IRON MAN: We Built That Thing to Shut the Hippies Up

Iron Man (2008) – The 1st Marvel Cinematic Universe Film – Directed by Jon Favreau – Starring Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, Shaun Toub, Faran Tahir, Leslie Bibb, Clark Gregg, Paul Bettany, Jon Favreau, Stan Lee, and Samuel L. Jackson.

It all begins with IRON MAN.

I’m writing this review on the day before AVENGERS hits the theaters in the States and it’s a fine time to remember that the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the rise of the AVENGERS to become an international box office powerhouse begins with an an unlikely actor, an unlikely director, and an unlikely character. There has been nary a major misstep in the growth of the AVENGERS franchise; no matter the director, actor, or approach it all seems to work out better than not. The next time you hear people bagging on a movie before we even see a clip, remember how the decision to hire Downey Jr. and Favreau was far from universally accepted, yet thanks to what Favreau, Downey, and IRON MAN started, we’re all losing our minds waiting for AVENGERS to hit theaters.

This was nothing new, of course; fans flipped their gourd over Michael Keaton as Batman and then he delivered two excellent performances. I don’t remember my circle of friends having as negative a panic attack over Downey’s casting as some people had over Keaton; instead, our emotions ranged from curious to confused. What was Marvel doing hiring a non-action star? This was the guy that was going to launch Marvel Studios?

Then there was Favreau. He’d only directed three films at that point (Made, Elf, and Zathura) and none of them seemed like perfect training vehicles to be given the reigns on a $140 million superhero flick. This was the guy that was going to launch Marvel Studios?

And finally there was Iron Man himself. While an important and integral part of the Marvel Universe, Iron Man was considerably less well-known to the general public. Even to comic fans, Iron Man wasn’t winning any popularity contests. Was there ever a point in the history of Marvel Comics when Iron Man was THE MAN? When he was the character every kid wanted to be? When did he have the book that everyone had to read?

When he was becoming an alcoholic? This was the guy that was going to launch Marvel Studios?

Yep. Yep. And a resounding Yep.

First, I thought the hiring of Downey was inspired because you decrease your chances of screwing up when you hire talented actors and Downey has always been a talented actor. He delivers one of the best performances of his career and one of the best performances in any superhero film. (It may very well be the best performance.) Second, I was less sure of Favreau’s hire, but I’m a huge fan of Elf , due in part to Favreau’s commitment to seeing his vision all the way through. He took an unbelievable world and an unbelievable character and made them feel completely believable, and not only did he deliver a thoroughly entertaining film with both Elf and IRON MAN, but he created a blueprint for future Marvel Studios productions to follow. And thirdly, there’s Iron Man and Tony Stark, who proved themselves to be the perfect combination of superhero identity and personal identity to be the centerpiece of a smart, fun, engaging film. IRON MAN showed the public that superheroes could be completely contemporary while delivering a corporate espionage film that also had superheroes in it.

IRON MAN is a tremendous cinematic achievement, a true popcorn masterpiece. It’s the single-most enjoyable superhero film ever made, too, though remember I’m writing this pre-AVENGERS, in case I have to reorder my hyperbole after this weekend.

Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) is a brilliant, visionary scientific genius who runs the weapons company his father built. As the film opens, he’s in Afghanistan to show off his new Jericho missiles, but as he rides in a military convoy, the convoy is attacked and Stark falls into the hands of the Ten Rings terrorist organization. They want him to build a Jericho missile for them but Stark takes this opportunity to build himself a suit of armor so he can battle the Ten Rings all by his lonesome. Stark also wants to help pay the debt he owes to Yinsen (Shaun Toub), the doctor who saved his life by building an electromagnetic device that will keep the remaining shrapnel away from his heart.

