'Mr. Stark, you’ve become part of a bigger universe'
As we count down to the long-awaited uber-team-up Avengers: Infinity War (out May 4), EW’s Marvel Movie Club is preparing by revisiting the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe in the weeks leading up to the mega-sized movie. EW’s Chancellor Agard (that’s me!) will revisit one Marvel movie a week, every week, to reassess its powers and hopefully answer important questions like “What was The Incredible Hulk?” “Does Nick Fury wash his eye-patch?” and “Is there a point to Hawkeye?” along the way. This week, we begin with the surprise hit that started it all: Iron Man.
Iron Man came out in 2008, 10 years ago this May. While I don’t remember much from that year, I do remember attending the 7 p.m. Thursday night preview screening of the movie with some high school friends. At that point in my life, I was obsessed with the Fox medical drama House, still religiously watched Smallville, and every few months would re-read Marvel’s The Ultimates (a series on a parallel Earth that more closely resembled our own where the Avengers, here re-dubbed the Ultimates because it was the mid-aughts, were at the start of their career and the U.S. government arm in the War on Terror). Iron Man should’ve been the perfect movie for me — with Robert Downey Jr.’s charismatic turn as a genius a–hole, a post-9/11 setting that mirrored the Ultimate Marvel universe, and the simple fact that it was about a superhero — but, in a surprise twist, it wasn’t. In fact, I disliked it, and for many years it was my least favorite Phase 1 movie (I saw both The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2 in theaters twice, because 15-year-old me was wrong about a lot).
At the time, my biggest problems with Iron Man were the following:
- The trailer spoiled every good part of the movie. (Again, 15-year-old me still cared deeply about spoilers.)
- The pacing was too slow and there wasn’t enough action.
- And related to that point, Jeff Bridges’ villain was super forgettable. (Raise your hand if you actually remembered that Bridges played evil corrupt corporate man Obadiah Stane, which might be the most ridiculous name since, well, my own.)
The things I liked, however: Robert Downey Jr.’s performance; his crackling chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow, who played his long-suffering assistant Pepper Potts; and, of course, that end-credits scene featuring Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury.
My friends and I argued about this all the way home. They loved it and thought I was annoyingly contrarian. Obviously, distance and maturity has helped me realize they were right. Rewatching Iron Man for the first time in about five years this week reaffirmed that, too. It’s hard not to be impressed by how much the film accomplished. Downey Jr., director Jon Favreau, and Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige turned a hero who was lesser known to mainstream audiences into a household name — and spawned an entire cinematic universe in the process.
During my rewatch, I realized that I kind of loved everything I used to hate about it. The film’s first half is slow by design since it’s mainly focused on introducing the audience to Tony Stark. (I’ve always loved the movie’s first scene, mostly because Tony has a throwaway line about MySpace while he’s taking photos with the soldiers that felt dated even in 2008; still, it also conveyed how out of touch he was with normal things like social media). At the time of the movie’s release, I couldn’t appreciate how necessary that was since he wasn’t like the other superheroes on the big screen. Unlike Bruce Wayne or Peter Parker, he didn’t have a tragic backstory, and as we saw in the flashbacks to the 36 hours before terrorists kidnapped him, he seemed to generally enjoy his privileged life. Given the fact that this movie had the task of getting the audience to become invested in a new hero, it makes the fact that Obie is a lame villain less offensive, especially since the movie barely even tries to make him more than just the personification of the corrupt military industrial complex and what’s wrong with the War on Terror. (That being said, I will say I discovered one new thing I definitely dislike about the movie now: The fact that Tony sleeps with that Vanity Fair reporter, which is a sexist trope. Don’t let Hollywood fool you — female journalists don’t sleep with the people they write about.)
The universe-building in the movie is also pretty low-key, too, which is something I didn’t appreciate when I first saw it. While I was familiar with the scary national security agency S.H.I.E.L.D. when Iron Man came out (and knew what the acronym stood for), I didn’t put it together that straight man Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) worked for S.H.I.E.L.D. until the very last scene because the movie handled that detail so casually up until that point. While I doubt that a brand-extension series called Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was on anyone’s mind way back in 2008, the movie does plant the seeds that Phil has led a pretty eventful life. As he says at the end of the movie, “This isn’t my first rodeo, Mr. Stark.” Even before that awesome end-credits scene arrives, there was already a sense that this world was weirder than people knew.
Speaking of that ending: Iron Man‘s casual approach to Tony Stark’s whole secret identity, or lack thereof, is still the boldest thing about it, in my opinion. To be fair, secret identities weren’t as important in the movies during that time. Rachel learned Bruce Wayne was Batman at the end of Batman Begins, and Mary-Jane was in on Peter’s secret in Spider-Man 3. (Unfortunately, the same can’t said for television. In 2008, Smallville was in its eighth season, but for some frustrating reason, Lois Lane was still in the dark about Clark Kent’s powers.) But Iron Man was more subversive than all of those and threw the entire concept out the window. Not only does Tony Stark reveal he’s Iron Man to the world in the movie’s final scene, but at no point is it really a serious possibility that Tony wouldn’t tell the two people he’s closest to, Pepper and his best friend James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Terrence Howard). The absence of any secret identity opens the door to other stories that aren’t just, “Oh, Tony has to lie to Pepper again!” This was one of the most frustrating things about early seasons of Arrow and The Flash. The abandonment of any secret identity nonsense was quite possibly the clearest sign that this film and the embryonic universe were something different. And in the wake of my rewatch, I’m surprisingly excited to see what comes next.
- I also forgot that Terrence Howard played James “Rhodey” Rhodes in this movie before Don Cheadle took over the role in Iron Man 2. While Rhodey’s “Next time” line when he’s looking at Stark’s other Iron Man suit is kind of sad now, I’m so glad the character was recast because Cheadle is far better. He doesn’t feel like he takes himself nearly as seriously as Howard did in this role.
- Interesting fact: In Iron Man, Shaun Taub plays Yinsen, the scientist who is also being held captive by the Ten Rings, the terrorist organization that kidnaps Tony. A few years later on Homeland, Taub would go on to play senior Iranian intelligence officer Majid Javadi, who played a role in a massive terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
- Another thing I forgot: how delightful Tony’s helper-robots are. The fire extinguisher bit when Tony is first building his suit is very funny.
Next week: The Incredible Hulk (or, Figuring Out Why Chancellor Saw It Twice In Theaters)