20 Films in 10 Years: How “Iron Man” Kicked Off the MCU

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The last film I reviewed as a critic for my college paper, The Columbia Chronicle, prior to my graduation in May 2008, was Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man.” I gave it a favorable review—four out of five smiley faces—and shall never forget how it won over the crowd at a packed public screening. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect the film would spawn a 20-picture series over the next decade. With the Marvel Cinematic Universe on the precipice of breaking every box-office record known to man (and superman) in 2019, thanks to the March 8th release of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s “Captain Marvel” followed by the wildly anticipated follow-up to Anthony & Joe Russo’s “Avengers: Infinity War” on May 3rd, I decided to dust off my ten-year-old review of “Iron Man” to reflect on how it all began. It was originally published on May 12th, 2008…

Downey Jr. makes “Iron Man” live again

Director Jon Favreau’s super-picture is nearly flawless fun

When was the last time a superhero was overshadowed by his alter ego? It’s difficult to imagine an audience preferring to see a film solely about boorish billionaire Bruce Wayne or squeaky-clean geek Peter Parker. But in the case of Iron Man, the real hero is the man behind the mask, Tony Stark. With his bitingly brusque wit, whimsically carefree demeanor and spectacular self-assurance, he is the single most engaging alter ego ever brought to the screen. As played by the marvelously inventive character actor Robert Downey Jr., the unconscionable industrialist-turned-hardy humanitarian exudes such vibrantly deadpan comic timing that he might as well be renamed Tony Snark. Best of all, his heroic mission isn’t born out of bitter revenge or a lack of self-esteem—but a primal need to right the wrongs of his life.

“Iron Man” opens with the alcoholic playboy demonstrating his latest arsenal of weapons to the United States Air Force in Afghanistan. His patriotic bravado is short-lived when terrorists unleash an attack while taking Stark hostage. When he discovers the terrorists have utilized weapons manufactured by his own company, Stark comes to terms with his life-altering responsibility. Luckily, his powers are up to the challenge—when the terrorists give him the materials to assemble a missile, the super-crafty Stark instead builds a suit that transforms him into a one-man weapon, armed to combat all manslayers and warmongers around the globe. The premise couldn’t be more relevant in today’s wartime climate, where the concepts of war profiteering and zero-accountability are constantly debated.

Much of the film’s success must be attributed to director Jon Favreau, who combines the humorous spectacle of “Elf” and “Zathura” with the character-driven focus of “Swingers” and “Made.” The best scenes in “Iron Man” occur when Favreau simply allows his top-drawer cast to interact, instead of just advancing the plot. There’s a wonderful moment when Stark’s personal assistant Pepper Potts, radiantly played by Gwyneth Paltrow, performs a bizarre medical procedure on her boss that is remarkably reminiscent of the game Operation. The scene’s balance of tension and humor is complemented by the endearing screwball chemistry between Paltrow and Downey Jr. Jeff Bridges casts off his Lebowski persona, bringing ruthless deviousness to the role of Stark Industries’ longtime top executive. Terrence Howard and Shaun Toub are assigned the thankless roles of respectively being the hero’s “babysitter” and “conscience,” yet both characters emerge as more than one-note sidekicks. Toub is especially touching in the film’s crucial early passages, silently cheering on Stark as he rebels against his captors.

Once “Iron Man” gets around to the actual action, it’s great fun—for a while. Favreau thankfully doesn’t bother delving into any real explanation of Stark’s “arch-reactor technology” and focuses more on the exhilaration of hurtling through space. The film’s greatest comic chemistry actually develops between Downey Jr. and a robotic pipe that functions as a fire extinguisher when Stark is set aflame during the film’s tremendously enjoyable training sequence. Stark warns the robot that if it screws up, “I’m donating you to a city college!” There is a set-up and visual punchline between Downey Jr. and the robot that literally brought down the house. And yet, the film gradually loses steam as it heads toward a disappointingly conventional climactic showdown that lands with a thud. It’s a real letdown, since Iron Man himself is anything but conventional, and Favreau’s film has proven to be anything but a routine blockbuster.

