor that can help him and his fellow captive Yinsen escape. It’s also revealed that during the blast that that incapacitated him during the kidnapping, some shrapnel became lodged near his heart, and in order for it to remain in place and not kill him, Yinsen put an electromagnet in Tony’s chest. Tony begins his work by building a small arc reactor to place in his chest that will keep him alive and power the armor. He builds the armor and escapes but not before Yinsen is killed helping Tony escape, he asks Tony to not waste the life he gave him thanks to his sacrifice.
This whole sequence of events helps build a lot for Tony, it’s the birth of the Iron Man armor, it’s the first time someone has truly sacrificed themselves for Tony, and he takes that to heart. It also introduces the Ten Rings, a criminal organization which in the comics is run by Iron Man’s arch nemesis The Mandarin. In some ways this is the equivalent to Commissioner Gordon handing Batman the Joker playing card at the end of Batman Begins. Though the payoff for this wouldn’t fully (sort of) take place until Iron Man 3. This is the first moment in the movie that truly expands everything past the film. It says, at least to well versed fans, that there is more within this universe and the ongoing story than what we have here. This is something that’s continued soon after Tony gets back home.
Once Tony escapes from the Ten Rings compound, he flies off and lands in the desert. Most of the suit has been destroyed and he’s found by Rhodey. He goes home, holds a press conference saying Stark Industries will no longer be making weapons. And we’re introduced to Phil Coulson. An agent for the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division. Which of course, is revealed to be SHIELD at the end of the film. The long form name for the organization is said a couple times during the movie, and it’s said so quickly that it almost seems like it’s just a running joke or something until the end of the film. That being said, there is a moment in the third act where we see the classic Shield logo, but we’ll get to that in a bit. The important thing here is that this is the second thing that opens up this world a bit more. If SHIELD is in this Cinematic World, what else is there? It’s a great start to tease the audience and lay the foundation for things to come. But perhaps the greatest element is that it’s not heavy handed. And is always played with the joke. The full name of SHIELD being used as a joke sort of tells the audience, that this matters but it doesn’t. You can just laugh and move on without worrying about what this means. And that’s something this film does well. It says, there’s so much more here. But for now just enjoy yourself.
The next important scene is between Tony and Stane as they stand at the arc reactor that powers Stark Industries. Tony asks if he painted a target on his head due to his decision at the press conference, and Stane responds saying, “Your head, what about my head!” Which is a great point, Stark has never fully appreciated what Stane has done. Stane is the reason the company works and is such a success (even if some of that success is from giving weapons to bad guys). But now Tony has decided on his own to destroy Stane’s life’s work without even talking to him. Stane says to Tony, “We’re a weapons manufacturer. That’s what we do. We’re iron mongers. We make weapons. And what we do keeps the world from falling into chaos.” This is another moment of informing Stane’s character as it shows that he believes in what he does. Even when you find out that he’s selling to bad guys, he believes in the balance of power. That what he’s doing helps keep the world in balance. He’s a conniving, merciless villain, but he has his reasons for what he does. Also, the “name drop” of Iron Monger is fantastic as that’s his comic book alias when he wears his Iron Man-esque suit.
From here the film essentially begins building towards the climax. Pepper helps Tony change out the arc reactor in his chest which builds the chemistry between them. Tony tells Rhodey he wants him involved in a big project he’s working on, aka the Iron Man suit. Tony builds the Iron Man suit, and tests out each element of it as he builds it. Tony does a test run with a silver version of the suit where he realizes that he can only go so far up into the atmosphere before it freezes and shuts down. Stane reveals that he’s been working against Tony and trying to push him out of the company behind his back. Tony goes for a sort of test run of the fully realized version of the suit where he takes out members of the Ten Rings organization. The Ten Rings gather up the debris of the suit Tony made in the cave and give it to Stane, also revealing that he’s been orchestrating everything. Tony has pepper sneak into Stark Industries to get evidence against Stane. While there Pepper learns Stane hired the Ten Rings to kill Tony, and decided not to kill him when they discovered who their target actually was. Stane finds Pepper downloading evidence and as she leaves, Pepper goes to Coulson for help. They go to “his office” and leave there with more agents to try to take down Stane. When they leave a SHIELD emblem is seen on one of the walls.
