Thursday, April 25, 2019

How Iron Man (2008) Changed Superhero Movies Forever

Superhero movies weren't new when Iron Man strolled onto the scene in 2008. Superman had been fighting kryptonite since 1976. Throughout the 1990s to early 2000s went either straight-to-video (Captain America and The Death of the Incredible Hulk) or were on their third sequels (X-Men, Spider-Man). Though Christopher Nolan's Batman overshadowed 2008 with The Dark Knight, a string of lukewarm movies (Daredevil, Fantastic Four, and Ghost Rider) made the superhero genre seem less and less like a gamble worth betting on.

But fast-forward ten years from 2008, and generations have grown up knowing and loving the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it. With a slew of characters and multiple spin-offs on the way, Iron Man is where it all started and where it changed everything, and where it seems to remain as one of the most underrated Marvel films.

Rewind the clock back to when Iron Man was in development, and Marvel Studios wasn't in formation yet. Their projects that had been released were primarily sold as rights to various studios who could do with the story that they liked - which meant no established formula or control. Stuck between Iron Man and The Hulk as their main ideas to get off the ground, the future of director Jon Favereau, Marvel's current studio head Kevin Feige, and its original studio head Avi Arad had great ideas that they were hedging everything on. Any plans for The Avengers was a pipe dream, but slowly things came together for their little-movie-that-could-possibly change everything - Terrence Howard and Mel Gibson lobbied for Robert Downey Jr who was five years out of rehab for substance abuse, and the Powers That Be found the means to get the film made with Favereau as director.

As popular as he is now, Tony Stark was beloved by hardcore comic book fans in the beginning. He was popular, yes, but not exactly as well known as DC’s rivals Superman and Batman who had a familiar reputation with general moviegoers. Stark wasn’t the most popular, nor the most overlooked, but he turned out to be the right genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist to ignite the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

However, the production had to a lot of battles to climb. Namely, even after being greenlit, the movie was still a do-it-yourself project of sorts. The film didn't even have a script as thirty screenwriter passed on the project. To pull the film together, details were influenced by the comic books and real life. An example, the infamous scene where Tony Stark requests a Burger King cheeseburger after coming out of captivity links to Robert Downey Jr described eating a disgusting Burger King meal while high as the lowest point in life. The film's nooks and cranniesare a mishmash of lighbulb moments on-set to carve an interesting action flick, make practical and CGI effects as real as possible, and try to tell the best story that could draw in general moviegoers and the passionate comic book fans.

None of these elements comes across in the final film, or sometimes the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we see it now. We hear Captain Marvel, Black Panther, and Avengers: Endgame taking in billions of dollars and chalk it up as being a regular success of the twenty-two film franchise. However, the idea that Iron Man could churn out Captain America, and Thor, and The Avengers to weave all these different characters together were a beacon to shoot towards.

In looking back at Iron Man, the production behind Marvel's first entry is as important as what we see on the screen. What the film unfolds in its story and performances is not just a game-changer in Hollywood, but one of the best superhero movies period.

To get a general sense of Tony Stark, one only has to look at the film's brilliant opening, and then sit back and enjoy the rest of the ride of his arc. Having just come off another successful sales pitch for his weapons development sector – one that he touted that the bad guys wouldn’t even want to come out of their caves to attack – Stark lulls back in the fun-hum-vee making light with soldiers before they’re all attacked with his own weapons. He’s promptly kidnapped by terrorists in Afghanistan and uses his brains to invent the brawns for his escape.

Stark is a man who has everything and nothing – industry awards he hands off to total strangers, buying Jackson Pollock's painting “because he needs them” and promptly putting them in storage, letting his assistant Pepper Potts taking out the trash (a journalist he slept with the night before). Captured alongside Ho Yinsen (brilliantly played by Shaun Toub, a scientist who removed the shrapnel from his heart and hooked him up to a car battery, Stark and Yinsen have a very important week ahead of them to deceptively create a mini-arc reactor to keep Tony alive and their escape plan. Having cashed in on war profiteering for most of his life and excusing it with the company’s philanthropic efforts, Stark’s perspective of his life’s work is altruistically and ego-centrically transformed once he sees his weapons in real action against himself and civilians in Afghanistan – if anyone can create change, the safest hands should be his own.