“Iron Man”’s opening weekend gross exceeding $100 million is certainly good news for Marvel Entertainment, which is also releasing “The Incredible Hulk” in June. Yet the company risks botching its initial success by turning this string of superhero films into a cohesive franchise. A teaser scene following “Iron Man”’s credits features fellow Marvel hero Nick Fury inviting Stark to join “The Avenger’s Initiative.” Stark will later have a cameo in “Hulk.” Are these films simply a scheme by Marvel to put their roster of comic book stars into one lumbering “X-Men”-style franchise, with Iron Man fighting alongside the Hulk? Such an overstuffed enterprise would surely sap the humanity Downey Jr. and Favreau have so vividly created in this film.

Marvel had better take advice from Iron Man’s web-slinging forebear. What happens when you allow character and story to serve the action? “Spiderman 2.” What happens when you cave in to fanboy demand and chaotically crowded casting? “Spiderman 3.” The inherent appeal of “Iron Man” is encapsulated by a line Stark delivers when he’s convincing the skeptical public of his newfound epiphany: “I can do more than blow up stuff.” Hopefully Marvel takes note of the fact that in the case of this exquisite super-picture, the man is far more fascinating than the machine.

Over the next ten years, my feelings toward the franchise have fluctuated between enthusiasm and frustration, with an overarching sense of fatigue. The irony is that if Thanos obliterated half of the MCU movies with a snap of his fingers, I wouldn’t shed a tear. Here’s my current ranking of the super-pictures…

1. “Black Panther,” Ryan Coogler (2018)—The most meaningful of them all, not to mention the only one thus far I’d deem Best Picture-worthy.

2. “Iron Man,” Jon Favreau (2008)—Set the gold standard for character-driven superhero vehicles.

3. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” Anthony Russo & Joe Russo (2014)—Brilliantly crafted political thriller harkening back to Cold War classics.

4. “The Avengers,” Joss Whedon (2012)—A hugely satisfying crowd-pleaser with a dash of shawarma (also the first film to get the Hulk right).

5. “Thor: Ragnarok,” Taika Waititi (2017)—The funniest Marvel film to date.

6. “Captain America: Civil War,” Anthony Russo & Joe Russo (2016)—Basically “Batman v Superman,” only done well.

7. “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” Jon Watts (2017)—A playful charmer offering a refreshing spin on a well-worn tale.

8. “Ant-Man,” Peyton Reed (2015)—The “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” of the MCU, with Paul Rudd fitting into the title role as snugly as Downey, Jr. did with Iron Man.

9. “Captain America: The First Avenger,” Joe Johnston (2011)—Lovably old-fashioned spectacle worth the price of admission for Tommy Lee Jones’ delivery of the words “rumbly tummy.”

10. “Guardians of the Galaxy,” James Gunn (2014)—Pure irreverent exuberance.

11. “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” Peyton Reed (2018)—Unnecessary but enjoyable follow-up, providing a much needed palate cleanser after “Infinity War.”

12. “Doctor Strange,” Scott Derrickson (2016)—The effects resembling “Inception” on acid are the main attraction, along with Tilda Swinton.

13. “Iron Man 3,” Shane Black (2013)—Ben Kingsley’s frightening-turned-hilarious cameo easily upstages the Edward Nygma-esque villain.

14. “Thor,” Kenneth Branagh (2011)—Part dull origin story, part silly fish-out-of-water comedy, all utterly forgettable.

15. “Avengers: Infinity War,” Anthony Russo & Joe Russo (2018)—A dispiriting, cheaply manipulative cliffhanger.

16. “Iron Man 2,” Jon Favreau (2010)—A waste of Mickey Rourke, Garry Shandling and everyone else’s time.

17. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” James Gunn (2017)—A mopey, tiresome drag.

18. “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” Joss Whedon (2015)—I assume there’s some cut of this that works, but it was evidently lost in the editing room.

19. “Thor: The Dark World,” Alan Taylor (2013)—Tom Hiddleston is the only one having fun in this aggressively uninteresting misfire.

20. “The Incredible Hulk,” Louis Leterrier (2008)—Sorry folks, not even Edward Norton can make us take the Hulk seriously on film.

So yeah, there are more good movies in the series than bad ones, but honestly, I prefer “Logan” to all of them. James Mangold’s non-MCU Wolverine vehicle from last year has the best action, the deepest emotional impact and, like “Black Panther,” benefits immensely from the lack of expositional, story-interlocking baggage. Less overstuffed ensembles and more standout standalone pictures, please.

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