“Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave. With a box of scraps!”
If there’s a better summary of the surprising success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe than this line from Iron Man, I don’t want to hear it.
The entire multi billion dollar, 19-movie MCU was built from the unlikely foundations of Iron Man, a 2008 film based on a character that even comic-book fans didn’t care that much about, with a lead actor who’d just returned from the wilderness and in a movie landscape where dark, gritty superhero movies were the norm (Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was released the same year).
When it came to the potential of a shared hero universe, well, Marvel had sold off its most popular characters – the X-Men, Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four – during financial difficulties in the past. This left their nascent movies arm with characters who hadn’t shifted many comics in years and who would surely only suffer on screen in comparison to bigger heroes.
Fast forward 10 years, and B-characters like Black Panther and Ant-Man can command tentpole releases, while Guardians of the Galaxy – a film about a talking tree and a raccoon trying to stop a blue man getting a purple rock – is still heralded as one of the best superhero movies ever made. Suffice to say, Tony Stark built something pretty incredible in that cave.
When I recently re-watched Iron Man (directed by Jon Favreau), it was impossible not to reflect on the worldbeating franchise that had sprung from it. In fact, it’s almost funny to think of the massive intergalactic scope of Avengers: Infinity War (Marvel’s latest and 19th film) considering Iron Man doesn’t really have any action sequences for the first hour, and when it does begin to introduce them mainly just shows Robert Downey Jr blowing up random terrorists.
Compared to most modern Marvel films, it’s practically a character-led indie drama – and that’s no bad thing. One of the observations that surprised me was just how vibrant Iron Man still feels, tearing through its 2 hour 6 minute runtime with a relentlessly entertaining story sprinkled with moments of real feeling and pathos.
A lot of that is down to how remarkably fully-formed Robert Downey Jr was as Tony Stark – his is probably the most consistent performance of any MCU actor – as well as the fact that the film focuses on a simple but effective morality tale: a weapons dealer with oceans of blood on his hands finally putting himself in the firing line.
(As a contrast, it’s hard to imagine a world where Iron Man was played by Sam Rockwell, as was originally the plan – check out the video below for some other almost-Avengers).
Also – and this hardly bears repeating but I will anyway – Iron Man is really, really funny. Superhero movies hadn’t really been funny before, but try and stop them now (no please, try and stop them – there are too many quips), and a lot of that comes from just how enjoyable Iron Man’s sense of humour was in 2008.
By the end, it’s hard to miss just how obsessed with legacy Iron Man is, with various characters urging him not to waste his life, and Stark himself wondering what the sum total of his life’s work will be.
Ten years on, the state of that legacy is still in question. In Infinity War, we see that the consequence of Iron Man’s wider, more heroic world has been at worst death and destruction on a cosmic scale, and at best a society of mighty but capricious beings who may end up doing more harm than good.
Outside the Marvel universe, to many Iron Man’s legacy may seem even more nefarious, ushering in an age of endless action-packed cinema experiences (plus copycats from other studios) with a thematic and stylistic consistency that some viewers find stifling.
Still, whichever side you fall on that debate– I think the consistent quality of Marvel’s output speaks for itself – it’s impossible to deny the impact that Iron Man has had on blockbuster cinema, or that it will continue to have as Marvel begins its secretive Phase Four.
Rumour has it that Robert Downey Jr might soon be hanging up his armour as Tony Stark, but even in an Iron Man-less MCU his character’s influence will live on.
Though these days, Marvel have much more than a box of scraps to play with.