In the history of superhero movies, short as it is, there have been a number of milestones that have changed the direction these movies were going in. Superman in 1979, Batman in 1989, and X-Men and Spider-Man in the early 2000’s were some of the bigger ones. 2008 was another milestone year. Not only did superhero movies change directions that year, they actually split off and went into two different directions.
Both The Dark Knight and Iron Man came out in 2008. Both movies chose to ground their heroes in a more realistic world but the world of The Dark Knight was decidedly more dark and grim while Iron Man was more light and humorous.
Since this is specifically an Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) retrospective, we’ll be traveling down the latter path.
So, how does a small, independent film studio (because that’s what Marvel Studios was at that time) go about making a big-budget, superhero action movie? By taking a whole lot of risks. You spend money you don’t really have to hire talent like Jeff Bridges, Terrance Howard and Gwyneth Paltrow. You also take a risk by casting as your main lead a man who was on his way out of the Hollywood lime light because his life was a little too much like the character he would be portraying. And who do you get to direct this movie? Clearly the guy whose biggest movie up to this point was Elf.
The biggest benefit to being an independent studio is that they got to do what they wanted. No one was asking them to play it safe because, honestly, what did they have to lose?
In some ways, Iron Man represents a Marvel movie in its purest form. Often the MCU is criticized for being formulaic, that all of their movies follow the same pattern. Iron Man often gets lumped into the rest but the reality is that Iron Man created the formula the others follow, both for good and for ill. The formula is a mix of old tropes and news twists (which have, ironically, have become tropes themselves).
For example, having the villain be a dark version of the hero is not new to superhero stories (in fact, it connects these stories to the myths and legends of old).
Getting rid of secret identities, however, was new, especially in the movies.
Even more ambitious was starting an entire cinematic universe in which each movie wouldn’t just be a sequel to the one preceding it, but would connect to a larger world with certain themes and story arcs weaving in and out of each film. It’s an ambition a number of other movie studios have tried but none of theme have quite caught on the way the MCU has.
In the beginning, Iron Man was a risking movie put forth by a fledgling movie studio. Ten years later, that risk continues to pay off.
How do you think Robert Downey Jr has down as Tony Stark? What did you think of Iron Man when you first saw it? What do you think now?