Published on April 20th, 2015 | by Swamp Thing0
MCU Retrospective Review – Iron Man (2008)
Year of Release: 2008
Film Number: 1
Budget: $140 million
Box Office Takings: $585.1 million
Director: Jon Favreau
Written By: Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway
Iron Man: The Stark Reality
First off, as this is a retrospective review of a seven year old film, posted on a website whose target audience is unlikely to have waited seven years to watch a film adapted from a popular comic, I’m going to assume that you’ve seen Iron Man the movie.
If you haven’t, just assume that what follows is one big spoiler.
In January 1959, Atlas Comics began a new title called Tales of Suspense. an anthology series of science fiction mystery and suspense stories written primarily by editor-in-chief Stan Lee. From issue #19, Tales of Suspense was published under the Marvel banner. Issue #39 saw the first appearance of a new Marvel superhero, Iron Man, and for me that’s when things got interesting. Tales of Suspense ran until issue #99, and from issue #58 onwards Iron Man was joined by the newly revived 1940s character Captain America, the title becoming a ‘split comic’ with the two heroes alternating lead and backup stories. As both characters became popular enough to warrant their own titles, Tales of Suspense was retitled as Captain America at issue #100 in April 1968. In May of that year, Iron Man made his solo debut in The Invincible Iron Man #1.
A fan of the man in the metal suit for more years than I’m ever going to admit to, I was naturally excited when news of an impending Iron Man movie became more than a vague rumour in 2007. Marvel’s plans of a full suite of Avengers movies had been dealt a blow by the lacklustre response to 2003’s Hulk, and Spider-Man 3 hadn’t performed as well as expected, so considerable hope of renewed box-office success was being piled onto Iron Man’s broad metal shoulders. By Marvel standards the build-up to Iron Man’s release was relatively low-key, perhaps a lesson learned from the over-hyping of the Hulk, and generally fan response was very positive to the casting decisions, particularly the one that put Robert Downey Jr. into the ferrous onesie. With names like Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeff Bridges also being linked with the project it began to sound like somebody somewhere was taking Iron Man’s big screen debut seriously. It wan’t going to hurt that the comic happened to be riding a wave of renewed interest and popularity, so by the time the movie premiered in April 2008 there was more than enough excitement about it to guarantee decent opening weekend box-office.
Iron Man: Origin and Fashion Choices.
As this is an article about the Marvel Cinematic Universe we’ll keep references to the comic to a minimum. Apart from this bit. And some other bits later. Hell, who am I kidding? I’m going to be drawing comparisons between the comic and the film every chance I get.
The movie version of Iron Man’s origin actually remains pretty faithful to the story told in Tales of Suspense #39. There are the usual changes to allow for stories written in the 1960s to be more resonant with a modern audience – in Iron Man’s case that meant shifting the initial action from Vietnam to Afghanistan – and the cherry-picking of story elements from the next fifty-odd years of the character’s history. A comic character’s first movie is always the one that falls under the greatest scrutiny from the fans because the origin story is hallowed ground that needs to be trod with care. Thankfully for Iron Man’s movie incarnation, the origin story from the comic was pure cinema to begin with. As in the comic, Downey’s Tony Stark is a brilliant and wealthy self-absorbed playboy industrialist who likes a drink in his hand and a girl on his arm, and it’s not surprising that comparisons between Downey’s own lifestyle choices and those of the character he plays appeared in the media almost from the moment he was cast.
So, Iron Man’s beginnings run along pretty much the same lines for both the comic and movie: Tony Stark is critically injured whilst being captured by terrorists, and with the help of a brilliant scientist and fellow captive, Dr. Ho Yinsen (played by Shaun Toub), has to construct a metal suit in order to escape. In both versions, metallic shrapnel fragments close to Stark’s heart mean that he has to keep a powerful electromagnet strapped to his chest. In the comic this is the entire chest plate of the suit, meaning that Stark has to become Iron Man in order to stay alive. In the movie, a small arc-reactor does the same job and the suit is merely the means of escape. In both versions, Yinsen sacrifices himself to buy time for Stark to get the suit running. Also in both versions, the first Iron Man suit is a clunky grey affair constructed from whatever materials were at hand.
