Dissecting the MCU: Ten Years With Marvel
Iron Man- 2008
We are beginning my series called “Dissecting The MCU: Ten Years of Marvel.” A column that will celebrate the accomplishments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I don’t think many will think I’m crazy when I say this, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe is full of accomplishments, some good and some bad. When Kevin Feige launched this massive franchise, this series of films that would jump between characters, release dates and even studios (rarely), he changed the business forever. Those changes come with positive and negative outcomes. It’s great that Hollywood started taking the idea of a shared universe seriously, the idea that superpowered individuals co-exist in the same universe. An idea that’s been in comics since the beginning of the medium. Before the MCU, we fanboys would argue over an “X-Men” movie having too many characters in it, so you better believe that it was ballsy that a man was planning to jumpstart several film franchises that culminated into a super-movie featuring the leads from these various franchises. We had never seen anything like it before, and its still unbelievable that Feige pulled it off. Here’s the rub though, he did his job so well that now, every studio needs their shared universe. But hey, that’s a different discussion for a different day, let’s get into our look back at the MCU.
Of course, we starting with “Iron Man,” the movie that started it all. Not only did it start the biggest film franchise in years, not only did it put into motion the first true shared universe on a film screen, it re-started the career of Robert Downey Jr. We are all pretty familiar with Robert Downey Jr.’s story at this point. I remember discussing his casting of Iron Man to my brother when the news first broke. My brother was a huge comic reader, and pretty much got into comics in the first place. When I told him, who was going to play Iron Man, he laughed and said that he’d hardly have to do any acting. It’s the brutal truth though, Robert Downey Jr. had an addictive problem to possibly every vice the average Joe gets addicted to, and it kept him out of the limelight for a long time. A once prominent face in Hollywood fell out of touch with the rest of the world. He thankfully, eventually sobered up. And he actually began acting again before “Iron Man” in 2008. But the movies he was in didn’t work, they didn’t bring him back to superstardom. I often wondered if he’d be the actor he was in the 1980’s and before.
Robert Downey Jr. has to thank Feige and Marvel every single night in his prayers. Because the chance he was given not only restarted his career, but made him a key face in the hottest, most trending film franchise running right now. I am sure Feige and Marvel are equally thanking Robert Downey Jr. in their prayers. Casting good old RDJ at the time was a huge gamble, a gamble that paid off for them. Yes, Sam Rockwell, who would eventually appear in the Iron Man sequel was considered. Yes, even Tom Cruise was considered. I am sure both of those guys could have delivered a fun Iron Man movie. But, and this wasn’t known at the time, but Robert Downey Jr not only put a new face on this franchise, but he set the tone for the entire franchise moving forward. Had Tom Cruise got the gig, the MCU would look incredibly different today. A film critic I highly respect once said that if Robert Downey Jr. didn’t get Iron Man, Chris Pratt doesn’t get Star-Lord, and honestly that makes startling sense to me. Robert Downey Jr. set the stage for what audiences could expect from this franchise, and it Marvel lucked out that “Iron Man” became such a huge hit. Robert Downey Jr. was beyond perfect for the role. We don’t get too many instances where it feels like an actor was born to play a character, but I firmly believe that Robert Downey Jr. was put on Earth to give life to the live-action version of Marvel’s Tony Stark.
When “Iron Man” hit theaters in early May 2008, I was a senior in high school. The school year was mere days away from being done and I couldn’t believe it. I was going to be done with high school, and better yet, I was going to college. Yep, I had been accepted into St. Ambrose University around October or November of 2007 and I was already incredibly excited. It was that exciting feeling all people get before going to college. An opportunity to leave your hometown and try and make it on your own. I knew I had to graduate with a degree, but I had no idea what to major in, I had to find myself first and that’s precisely what I planned to do. But high school was coming to a close, and I was excited for that. It put me in the mood for a good superhero movie. So, on the film’s opening weekend, I took my then girlfriend to go see it on Saturday night. When the film was finally over that night, I could hardly keep my breath. That was a superhero movie that gave me such a tremendous high that I couldn’t feel my legs afterward. Good thing there was a supposed scene after the credits. I didn’t know the details of the post-credit scene, I just knew there was one. I had no idea history was about to be made, but Samuel L. Jackson and just a few words.
“I am here to talk to you about the Avenger Initiative.”
Yeah, I am pretty sure, if I remember correctly, that when Samuel L. Jackson uttered that sentence, I physically checked out. I couldn’t hear anybody next to me. I didn’t know what was happening around me, that’s for sure. A mugger could have easily walked up to me and taken my wallet, and I would have had no idea. I couldn’t believe nor could I fathom what that sentence would mean to the superhero genre at all. My girlfriend at the time didn’t really know what that meant, so when we went to TGI Friday’s after the movie, that’s all we discussed. Could Feige really be making a bunch of different film franchises that were going to lead up to one big movie? Would it even be possible? Who would be included? Would we see the X-Men and Spider-man and the Fantastic Four in this? Only Feige knew and only time could tell. But at the time, my head was spinning with possibilities of what these could possibly mean.