That said, Iron Man’s journey to becoming a superhero is filled with ironies both in the story and the timeline it was set. The film itself is not political-centered, but it'd be hard to ignore the influence of the Bush administration Released seven years after 9/11, the story flavors the anxiety of The War Against Afghanistan/Iraq/Iran to blend anti-war and pro-military stances, and also avoiding a clear stance on one or the other. It avoids being 'Hollywood putting itself on a pedestal via politics' while running the gamut of tried and true stereotypes of Middle Eastern terrorists and the All American soldiers liberating small countries during the War on Terror. It's unfortunately still not a stereotype that Hollywood has shaken off, as Iron Man tried to craft a realistic yet imaginary-enough setting that you could still escape into and not "overburdened" by real-world politics.

If the story is put to the test first against its counterparts, Iron Man is all about Stark figuring out the limits of his innovations, re-evaluating his own rules and then breaking them. As his origin story, and a driving thread in the films to follow, Stark likes to believe in his own image and the ideal of himself as the “genius”. The company that has zero accountability reflects his own personal inability to take accountability for his own privilege and fuels him as an individual before meeting the Avengers. From shutting down his company before getting the board’s approval to making his own suit and avenging civilians, to announcing to the world that he is Iron Man when he was told to keep quiet, Stark goes off-script whenever he pleases. His inability to play well with others grows from the sketchy start of teaming up with The Avengers to creating Ultron because of his gut instincts that the Earth needs to be defend by more than Hyrda soldiers, and falling in line with the Accords because of his own bruised ego. Similar to Captain America: The First Avenger, which offered a well of ideas for The Star Spangled Man in all his subsequent appearances, the first Iron Man gives Stark a lot to work with just for his own movie as well as his future. Between Stark’s kidnapping and being forced to create his own suit to squaring off against his mentor all over Los Angeles, it’s impossible to not feel the sheer excitement of Marvel’s early years when Stark defiantly declares: He Is Iron Man.

As a character to uphold the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and gradually pass the paton from one spin-off to another, Stark works primarily as the division’s godfather because his movie is damn good, but also because of Robert Downey Jr. His antics throughout the entire Marvel franchise has transferred as a mentor of sorts with a calling card of sharp bitterness and priceless one-liners. Downey has an uncanny ability to emphasize the slightest phrases and make it sound look effortless. The initial script itself gives Stark a balance of hilarious as well as humorous scenes, letting Downey tow the line between arrogant to the point of absolutely obnoxious or the ultimate poster boy of cool rich guy who men want to be and women want to be with.

Alongside Downey are fellow actors who aren’t necessarily the first people to come to mind when we used to think about superhero movies. Stark is surrounded by characters who try to keep him on a leash, but know it's probably fruitless - Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow) serves as "the assistant to Stark / and possible love interest" but evokes a lot of charm, humility, and pushback that gives their working relationship the possibility of them becoming something more. Standing in as the best friend sidekick is Terrance Howard as the original and more personable Rhodey (sorry Don Cheadle) who takes his military service more seriously than his own life. The main villain comes from the unlikiest of places with Obidiah played by Jeff Bridges. Sporting a bald head and sharp suits strolling on a cigar dangling out of his mouth (a scene that made me feel 1000% alive as a 13 year old and still does), his role as mentor-turned-traitor isn't entirely revolutionary but still informs the weight of Tony's lack of fatherly figure that his arc evolves around.

A great credit for the success of the MCU goes to director Jon Faverau and what the writers could come up with on the fly. Blending in action and drama almost seamlessly, the movie doesn't serve too much brevity to make the audiences constantly laughing in order to put Stark's sense of humor on display. Without missing a beat, the story can be ironic as Stark presents his new Jericho missile to the military like gifts on Christmas morning and saluting “peace” to establishing the faultiness of his own swagger like barely managing to test his new suits around his workstation filled with priceless cars before deciding he can fly and hilariously crashing on top of them. Before Marvel had to force its spin-offs to include post-credit scenes that shattered the feel of their own stories (looking at you poor Ant-Man and the Wasp), Iron Man ingeniously worked in Agent Coulson and S.H.I.E.L.D. when the franchise didn't even know if it had a future. The creation of post-credit scenes sparked the idea that behind this one adventure we had just seen in theatres, there was something great on the horizon for other superheroes like him. What a bold choice it was to start the legacy of all of the follow-up films Stark-related or not.

Iron Man itself is not just an origin film, but a resurrection for a genre that was heading down a steep hill on the verge of being forgettable. On its own, Iron Man takes a look at a guy who creates his own superpowers. But somehow it manages to look outward towards the future of where the franchises could go. Towards the third act of the film, Tony must smash the glass box that encases his initial arc reactor heart in order to save himself. Remarkably, looking back, the scene reflects the own glass ceiling Iron Man inevitably makes for itself and the Marvel Cinematic Universe that’s about to follow in its footsteps to infinity and beyond.

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