It’s interesting watching IRON MAN so soon after watching Ang Lee’s Hulk because the films have more in common than I’d recognized before. Both films take a long time building the story before they get around to introducing the title character and both films feature adult characters and adult situations. Stark is perfectly happy being the philandering visionary genius designing weapons that blow things up better than anyone else, but during his captivity he sees that the terrorists are outfitted with Stark Industries weaponry. This causes a change not only in Stark’s attitude, but in his entire worldview, and with the help of Yinsen, he builds the first Iron Man armor, escapes, and heads back to the States where he announces at a press conference that Stark Industries is getting out of the weapons business.

Favreau accomplishes this during the film’s first half-hour and it’s to his credit that all of this feels very natural. I don’t doubt for a second that this is a real change in how Stark views the world, though, as business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) tells him towards the end of the film, only Stark could turn to peace and in the process create the greatest weapon the world’s ever seen.

Downey does his best, too, to make this transformation believable. Through this opening act, from his relaxed camaraderie with soldiers in the convoy, to his failing to appear at an awards show in order to gamble with some hot women (including Hilary Swank, which led to speculation at the time that she was being groomed to play Black Widow), to bedding a determined reporter (Leslie Bibb), to his attempt to disarm Rhodey on his private plane, to giving the demonstration of the Jericho missile to the army in Afghanistan, and finally to his captivity, Downey effortlessly moves from scene to scene and makes the transition work beautifully.

How does he accomplish this? The key is that the transformation is bit of an emotional MacGuffin; Stark does a 180 on his views of selling weapons, but he’s still incredibly self-centered and driven. When he builds the Iron Man armor or flies to Afghanistan to save some locals from the Ten Rings, he’s doing it more for himself rather than some altruistic attempt to make the world better. As Stane rightly points out, Stark’s altered philosophy only leads him to invent a better weapon. He could have applied his genius anywhere but it went back to building a weapon.

What really changes in Stark is his sense of personal accountability and his desire to have stronger personal connections. The alteration in his worldview is just the trigger that makes this possible. Stark, himself, doesn’t really even regret making the weapons. What he regrets is that they got into the hands of American enemies, as he exclaims at one point that his weapons are hurting the lives of those they’re supposed to be helping: American soldiers.

Stark’s stated decision to get out of the weapon’s game causes a negative ripple among those close to him. Stane has no intention of getting away from SI’s bread and butter, and he begins working behind the scenes to cut Stark out of his company. His pal James Rhodes (Terrence Howard) wants Stark to focus on weapons, not his secret side project, and his administrative assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), is concerned that his new mission is going to get himself killed.

Like a kid with a new interest, or a dog with a new toy, however, Stark is totally focused on building and perfecting the Iron Man armor. It’s really quite amazing how much enjoyment Favreau and Downey create out of numerous scenes of Stark working alone in his lab. Smartly, Stark interacts with his home AI program Jarvis (Paul Bettany) and his robotic assistant Dummy throughout the creation process to give the act of invention some narrative punch. I know for us comic fans it’s disappointing not seeing Jarvis as a real person, but the AI Jarvis is a very strong character who takes no small delight in taking the p*ss out of Stark.

When Stark gets a working model of the high tech Iron Man armor up and running, he orders Jarvis to render the final design specs in gold, but then after seeing it, Stark remarks, “A little ostentatious, don’t you think?” Jarvis sarcastically replies, “What was I thinking? You’re usually so discreet,” and after Stark suggest adding a little bit of “hot-rod red” to the color scheme, Jarvis adds, “That should help you keep a low profile.”

Working as the physical half of the one-two duo, Dummy knocks Stark down a few notches with non-verbal put downs, like when he doesn’t do exactly what Stark wants, or, in the film’s funniest scene, hits Stark with a blast from a fire extinguisher after Stark’s first attempt at testing out his suit’s flight boots goes wonky.

All this means that watching Stark in the lab becomes an asset rather than a detraction to the viewing experience. Instead of wishing they’d rush through these scenes to get to the next action piece, the lab scenes are every bit as enjoyable. It even fits with Stark’s personality how it’s much easier for him to get into the suit than out of it, which leads to the bit where Pepper enters the lab and catches him being held aloft by his robots, who are trying to get him out of his armor. Not only is it a great scene, with one of the film’s signature lines as Stark reminds Pepper this is hardly the most embarrassing thing she’s caught him doing, but it also has the film’s best easter egg, as we can see some version of Captain America’s shield on the workbench behind him.

