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Iron Man (2008)

Rating: **** out of 4

"I never got to say goodbye to my father. There’s questions I would’ve asked him. I would’ve asked him how he felt about what his company did, if he was conflicted, if he ever had doubts. Or maybe he was every inch the man we remember from the newsreels. I saw young Americans killed by the weapons I created to defend them and protect them. And I saw that I had become part of a system that is comfortable with zero accountability… I had my eyes opened. I came to realize that I had more to offer this world than just making things blow up.” - Tony Stark

“I shouldn’t be alive… unless it was for a reason. I’m not crazy, Pepper. I just finally know what I have to do. And I know in my heart that it’s right.” – Tony Stark

“I am Iron Man.” – Tony Stark

“You think you’re the only superhero in the world? Mr. Stark, you’ve become part of a bigger universe. You just don’t know it yet.” - Nick Fury

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Leslie Bibb.

Writers: Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway.

Director: Jon Favreau

In May of 2008, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) kicked off with the delightful, engaging and charismatic film that would rocket the budding studio into a whole ‘nother stratosphere. That film was Iron Man. This was a strange film to launch a new studio with. While the character had always been a mainstay of the comics, he had waned in popularity in the decades leading up to his cinematic debut (especially after the cinematic successes of X-Men and Spider-Man). In all honesty, the film probably shouldn’t have worked with how much was stacked against it. It was a film based around a second-tier (at that point) hero, starring a man who had fizzled from the screen based on his torrid actions with substance abuse, made by an unproven studio, by a director who had never tackled a subject of such scale before. And yet, the film is a perfect confluence of elements that equated to cinematic perfection.

What ultimately works best with the film is that you underestimate it, much like the character himself. Your expectations tell you what you are to get from this film and in many ways, it delivers but it also flips your expectations back at you and fun, lively and exhilarating ways. Tony Stark is not Bruce Wayne, however the two may resemble each other. Both are womanizing, billionaires who fight injustice as they see it. While Wayne transforms the pain from his tragic past into a superhero, Stark is a monster of his own making; a theme that will drive the series through three full Phases of the MCU. Stark is a weapons manufacturer who is mortally wounded when his weapons fall into the wrong hands. After surviving the incident with a nifty magnetic device that keeps his heart alive, he uses his own wherewithal to Frankenstein a suit of armor to allow for his escape from the people who hold him captive. After escaping, he streamlines this suit of armor into the perfect, wearable, mechanized weapon which he uses to strip the world of the weapons he created in the first place. What makes Tony Stark’s Iron Man unique is that he is not a morose hero or self-pitying as Batman, Spider Man, recent incarnations of Superman and many of the X-Men are. Every time he begins to tread this trope, he subverts and uses his humor to deflect. It is, of course, a façade but not one we are privy to until later films.

The film’s humor and general sense of fun really help it to rise above its cinematic brethren and all of that stems from how charismatic Tony Stark is. As the sequel will vocalize, can you think of a better Phoenix metaphor than Robert Downey Jr.’s return to the big screen as Tony Stark? His ownership of this role is absolutely unparalleled. Together, he and director Jon Favreau developed a screen hero who is deeply flawed, at times loathsome in his actions and yet so refreshingly likable to the point where you can’t get enough of him. What they understand is that it is the weight of his own humanity that makes Stark work, but there is also nothing wrong with having fun while you save the world.

Filling out the cast nicely are Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrance Howard and Jeff Bridges, all of whom share tremendous chemistry and all share in what makes the film gel. Favreau’s unique decision to film the picture like a Robert Altman movie--often going off book rather than adhering to a script that would have certainly been rife with convention—adds to that layer of unexpected quality. The film has a realism that is inescapable, which is unusual for what is essentially a sci-fi/actioner. But this technique adds a weight of believability that would not have been there otherwise. It grounds the film in ways other superhero films never could.

Also, peppered about the film are lovely visual homages from various stages of Iron Man and Marvel comics lore that is sure to have fanboys in feverish excitement. Adding further texture to an already great film is Ramin Djawadi's exuberant score that drives the picture in great ways.

Structurally, the film follows the footsteps of Batman Begins by starting in the present and then delving backwards to witness how the hero arises and then spends the second half of the picture letting that hero emerge publicly and face down the Big Bad. I feel that it works a lot better in this film for two reasons. Firstly, Stark’s character arc doesn’t stop once he becomes Iron Man, which was a fatal flaw with Christopher Nolan’s beloved film. No, Stark continues to learn and grow well after he accepts the proverbial call to action. He is also not a man deserving of hero status from the forefront and spending the time with him wading the waters of his character flaws is an enriching experience. Secondly, the film allows for the audience to have fun with what they are watching as Stark experiences it. Watching him take flight for the first time was a delight and you are thrust into the same sense of excitement that Stark is. This is something not present in many superhero films (even later MCU titles).

There are really very few flaws with the film. It slows a bit in its pacing once the villain emerges. A big criticism of the film is that a movie of this ilk is only as good as its villain and the villain here is arguably lack-luster. I say arguably because I personally don’t feel that about this film. Iron Monger works for me because of his relationship to Tony and subsequently his father, Howard Stark. He is well performed and characterized believably. However, I concede that he is nowhere on the same level as Heath Ledger’s Joker or Aaron Eckhart’s Two-Face who both graced the screen a mere two months after this film in The Dark Knight. Comparatively, Iron Monger is light weight and fails to offer the theatricality of Joker or texture of Two-Face’s villainy. So, I get the criticism. However, I am not one to judge the superhero film on its Big Bads, but rather the hero and the quality of the morality play as it unfolds. This stands as both one of the strongest, and most entertaining of the genre and is still the gold standard that most MCU movies are held to today.

Stick through those credits? What we glimpsed was a tease and a promise for the future and thus kicked off the start to the first Phase in the MCU. This was not just a simple one-off movie; no, this was the start of a complete universe of shared stories. By having Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury tease the formation of The Avengers, audiences were told that this was just one story of many stories that would one day coalesce into something grand and unique…and man what a movie it would turn out to be.

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