You know, I can pinpoint the exact moment I really became a movie lover. When the magic of a movie moment gripped me so tight, it left marks upon my mind for future films to slip right into. I was just a kid, watching Iron Man in theaters. On the screen, terrorists lined up in front of a cave. Slowly, from the darkness, a metal behemoth emerged into the sun. The terrorists emptied their guns at it, causing absolutely no damage. Extending his arms, the man inside the iron shell let out a resolved “Now it’s my turn”, and shot two blazing streams of flame from his hands. I was hooked. And this sort of power and excitement is the kind that Iron Man effortlessly exudes throughout the entire runtime.
Iron Man’s opening scene, like any good one should, is a perfect tone-setter. It begins fun and lighthearted with the immediately cool Tony Stark, riding in a Jeep through the desert, joking around with his military escorts. When suddenly, mid-joke, the car in front of them explodes. Tony becomes panicked as his guards are all quickly taken out. Fleeing from the car, the last thing Tony sees is a bomb landing in front of him with his very own name on it. If you want to see an opening scene that instantly establishes the movie’s themes and the main character’s struggle, look no farther than Iron Man.
Iron Man is a movie firmly set in the time period it was made. A decade ago may not seem like it would drastically date a movie, and Iron Man isn’t dated; it’s interesting because it’s so relevant to its time. It’s a more political movie than I remember, or perhaps just more than I could recognize in previous years’ viewings. It feels like a movie made in a post-Saddam Hussein world where Bin Laden was still active, where U.S. attempts at stabilization caused only more turmoil. This is the struggle between Tony and Obadiah Stane. Stane wants to sell off power, arming the strongest guys so they can stay strong. Tony wants to withdraw his influence from the conflict all together, taking responsibility for his actions into his own hands and fixing his mistakes. While the villain wants his business to grow at the expense of others, representing the negative side of capitalism, the movie never looks down on its hero for his own exorbitant wealth. From the very beginning, Tony Stark acts like a hero. The movie is anti-American war while never crossing the line into anti-American, a slippery slope it could have easily descended upon.
Obadiah Stane, the Iron Monger, isn’t really that great of a character. Like I said above, he’s interesting because of the ideological opposites he represents to the hero, but not so much for his characteristics. When he finally reveals his true villainous nature, especially when suited up in the third act, almost all of his dialogue feels cliché or over-the-top. And his overall plan doesn’t make much practical sense when you look at it. What did he think would happen after he murdered multiple government agents in a Stark laboratory and then took it the streets to murder civilians?
Luckily, the movie doesn’t hinge upon Iron Monger. Iron Man is the title of the movie because that’s what the movie is really all about. It’s completely dependent on creating a memorable character in Tony Stark. And boy, does it succeed. Were Robert Downey Jr. not already nominated for an Oscar that year (for his equally great performance in Tropic Thunder), I honestly think he deserved recognition for his performance as Tony Stark. Downey does his job so flawlessly he might trick you into thinking it’s easy, if he wasn’t also suave on a level you could never dream of achieving. He’s plain fun to watch, but more importantly, he’s believable. Downey never plays Tony without obvious faults, or at least not without faults he’s bad at hiding. When you as a viewer can clearly understand what the hero is struggling with, how he’s dealing with it, and you enjoy every second of it, then the actor has ensured you buy into what he’s selling on screen. It’s a performance that made Downey the biggest movie star of a new generation, and it isn’t hard to see why.
Looking back a decade later, it’s fun to see characters like Tony and Agent Coulson where they began. Tony has several moments in this movie that, when viewed through the lens of what he would go onto experience in Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War, make his arc throughout those movies and the MCU as a whole so clear and poignant. In the many team-ups since, as the scales of conflict continue to escalate, it can be easy to lose sight of the more simple, grounded character piece that started it all, and it’s refreshing to get a reminder.
The fact that the movie works so well is a marvel. You could say it was assembled in a cave, with a box of scraps. Rewrites sometimes happened immediately before the next scene would begin shooting, and the universe and tone now so clear in the general audience’s mind didn’t exist yet. They were building without a clear blueprint, and it just so happened that magic would come of it. The escalation of Iron Man’s suits is actually an excellent metaphor for the situation. The Iron Man suits of the first movie have more weight to them and feel more realistic. We get a whole scene dedicated to watching every piece drilled on and snapped together. But each movie presents a new, easier way of suiting up in more powerful armor to the point where it’s literally done at the click of a button. In the same way, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was first constructed with great risk, but after years of practice, more complex movies with wider scopes are delivered consistently with uptakes in quality. And then I guess Iron Monger, an inferior construction made by someone trying to steal an innovation for money that eventually broke down and exploded, can act as a metaphor for numerous other cinematic universes that have sprung up since.
Jon Favreau’s movie set the spark that would light a fire in the entertainment industry. It’s a perfect blockbuster that deserves the legacy that’s built up behind it. A fun, exciting, and well-executed good time, I rate Iron Man:
9.2 American cheeseburgers out of 10.
We’ll be reviewing every MCU movie these next couple of months leading up to Avengers: Infinity War this May, so stay tuned to SuperBroMovies for upcoming fresh takes.