In the movie, that first suit (usually referred to as the MKI armour) doesn’t survive Stark’s escape. In the comic, it lasted only one issue, being replaced in Tales of Suspense #40 by a gold version (though the same clunky design). The reason for this gold respray in the comic was to make the suit less terrifying for the public at large. The familiar red and gold (MKIII) streamlined armour didn’t make its appearance until Tales of Suspense #48 (the creation of Marvel legend Steve Ditko). The film wisely skips the gold variant (usually referred to as the MKII armour or the ‘Golden Avenger’ suit), and has its own version of the MKII (an entirely silver version of the streamlined MKIII armour).
But does it fly?
So comic comparisons aside (briefly), how does the movie stand up in its own right? From the opening sequences, it’s clear that this is Robert Downey Jr’s show. He manages to take a wholly unlikeable character and give him a charm that the comic never managed to convey convincingly. The scenes with Stark’s long suffering assistant Pepper Potts (a by-the-numbers performance from Gwyneth Paltrow) and the interplay between Stark and his computerized assistant J.A.R.V.I.S (voiced by Paul Bettany) could easily have just been filler between the numerous action sequences, but the dialogue, and Downey’s sparkling delivery of it, keep the interest levels ticking over nicely for those scenes when the metal suit stays in the wardrobe. But as you’d expect, there’s action aplenty when Stark gets into costume. Much of that action is served with a sizable dollop of humour, playing to Downey’s strengths again, particularly the scenes in which Stark is modifying and testing his armour. Within ten minutes it’s hard to imagine that any other actor could ever have played Anthony Edward Stark.
As with any modern superhero movie, the actors can only do so much. Tony Stark needs a good actor to sell him; Iron Man needs great effects. Thankfully on the whole he gets them. The CGI is well executed and seamless. The fight sequences are pacey and suitably explosive. Only when Iron Man takes to the air are you reminded that you’re watching number-crunched pixels flying around inside a computer.
As for plot, the movie breaks down into four sections. The origin, beginning with the explosion that opens the film and ending with Stark’s escape and return to the U.S.A. As part of this sequence we get a 36 hour flashback covering the events leading up to Stark getting blown up in Afghanistan. We also get, courtesy of a slightly clunky award ceremony scene, a potted Tony Stark life history and a succession of scenes designed to verify Tony Stark’s credentials as a super-wealthy super-arrogant playboy with no ethical concerns about Stark Industries’ role as a leading weapons manufacturer. We work our way back to where we came in when Stark travels to Afghanistan to personally demonstrate his newest weapon design, the Jericho missile.
Raza (Faran Tahir), leader of the terrorists who capture Stark, is an updated version of the original Vietnamese comic character Wong-Chu, and is efficiently unpleasant in his desire to get Stark to construct a Jericho for him. Yinsen’s death during Stark’s escape is handled well and without too much saccharin sentiment, and the action set-piece introducing the makeshift Iron Man armour is perhaps the best of the film’s many action set pieces.
Then we have the development phase, in which Stark refines his armour and tries to reinvent himself and his company. Much of this is played for laughs, and the need to fit in a lot of plot in a little time means that Stark’s conversion from uncaring arms dealer to magnanimous defender of, well, everything, has to happen at a pace that doesn’t allow for much exposition. There’s no doubt that a near-death experience of your own making (the shrapnel close to his heart comes from a weapon manufactured by Stark Industries) will change you, but Stark’s epiphany is too big to swallow comfortably.