I haven’t watched the first “Iron Man” in a while, so as I sat down to watch the film tonight, there were a couple of things I noticed right away. The biggest thing I notice was how much the action for these movies have changed. Consider the scene, at the beginning of the film when Tony Stark is initially kidnapped by the Ten Rings organization. It’s a horrific way to open a film. Yes, it’s PG-13 and there is no blood, but it’s stark and brutal an attack as we’ve ever seen in a PG-13 rated film. When Tony Stark is trapped in the cave, and he and his fast friend Yensen make the first Iron Man suit, he proceeds to burn the bad guys alive before making his big escape. Let’s face it, when Disney bought Marvel in 2009, that all changed. The action isn’t so rough around the edges anymore. Yes, some of these movies still feature some break-neck, fast-paced action sequences. (Which is why I being so excited that the Russo brothers are directing the next two Avenger movies) But, it’s pretty clear that they don’t do fatalities anymore. Not saying that death makes the action better, its just the movies now have become so obsessed with no deaths, that sometimes it takes away from the realism. I mean, if people with superpowers existed in the real world, I feel like we’d see more action like we see in “Iron Man” versus some of the other Marvel movies being made. The storyline to the first Iron Man movie deals with a guy finding out dirty secrets of black market sales his company has been secretly dealing, not exactly something that would appeal to the average kid.
As we look back further at the beginning of the MCU, I am sure there will be those who complain about continuity flaws just to have something to complain about. I mean, yes, is it a little odd now that Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) had to explain what S.H.I.E.L.D. stood for to Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) once we find out a few movies later that the organization existed almost immediately after World War II? I mean, they made it feel like in future installments that S.H.I.E.L.D. was common knowledge, but Coulson doesn’t even call S.H.I.E.L.D. its abbreviated name until the very end of the film. It makes sense though, nobody could have possibly known, not even Feige, just how big this shared universe franchise was going to get. So sometimes you got to roll with the punches, we have to accept some minor flaws in the continuity of the films. For the most part, they’ve done a good job, and that’s probably something we’ll discuss further in this series.
I’ve already talked about just how wonderful Robert Downey Jr. was as Iron Man and Tony Stark, and I’ve discussed how he set the stage for the tone of the entire franchise. So, lets talk about some of the other actors. It was made clear pretty early on that Marvel was looking for a special kind of actor for this franchise, if you weren’t willing to play by the rules, you got cut loose. No if’s or and’s or but’s, you got cut loose if you couldn’t play by the rules. After so many years of Don Cheadle as James Rhodes, the friend of Tony who would eventually become War Machine, it’s a little weird to look back and see Terrance Howard as the character. But alas, Terrance Howard claimed the character as his first. I’ve always liked Terrance Howard, I felt bad when he was asked to leave the franchise. But on the other hand, I get it. He’s difficult to work with, and Marvel wants some fun-loving actors who believe in the vision of the franchise, not self-entitled, ego-driven snobs. It’s no secret that wherever you read about Howard, he’s been called difficult to work with, so he lost an opportunity of a lifetime. Somebody else did the exact same thing when we discuss next week’s movie.
I have to admit something, I had a hard time buying Jeff Bridges as the villain. It’s tough, because for most of the movie, he spends a lot of time smiling his big, foolish, Jeff Bridges smile. He continues to speak in that tongue-down-your-throat geeky-speak that he’s famous for. The whole time I spent re-watching “Iron Man” I remembered something that occurred to me during the first time I saw “Iron Man” in 2008, I don’t find Jeff Bridges intimidating as a villain. I don’t find him believable as a villain. This is Jeff Bridges, he’s The Dude, he’s not a bad guy. Sure, he does what he can with the character, and in the future, Marvel would prove that they are impeccable at casting their characters. This was just one instance where they faltered, just a bit. Just a tiny bit.
Out of all the Marvel movies, this one isn’t as much action heavy. Lots of movies that are the first films in a superhero franchises are usually, surprisingly not action heavy. There is only so much time to get characters known, get a backstory covered, then give them a threat that they need to stop. Its amazing looking back at this first Iron Man movie, seeing where Tony Stark began. Just because with “Avengers” and “Age of Ultron” and “Civil War” we really learn how much he is going to change over the course of this franchise. There are moments at the beginning of the film where you can’t honestly call Tony Stark likable. He’s a rich snob, he’s reckless, he thinks about himself, and he’s mildly degrading. But when he finds out that his weapons have been sold on the black market, something opens up inside him, he has that lightbulb above the head moment. He can’t stand that the devices he designed to help the world, have begun to hurt the world. That obsessive-compulsive need to protect the world becomes almost a virus that constantly makes Stark sick over the course of this franchise. This is what true character development looks like.
There is a reason why Iron Man is one of the absolute fan favorites of this franchise. Robert Downey Jr. totally became the character, and continues to give a one in ten thousand lifetimes performance as Tony Stark. This first film was also so damn fun, that it was hard for audiences to resist, they did an incredible job on a hero that wasn’t quite as well-known in the Marvel stable, and the studio quickly turned him into a household name. No easy feat that. But Marvel made it so easy to achieve, and there is a reason why they’ve been reaping success ever since. I hope you enjoyed this look back, and join us again next weekend for part two.
Loved seeing you from the beginning again, Iron Man. Next week, we take a look at “The Incredible Hulk.”