Just a Man in a Can?: Revisiting Iron Man

With Avengers arriving in UK cinemas at the end of the month, Dylan sends us back to the start of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Mr. Stark’s debut. 

It’s truly remarkable how many comic book movies have been banged out in the last ten years. This goes hand in hand with the boom in special effects, of course, and despite how limited the original X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002) were in regards to plot, they were revolutionary for making these difficult characters work in live-action. They stormed the box office and re-ignited Hollywood’s fascination with the pages of Marvel Comics. However, special effects only remain enchanting for so long, and with the market saturated by superhero media, it became harder for filmmakers to distinguish their adaptations. Comic book movies were in danger of becoming passé, but then Marvel hit upon the idea of starting their own studio. Not only that, but they wanted to tie their films together in the same universe, something their comics have done for decades, kicking off with Iron Man. This was a brave move. Although popular in the comic world, was he a strong enough brand to launch a franchise?

The plot is loosely based on the early Tales of Suspense that featured ol’ Shellhead, as well as the critically-acclaimed Extremis by Warren Ellis (which provided the foundation for Iron Man 3). It follows Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), an engineering genius and billionaire playboy who works as a weapons designer for the military. With personal assistant Virginia “Pepper” Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) taking care of his every need, and a good working relationship with the government via his friend, Colonel Rhodes (Terrence Howard), the country regards him as a true American hero out to protect the world. After being captured and critically injured by a group called the Ten Rings whilst demonstrating a new weapon in Afghanistan, he not only manages to build an energy generator to replace his heart, but constructs a robotic suit that turns him into a flying gun-toting superman. He barely escapes, and returns to the USA determined to turn Stark Industries into a force for good with his new “Iron Man” at the helm. However, his father’s ex-partner, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), has other priorities, the main one being the termination of Stark…

In concept, Iron Man looked like it was setting itself up as a piece of fascist art. An arms maker in an iron suit, who takes out foreigners and threats to his homeland whilst declaring that this is the only way for peace, doesn’t sit comfortably in the same genre as teenage web-slinging. Throw in a heavy dollop of misogyny and female ogling and you might as well call it steampunk Mussolini. Yet this simply isn’t the case. An important prop in the movie reads “Proof that Tony Stark has a heart,” and this could easily be the film’s tagline. What Downey Jr. manages to do is make Tony Stark incredibly sympathetic and likeable, whilst being incredibly arrogant. In a very similar vein to his Sherlock Holmes character, Stark is played somewhere between a slacker, an action hero and Einstein. Both are geniuses in their fields, but mavericks who seem to pull-off their work effortlessly. Both live in respective mancaves, with Stark’s complete with robot assistants, a dozen classic cars and even a retro jukebox (yay for Minor Threat!). In real-life, arms manufacturers would look like Gordon Gecko; Downey Jr. plays him as a rock star, and elements of director Jon Favreau’s script for his early indie movie Swingers (1996) can be seen in the character.

The movie protagonist works so well because we see Stark fail, and he is atypically vulnerable. Some of his actions may seem morally dubious, but they are always justified by the insecurities and passions of his character lurking beneath the surface. He seems callous and chauvinistic to Miss Potts, and a downright bully to his best friend Rhodey, but relies on them for virtually everything. Stark clearly loves them, too. Despite being an arms dealer, he truly believes his way is the best way for peace, and when his weapons are proven to cause more suffering than good, he renounces them overnight. His choices are made all the more difficult by a desire to live up to the legacy of his father, Howard Stark, who will make recurring appearances in the Cinematic Universe.

The supporting cast is just as strong. Paltrow as Potts is not a 2D character in love with her boss, but an independent businesswoman (albeit one in love with her boss). Bridges is absolutely terrifying as Stane, an image-controlling and ruthless suit who is the shadowy reflection of Tony. Howard is also great in his one appearance as Rhodey, giving a face to the American military needed to stop them from becoming “the man.”

This personal touch is intrinsic to the film’s visual artistry. The design of the suit was a make-or-break challenge, built practically by the legendary Stan Winston, and computer-generated for the trickier shots. It is made of different sections that all need to be whirred and clicked together, an internal HUD system that acts as an extension of Tony’s workspace, and a rocket-boost system that, although seeming unlikely in terms of fuel consumption, seems piloted rather than magic. Iron Man’s technologies aren’t ridiculous, but possibilities for the future, almost like an Ipad taken to the extreme. Favreau takes us inside the armour for many shots, bringing a level of humanity to the suit scenes that could so easily have been lost. The final battle works so well because it feels like two people in mechanised suits fighting, rather than robots. Compared to something like Transformers or Avatar, the combat isn’t very epic, but it has a level of personal conflict that makes it far more gripping.

Iron Man is not as culturally significant as Batman, Superman or Spider-Man, and this movie could have been hashed out with a basic plot a la Jonah Hex or Ghost Rider. It manages to extend a cut-and-dry origin story into a full feature, resisting the temptation to bring in a world threatening terror like the recent Green Lantern did. But most of all, before The Avengers, this was the movie that came closest to adapting a Marvel comic correctly. It manages to blend the silliness of a portable robot suit with a character pathos that makes it much more light-hearted than something like the same year’s The Dark Knight. Favreau and Downey Jr. gave Stark a unique persona that hadn’t been seen before; the first playboy and humanistic superhero in one, who manages to protect his country and the world without being jingoistic. We see a character make a literal change of heart throughout the movie, without losing what made him interesting in the first place. And just for once, everyone knows who he is. The final line of the movie is Stark declaring “I am Iron Man,” and with that, they propelled the character into the audience’s subconscious.

Iron Man roared to the top of the box office in 2008 and opened to universal critical acclaim, ensuring that Marvel’s Cinematic Universe would continue. It was also the first film of that year to pass $300 million, turning May into the unofficial start of the summer season for blockbusters. It threw Downey Jr. to the top of the A-list and brought serious attention back to Favreau and Paltrow, both of whom had been out of the spotlight for a while. This is such a well-loved movie that to acknowledge any faults would be sacrilege. It’s so good in fact, that only The Avengers or The Winter Soldier have been able to top it so far.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • In the comics, Tony Stark became Iron Man in the Vietnam War. In this film, the character’s origin was changed to Afghanistan to give it a realistic contemporary look.
  • The script was not completely prepared when filming began, so the dialogue was mostly ad-libbed throughout filming.
  • In the scene where Pepper discovers Tony removing the damaged Iron Man armor, you can see Captain America’s shield on one of his workbenches.
  • Tony Stark’s computer system in the film is named JARVIS (standing for “Just A Rather Very Intelligent System”). In the comics, Stark has a human butler named Edwin Jarvis. He was changed to an artificial intelligence to avoid comparisons to Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred Pennyworth. He is voiced by Paul Bettany.

Dylan Spicer

Dylan graduated from Brighton Film School and and went on to complete an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. He has worked on award-winning short and feature films. He is currently experimenting with Narradu Memories, and his online audio drama giantcannibals.co.uk.

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