Then comes the revenge, in which Stark, as Iron Man, returns to Afghanistan to finish what he’d started during his escape and avenge Yinsen’s death. The Ten Rings have acquired Stark Industries weaponry and are using them to attack Yinsen’s home village. Another huge action set-piece and the first chance to see the classic red and gold armour in action, and it doesn’t disappoint. On his flight home, Iron Man is engaged by two F-22 Raptors, and perhaps because this sequence is entirely CGI it doesn’t hold up quite as well as the more ground-based action. It’s still a stunning action sequence, it’s just slightly more difficult to suspend disbelief in the flying scenes when the man in a metal suit isn’t either a man or a metal suit. For all of the advances in motion capture and CGI in recent years there’s still no substitute for a bloke doing a bit of hardcore cosplay.
The chains that link these story segments are Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), Stark’s business partner and chief opponent to Stark’s new vision for his company, and Stark’s friendship with Col. James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes (Terrance Howard). It’s Rhodes who becomes Stark’s chief ally in his ‘secret project’, and Stane who is revealed to be the orchestrator of the attack on Stark in Afghanistan. Stane had hired the terrorist group known as the Ten Rngs to capture and kill Stark, allowing him to take control of Stark Enterprises. With the failure of that plan, Stane eliminates the Ten Rings and recovers the remains of the Iron Man armour Stark built in captivity. Using this armour as a guide, Stane creates his own armoured suit, generally known as the Iron-Monger (a phrase Stane uses to describe himself at one point in the movie). To power it, Stane paralyzes Stark and steals the arc reactor from his chest, leaving him to die. Luckily, Stark has kept his original reactor around as a souvenir (that’s handy) and is able to get to it before his dicky ticker beats its last.
A larger and more powerful version of Stark’s original armour, The Iron-Monger, with Stark’s improved reactor at its core, is more than a match for Iron Man. Eventually it falls to Pepper Potts to add her insubstantial weight to the fight and defeat the Iron-Monger by causing Stark Industries’ large arc reactor to overload after Iron Man has lured Stane onto the roof above it.
Whilst the Stane sub-plot works well and integrates smoothly into the (slightly) reimagined Iron Man origin story, it is perhaps to the movie’s detriment that the final battle amounts to Iron Man .vs. Bigger Iron Man, but I can see the appeal to the filmmakers of keeping things simple where the villain was concerned when there was so much plot in there already. Still, I can’t help but think that the film was worthy of a better denouement than two CGI metal suits slugging it out.
Haven’t we met before?
Fans of the comic would have spotted the reference to one of Iron Man’s first regular enemies, The Mandarin, in the name of the terrorist organization in the movie; The Mandarin’s power came from ten mystical rings that he wore. Obadiah Stane is also a character from the comics, though he didn’t appear until Iron Man #163 in 1982, and not in the Iron-Monger armour until #200. The movie version of Stane is more closely linked to Stark than the comic version (in the comic he’s a rival businessman rather than a family friend and colleague).
James Rhodes first appeared in Iron Man #118. Pepper Potts and Stark’s chauffeur ‘Happy’ Hogan (played by director Jon Favreau) are long-timers, having first appeared in Tales of Suspense #45, back when Iron Man was still kicking about in his clunky gold suit. As an aside, it’s that gold suit that is Iron Man’s garb of choice when he makes his first Avengers appearance in Avengers #1 in 1963. And as an aside to the aside, it’s also worth remembering that Captain America was re-launched alongside Iron Man in Tales of Suspense, and both Black Widow and Hawkeye started out as enemies for Iron Man in his early stories.
Things to Come
To set up the later films, both Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) of S.H.I.E.L.D appear in Iron Man. Coulson gets a couple of scenes to introduce S.H.I.E.L.D, and also gives Stark a cover story to use at a press conference at the end of the movie to explain Iron Man’s existence and his link to Tony Stark. The ‘cover story’ is the one that was used in the early days of Iron Man’s comic appearances in Tales of Suspense, which is that Iron Man is Stark’s bodyguard. At the last moment Stark rejects the story and announces to the world that he is Iron Man (something that he has done more than once in the comic). Nick Fury makes a more enigmatic appearance at the death (post end-credits) to tell Stark of the existence of ‘The Avengers Initiative’. The inclusion of James Rhodes in Iron Man suggests that other elements of the Stane story arc from the comics are in the offing, including Stark’s descent into alcoholism and Rhodey’s turn in the metal suit. We were going to have to wait until Iron Man 2 in 2010 to find out.