The acting is top notch across the board. Jeff Bridges is perfectly old school bad guy in the film, Paltrow is wonderfully likable, and Terrence Howard works well as the man caught between the military and Stark; technically, he’s the liaison between the military and the corporation, but he’s also Stark’s friend. All three of them get their moments, and IRON MAN does a great job showing how to make small roles both important and memorable.

The action sequences are strong throughout the film. The battles between Iron Man and the Ten Rings, Iron Man and two fighter jets, and then Iron Man and War Monger all work, but the real thrill of IRON MAN is the personal battles, and the real thrill of the personal battles is watching Stark. IRON MAN took a great actor in Robert Downey Jr. and gave him a vehicle where she could transform himself into one of the most enjoyable mainstream actors around. Of all the actors in all the AVENGERS-related films, only Downey becomes more important than the character he’s playing. With all due respect to the fine work Chrisses Evans and Hemsworth performed as Captain America and Thor, they’re much closer to the work Eric Bana and Edward Norton did as Bruce Banner.

Which is to say, they do really good work but they inhabit the character they play where IRON MAN displays Tony Stark becoming Downey, as opposed to Downey inhabiting a role. (Note that I’m not saying Downey’s method is preferable, just noting the difference.)

Even though I reviewed Ang Lee’s Hulk first, it’s IRON MAN where the story of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (yes, they actually call it that) begins. In the post-credits scene, we’re introduced to Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who also wants to take Stark down a notch, but does so by telling him he’s not the only superhero in the world, and that he wants to talk to Stark about the Avenger Initiative.

Sitting here now in the hours before AVENGERS will be unleashed on the American movie-going public, it’s almost hard to remember that all of that fanboy energy began from this little scene tucked away at the end of IRON MAN. At the time, however, the idea that this movie was going to build into other movies was nothing short of extraordinary. All of our lives we’d watched supeheroes exist in their own little cinematic bubbles. Often a result of the ways contracts for adaptations were constructed, it was not easy for superheroes to appear in each other’s films. I remember the knowing thrill I got at simply hearing George Clooney mention “Metropolis” in Batman and Robin, and yet, here was Colonel Nick Fury letting us know that Marvel Studios wasn’t building a disconnected set of movies, but rather building an entire universe.

It was heady stuff.

IRON MAN also introduced us to SHIELD Special Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), who has become the real link between the AVENGERS movies. Coulson is quiet and unassuming but has as much confidence as anyone else in these films. Gregg is phenomenal in this role and his introduction here is pitch perfect. He wants a meeting with Stark to debrief him on the events in Afghanistan, but no one really takes him all that seriously. He’s just a suit with a government badge and no quicker does he enter a scene then exit it. Yet when Pepper needs help, he’s just sitting there, waiting for a meeting that never comes and instantly jumping to her side when she goes after Stane’s secret project (which turns out to be the War Monger suit).

I don’t know if there were ever any plans to kill Coulson here, or if they designed him to be a linking character all along, but each time I watch IRON MAN I see his character as fitting the role of sacrificial lamb, that he’ll prove he’s a good guy by taking a bullet for Pepper.

Luckily, that never happens, and thankfully, Marvel Studios has continued to capitalize on the success of their first film. While only IRON MAN 2 has reached the box office heights of the first IRON MAN film, there is no doubting the momentum that has developed behind Joss Whedon’s AVENGERS movie.

We’re oh-so-close to its release, but not so close that we can’t take a moment to marvel at where the journey began. Critics don’t like to herald blockbusters as “masterpieces,” as if that term can only be used for films by Scorsese, Kurosawa, Kubrick, Bergman, and the like, but IRON MAN is a pure cinematic treasure, and very much a masterpiece of modern film making.