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It’s odd looking back now on the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the film that kickstarted the entire process. The idea of an interconnected movie universe was definitely a strange idea back in 2008 when Iron Man dropped in theaters. The star of the film was someone who was only recently making a comeback, the director was mostly known for a Will Farrell comedy film, and there wasn’t really a script to work from. Yet, despite these potential pitfalls, the first film in what we now call the MCU was a success beyond anyone’s wildest predictions.
If you haven’t seen Iron Man at this point, there’s going to be obvious spoilers but this film has been part of the cultural zeitgeist for a decade-plus. That’s the best spoiler warning I’m going to give for these film reviews.
Robert Downey Jr. is the main reason this film works as well as it does. The character of Tony Stark is someone that is relatively easy to hate, particularly by 2008. The largest status quo change in the Marvel Comics universe was completed the year before with Civil War (a story that would be somewhat adapted later on in the MCU). Tony Stark was haphazardly written as the villain of that story arc and the character’s reputation over the years was being the poster boy for privilege and Cold War saber-rattling. Downey managed to capture the inherent hubris of Stark but also provided enough of a heart behind that narcissism to make the audience actually care about Tony. If it wasn’t for the heartfelt performance provided by Downey in Marvel’s first foray into cinema, we would not have the last ten-plus years of films to enjoy.
The rest of the cast is rounded out by genuine character actors, with Terrence Howard being the biggest name (at the time) as James “Rhodey” Rhodes, Stark’s closest friend and contact in the U.S. military. Considering that Howard only served the role in the first film and Don Cheadle has been Rhodey for the remaining time (handling the role in a greater capacity than Howard did the first time around), it’s odd seeing Howard and Downey play off each other. The chemistry is there, for the most part, but there are times it feels stilted and disjointed, particularly during the scene where Stark visits Rhodey after making the announcement that Stark Industries is getting out of the weapons manufacturing business.
Gwyneth Paltrow’s turn as Pepper Potts was an interesting casting option, particularly because she was far more well-known for appearing in dramas with the occasional foray into comedies. Unlike so many female characters in the comics medium (the early interpretations of Lois Lane, for example), this version of Pepper is able to stand toe-to-toe with Tony and not back down. Rather than being in the story solely to serve as a damsel-in-distress, Pepper’s main purpose is to call Tony out on his bull and hold him accountable (for all that’s worth before his capture and injury).
Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane (aka Iron Monger) is a delight in this movie, mainly because he commits to the zanier aspects of a comic book movie with aplomb. Reserved, calculating, and bombastic at times, the only criticism I can point out is the near-madness Stane displays in the final act of the film. Outside of that, Bridges set the standard for MCU villains (that is until Thor came out in 2011) by portraying a mostly two-dimensional character. And it’s clear watching the film that Bridges was having a ball playing the villain and chewing on the scenery.
The plot of the film is now the template used for origin story films, which Marvel has only recently started veering away from (see my review of Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings). The origin story of Tony Stark being captured by terrorists and suffering a life-threatening injury to his heart was originally set during the Cold War when Stark was captured during the Vietnam War. One of the largest (highly justified) criticisms of the early Iron Man comics is its reliance on the “yellow peril” characters, which were built around stereotypical “Oriental” menaces like Wong-Chu and The Mandarin. Thankfully, Favreau avoided this entirely by setting Stark’s capture during the War on Terror in Afghanistan while setting up the Ten Rings as a way of potentially introducing The Mandarin as a later antagonist.
The strength of the origin story is Downey carrying the bulk of the film on his back, showing the first of many transformations Tony Stark would undergo throughout the character’s run in the MCU. Brought face-to-face with the cost of his war profiteering, Stark creates the Iron Man suit as both a life-saving piece of technology but also as a means of regaining control over the destiny of his company and his life’s work. While not shifting entirely to becoming a pacifist, Stark scales back his company’s primary moneymaker in favor of changing toward something more constructive. It isn’t a complete change of heart for Tony (which would take a stronger tragedy much later on) but it’s the beginning of the road for his eventual redemption from the cynical, debauched playboy that he starts off as in the first Iron Man film.