In another semi regular feature, I’m going to be taking a retrospective look at films that I’ve not watched for a number of years and re-evaluating them. This first one takes a look at Robert Downey Jr’s first outing as Marvel’s armoured hero, Iron Man.
Take yourself back to 2008, before the words Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) were a thing that the general public recognised. At that time, comic book movies were a bit of a niche thing. Superman Returns had tanked two years before, the X-Men series was in decline following the disastrous third film and, the year before, Rise of the Silver Surfer had nailed the lid of Fox’s Fantastic Four franchise firmly shut (although we’re all tentatively waiting to see what Josh Trank has done with his re imagined F4 film launching later this year). Marvel were about to take a big gamble; releasing a summer tentpole film based on a character who wasn’t particularly well known, into an environment where films about superhero’s were getting rather tired, starring an actor who’s superstar status had very much fallen. No one could have predicted what would happen next…
It’s certainly interesting going back and watching Iron Man in 2015, after Marvel followed it up with films about a whole host of other heroes including Norse Gods, time displaced Super Soldiers and even alien mercenaries from far off galaxies. The fact that they’ve managed to keep a strong narrative connection to all these disparate concepts, intrinsically linking them through shared ideas and McGuffins, managing to pull all of the big name actors they star together for a big ballyhoo every few years (Avengers: Age of Ultron is still in cinemas, folks!) and only really having two major recastings (Mark Ruffalo taking over from Ed Norton as Bruce Banner, and Don Cheadle taking over the reins of Jim Rhodes/War Machine from Terrence Howard) is testament to the sheer bloody minded determination of producer Kevin Fiege. The MCU is probably one of the most important cinema events of the last ten years and it continues to go from strength to strength.
But Iron Man, viewed as a singular entity, without the hindsight of the continuity with other films and ignoring the franchise sparking post credit sting where Samuel L. Jackson crops up as Nick Fury, is still a surprisingly strong and confident film. The biggest strength lies in director John Favreau, the man Marvel tasked with kick starting their film series and who still has a presence to this day in his role as Happy Hogan; his encouragement of ad-lib lends the film a light-and-loose tone. It’s an approach to direction that lets Robert Downey Jr’s dry wit shine through and he really makes the lead character of Tony Stark/Iron Man his own.
The cast as a whole is a gem to watch, with Gwynneth Paltrow and Terrence Howard riffing brilliantly off the dominating presence of Downey Jr; only Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane seems to be playing things straight (indeed, Bridges was famously uncomfortable with the amount of ad-libbing that went on, preferring to stick to the script) but that only adds to his character.
As an origin tale, the story tells you everything you need to know about the character; arrogant millionaire arms manufacturer is held hostage in Afghanistan, vows never to sell another weapon and develops a suit of armour to help him fight the terrorists that incarcerated him. It is, perhaps, less adventurous than some of the other MCU films, but it sets up the world wonderfully with a fairly grounded concept; like Batman, Iron Man has no super powers of his own, instead relying on his vast swathes of money and technical knowhow to put together a suit capable of helping him fight crime. The difference being that, where Batman is a mopey, slightly anti-hero, Stark is a fun loving guy with a sense of humour; and that’s the most important factor in Iron Man. It’s a fun movie, the script is full of wit and charm; it’s no surprise it found a mainstream audience and its performance at the box office certainly cemented the future of Marvel’s franchises.
It’s hard to find something to complain about, but what is perhaps surprising is the soundtrack. As the MCU films have gone on the characters have developed their own recognisable themes. By comparison, the score here by Ramin Djawadi plays things very safe, delivering a mix of strings and rock guitar. There are a couple of moments where an identifiable theme nearly breaks through (one of the refrains in particular seems to have been used as a starting point for the soundtracks in the second and third films) but it’s very standard fare, there merely to hold up the action on screen.
Iron Man is a great, fun movie to revisit and an entertaining film to watch in isolation of the rest of the Marvel canon.