Then we dive into the final act. Pepper and Coulson are heading to arrest Stane. Tony is at his place planning his next moves. Stane shows up and uses a some sort of device to parylize Tony and steal the arc reactor from his chest, so that he can power his own suit and kill Tony. Tony saves himself by using the arc reactor Pepper removed and gave to him as “proof Tony Stark has a heart.” Rhodey shows up as Tony is getting ready to head after Stane and when Tony leaves he looks at the Silver Mark 2 armor and says, “Next time.” Another tease to the fact that Rhodey gets his own armor (in the comics and the sequel) and becomes the superhero, War Machine. When Pepper and Coulson arrive to arrest Stane he emerges in his suit, and begins taking out SHIELD agents. Tony shows up and begins the final battle. They fight at Stark Industries and into the streets of the city. Eventually Tony uses his previous experience and flies him and Stane into the higher atmosphere where Stane’s suit freezes. They come crashing back down to the roof of Stark Industries, where Tony realizes he’s outmatched because the arc reactor he’s using isn’t strong enough. He has Pepper turn the arc reactor powering the building to full blast, it blasts up through the roof and takes out Stane once and for all, with Tony left lying on the roof, his chest reactor flickering.
We cut to moments before a press conference where Coulson and his team have taken care of everything. They created an alibi for Tony, they explained that it was all faulty robotic equipment, they said that Stane was on Vacation and that he’ll just “disappear” before returning. Tony talks with Pepper and dances around the fact that he wants to keep being Iron Man. Coulson calls his department SHIELD for the first time on screen. They walk into the press conference and Tony is asked questions about if he is the Iron Man. At first he shrugs it off and says he’s not that type of guy, a superhero. But as he begins to read the detailed alibi that SHIELD created for him, he changes his mind. He looks out and says, “I am Iron Man.” The reporters go crazy and the credits roll.
The end is one of the most interesting aspects of the film, as most Superhero films use the secret identity aspect as an important story tool. The hero has to do this or that to protect themselves and their loved ones. With great power, comes great responsibility and all that. But Tony’s not that type of guy. Even after everything that’s just happened. He’s still the sarcastic, self-serving asshole he was in the Humvee. Maybe a bit more caring, and willing to do good, because he’s learned a bit. But there’s still elements of him that are just never going to change. That’s one of the elements that Downey himself has stated he enjoyed about the character, that he’s someone who decides to take a stand for things, but doesn’t change who he truly is.
As we move further into the entire arch of Iron Man’s character this is important to remember. The first film ends not with Tony learning anything, or really changing drastically as is expected of most protagonists. It simply ends with him deciding to do more than he has. He’s going to keep being the same person, but with this addendum. He is Iron Man. And overall that’s the film. It’s a solid film with a great story, great characters, some really great imagery. And to be honest some really phenomenal CGI work. One of their goals was to make sure you could never tell when the suit was CGI and when it was real. And even now, almost ten years later, it still looks great. Overall Iron Man was a great opening to this Universe because it was a good self contained story with nuggets of a wider universe. A bigger Universe to explore.
Once the credits have rolled we see Tony come home to his mansion after the Press Conference. And we hear the all familiar voice of Samuel L. Jackson. “I am Iron Man. You think you’re the only superhero in the world? Mr. Stark, you’ve become part of a bigger universe, you just don’t know it yet.” Tony walks into the light and asks who he is. Jackson steps into the light with a bald head, a black trench coat and an eyepatch. “Nick Fury, Director of SHIELD… I’m here to talk to you about the Avengers Initiative.” Cut to black. Studio cards. And the world is forever changed. A month later the Incredible Hulk would be released. Both films were promoted heavily around the same time and there were rumors of more films from Marvel. But this was it. This was the real deal. Marvel was going to make films based off of each Avenger. And then make an Avengers Film. Nothing like this had ever been done before. And no one knew if it was going to work out. But the seeds were planted, the first step was made. And after Iron Man took home half a billion dollars worldwide, it was clear that people were excited and wanted more.
So what comes next? The Incredible Hulk. The film that in many ways is the least connected to the MCU as a whole, and the only film in Marvel’s Phase One that didn’t get a sequel. (Even the sequel in phase one, got a sequel before Hulk!) But we’ll get to that next week.