With audiences reeling from the epic heights of Avengers: Infinity War, it’s hard to imagine that 10 years ago, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or MCU) was just beginning. In those ten years, the MCU has expanded across film and television; these days you can watch Captain America and Guardians of the Galaxy on the big screen and Daredevil and Jessica Jones on the small. And while the latest Avengers movie has successfully brought the storyline woven through 18 films to a head, none of that would have happened if we hadn’t had 2008’s brilliant Iron Man.
I knew very little about Tony Stark or Iron Man before going to see the film in cinemas with friends 10 years ago. I had a vague recollection of a cartoon during my childhood but the characters that I have grown to love over the last decade – which started with Iron Man himself – barely part of my consciousness back then. And when we got that first post-credits sequence as Samuel L Jackson’s effortless cool Nick Fury turned up in Stark’s home and made the first immortal reference to the Avengers, my friend squealed with excitement; as for me, I didn’t quite realise how special this would all become.
Now I’m not saying that we wouldn’t have got the MCU that we have now, but it was made a lot easier by the success of Iron Man. This film was the perfect mix of cool and geekdom, made all the more special by a fantastic central performance by Robert Downey Jr. Prior to this film, he was a bit of a washed up Hollywood actor with a drug-fuelled past, but Iron Man brought him back in style and reignited his career in a way he probably didn’t think was possible. Director John Favreau also brought in a great cast to support him; Gwyneth Paltrow had the right amount of sass and humility as Pepper Potts, Favreau himself brought lots of charm as Happy Hogan and Jeff Bridges gave a huge amount of gravitas as father figure-turned villain Obadiah Stane. The one weaker element was Terrence Howard’s Colonel James Rhodes who was a far cry from Don Cheadle’s cooler military officer-turned War Machine, but even then, he gave it his all as the friend desperately trying to support his friend as events spiral out of control.
It was perhaps a blessing that Iron Man came out before Disney purchased Marvel and became the juggernaut that it is today. Unlike Batman v Superman, which was designed to kick start the DC Cinematic Universe (Man of Steel being retooled as a retroactive origin story), there was no pressure on Iron Man to have the weight of a monolithic franchise on its shoulders (something which its sequel suffered a little from). It is relatively low key, the final showdown between Iron Monger and Iron Man is relatively low key compared to later MCU movies – more a skirmish than an epic battle between good and evil. The most ‘epic’ sequence would be Tony’s abduction by terrorists in Afghanistan and the birth of the first suit to make his grand escape.
The film does a great job of setting up Tony’s dramatic capture before heading back in time and letting loose with a character who is no hero but a billionaire playboy arms dealer that like to drink, have sex and is completely unaware of the consequences of his actions. It is a far cry from the morally driven Stark of Captain America: Civil War. It is effortlessly cool too – his monologue as he demonstrates his new weapon, arms stretched as the cloud of dust billows around him, is Tony at his most egotistical and perhaps the most fun too. This film wasn’t about him rising up to stop a threat to mankind but him discovering that actions have consequences and using his intelligence and skills to make a difference.
And to do that, Iron Man breaks Tony down. The scenes in the cave in Afghanistan are some of the most darker moments of the cinematic MCU; forced to work with ally Yinsen (a wonderfully endearing performance by Shaun Toub), he faces torture and the threat of constant death as he tries to keep himself alive with the creation of the mini arc reactor while trying to outwit the terrorists by building not the weapon they so desperately want but a suit to destroy them. The death of Yinsen is perhaps the film’s first real emotion beat, followed by the euphoria as Tony unleashes his flame-welding suit on the enemy, destroying the camp and making his escape from the heart of darkness.
From here the film is relentless fun, backed up the fantastic score by Ramin Djawadi with its electrical guitar riffs as Tony tinkers and builds. Every scene where he tests out the new suit is a joy to watch – the scuppers are fantastic characters in themselves and the moment where he takes down the terrorists and destroys their tank is a real punch the air superhero moment.
It is a testament that Iron Man continues to be regarded as one of the best movies of the MCU, even when it doesn’t have the scale and grandeur of later instalments. Downey Jr is effortless cool, the suit looks fantastic, the blend of action and comedy is well balanced, the performances genuine and the moral narrative elevates it from a simple superhero origin story to a grander tale of doing what is right not because you can, but because you should.