The bit at the end that tells you how good I think the film was.
So as a fan of the character, what is my personal opinion of Iron Man the movie? It’s not perfect by any means, but at least in part its problems are due to the need to get through a lot of plot and character introductions in a relatively short time. I would have preferred a different villain, but the use of Stane does lead in well to other story elements from the later Iron Man stories, and frankly most of the early villains in the comics were a bit pants by modern standards. The Crimson Dynamo, Doll Man or The Melter weren’t going to cut it, and Black Widow’s not the same character today as she was in those early appearances. Stane’s weakness as a villain is that there can be no empathy for him. He’s no Doc Octopus or Magneto; he’s just a bad, greedy man and that’s as much motivation as he’s given.
Acting honours have to go to Robert Downey Jr. who gives a performance above and beyond what would normally be considered adequate for a comic adaptation. His performance is surprisingly nuanced and he does a decent job of portraying Stark’s complex character, and those nuances manage to find their way through the hail of bullets and deafening explosions he shares much of his screen time with.
Terrence Howard as Rhodey also does an excellent job with the screen time he gets (though apparently others weren’t so happy about it and sadly he was replaced for Iron Man 2). Shaun Toub’s Yinsen also deserves a mention, and his screentime with Downey during the crucial origin sequence sets the bar pretty high for the rest of the supporting cast. Gwyneth Paltrow does what she needs to, but there are moments when she and Jeff Bridges seem to be on auto-pilot, particularly in their ‘moustachioed villain and damsel in distress’ scenes together. Paltrow’s scenes with Downey are better and there is evidently some chemistry there, but the larger contribution again comes from Downey. Other reviewers have made very positive noises about Jeff Bridges’ ‘menacing’ performance but I have to say I didn’t read it that way. Bridges is a seasoned and wonderful actor, and he can play such a one-dimensional character as Obadiah Stane in his sleep, and for me there are times when he seems to be doing exactly that.
Jon Favreau’s direction keeps the film moving at an impressive pace, increasing to breakneck during the action set-pieces, but he also manages to slow things down enough for the more ‘serious’ scenes like Yinsen’s death without causing whiplash (pun intended). The few moments of slapstick during the armour testing sequences are perhaps his weakest area, and there are times when the physical comedy could have grated and felt forced, but on the whole Downey’s skill salvages those scenes.
The effects are generally excellent, but Downey doesn’t allow himself to be overpowered by them, and there’s still a degree of human story to be found in all of the action (though some of that humanity feels a bit rushed in places). Most importantly from a fan standpoint, the story sticks to the comic pretty closely, even allowing for the cherry picking of later story arcs. There really can’t be any complaints about that as the original Iron Man stories were written in the early 1960s at the height of the cold war, and the world has moved on a tad since then. Stan Lee has stated that he regrets giving Iron Man’s initial stories such a heavily anti-communist focus. Some fans have made unhappy noises about the replacement of Jarvis, Stark’s very human servant, with J.A.R.V.I.S the artificial intelligence, but at this point do we need another billionaire non-superpowered superhero with an elderly butler? And anyway, Paul Bettany manages to make a sarcastic computer sound believable.
Given that it was always intended to be the first in a lengthy sequence of movies, it’s surprising how ‘wrapped’ Iron Man feels, and you do wonder if Marvel might have pulled the plug on the series had Iron Man not performed at the box-office. The Incredible Hulk was already in the can and was released only a few weeks after Iron Man, but that film was always going to be made as Marvel wanted to do something to cleanse the palate of Ang Lee’s inedible Hulk. As it was there was to be another Iron Man movie before ‘The First Avenger’ polished his shield or a certain norse god picked up his hammer.
Avengers fans will no doubt be thankful that Iron Man flew, as am I.