The early 2000s was not a good time for blockbuster movies. The landscape was becoming dominated by lazy franchises, and our sensibilities shifted to favor a particular type of movie, maybe as an escape from the dark and morally ambiguous reality. Movies ranging from Harry Potter to Shrek to Speed Racer all seemed to share the same qualities: cheesy and morally simple, slick and fake looking; a sensibility I like to call suspended realism.
I was pretty checked out of superhero movies at the time. Disappointment after disappointment after X-men 3, after Daredevil, after Ghostrider, after Fantastic Four had left me with little hope they would ever get it right. Everyone likes to point to Sam Raimi’s Spider-man series as the pinnacle of superhero movies, but to me it was a showcase of that 2000s era cheesiness. Even Nolan’s Batman series wouldn’t plant its feet firmly on the ground until its 2nd movie. When I heard about Iron Man, the only thing I remember thinking was “they are really scraping the bottom of the barrel now”. I would probably not have gone to see it if it weren't for the excited insistence of some friends, and I remember being generally pleased with it, although my excitement grew over time. This movie focuses so singularly on Iron Man, it’s easy to forget that this is the start of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. All the connections to the greater canon such as SHIELD or the Ten Rings serve the narrative first, and only become important as connective tissue when they are revisited by later movies. The casting of Robert Downey Jr. was brilliant but not because he was fit for the role, in fact I think that he made the role fit him. Being recently cast out from hollywood, most of us forgot Downey was a heavy hitter, sitting on the sidelines, waiting to floor us. He poured so much of his own personality into Tony Stark that the two are practically inseparable in the public consciousness, to the point that even the comic books had to adapt to him. Don't get me wrong, Downey is brilliant with his rapid stream of jokes and quips delivered in this proprietary understated manner, although his unrestrained egocentrism might have been unbearable if it weren’t being undercut by the supporting cast. It’s possible that without being forced to improvise with Downey, the rest of the supporting cast wouldn’t have felt so naturally part of the fabric of this world. But as it is, they all made great foils for Tony Stark, bringing him down from conceited to likable; a character we believe we could meet, and that is important in a movie that banks on believably.
When I hear people discuss this movie, they often talk about how well the writing or CGI is done, but I never hear anyone discuss what I think is Iron Man’s greatest strength: realism. Stark falling victim to terrorists plays off our real world fears of the time, which turns into a power fantasy when Iron Man returns and takes them out. For the first time, we are not seeing our hero beat up a mugger or stop a bank robbery, but fight what we might have considered the biggest problem in the world, delivering us some catharsis and relief from a constant anxiety we were all under. From the first scene steeped in realistic military action to the believable function of the Iron Man suits, this movie seems to want us to believe it’s happening in our world. They are constantly selling us this realism, from seeing Iron Man have to fend off attacks from american fighter jets after his assault on the terrorist camp, to the small scorch marks and scratches on the armor after he takes a tank shell to the face. This is a welcome relief from a long string of movies that needed us to imagine an entire matrix or middle earth to follow the story.
When you look back on the movie that started the MCU, it's surprising to find just how little effort was paid to establishing a shared universe. Iron Man nailed what so many franchises can’t seem to pull off these days: make a good movie first, build the universe second. Samuel L. Jackson's cameo is an exception to this, but the filmmakers decision to put it after the credits changes the scene from being part of the narrative, to an easter egg setting up Nick Fury and the idea of the Avengers. While Iron Man’s high points aren’t much higher than its predecessors, it’s low points are much higher than, for example, Blade: Trinity. Iron Man isn’t a good movie because it reinvented the wheel, it simply learned a big lesson from all the failures that came before it. It was fertilized in the shit of movies like Elektra, Hulk, and Punisher: War Zone, and sprouted a structure capable of supporting what would become a multi-billion dollar juggernaut that would define movie making for the next decade, maybe longer. 4/5
Coming up next: The Incredible Hulk (2008)