Reviewed by John Hussey
With Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 fast approaching (the end of the month here in the UK) I thought (what the heck) let’s do our biggest retrospective series yet. That’s right, I’m going to be reviewing every single Marvel Cinematic Universe film to date! So grab your capes people because this is going to be the month of HEROES!
It’s hard to think that this cinematic universe has been going since 2008. A lot of time has passed and it’s one of those things were you can’t look back to the very beginning without being astonished, and impressed, by how far the product has come in terms of development. One could say that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is now a completely different entity to what it was back then.
The universe kicks off with Iron Man, a film that was a massive gamble by Marvel Studios in an attempt to rebuild their reputation after going bankrupt in the 90s, thus resulting in them selling off the film distribution rights to a lot of their characters and franchises. The goal was simple: build-up a shared universe with their remaining characters. Okay, maybe when you state that that goal out-loud it doesn’t sound so simple, but fuck it, Marvel Studios were going to try it anyway.
I guess the big question is: did it succeed? Alright, that question is completely redundant now because we obviously know how things turned out, “Marvel Studios blew every little fan-boy’s cock off, and then proceeded to single-handily took over the world!” But back then everything was up in the air and Iron Man could’ve easily flopped and threw a massive spanner in the works, making Marvel’s dreams crash down to the ground before they really got a chance to lift off.
Iron Man was certainly a daring pick for their first outing, especially since to a modern audience his character would’ve been obscure, or completely unknown. Now (of course) he’s universally recognised! But I suppose you have to respect people that are willing to take a huge gamble to make something work, especially if they succeed and prove everyone wrong in the end.
I really enjoy how this film starts. You get a clear grasp on Tony Stark’s character in those fleeting moments as he sits in the back of the military truck like a arrogant super-star, with the soldiers eye-struck by his awesomeness. His tone is very selfish, very in-your-face, and he really thinks he’s someone. So, in many ways, you have to ask yourself why the fuck you’d want to root for this guy. He’s no Spider-Man.
In that respect we have ourselves a more unique superhero because he doesn’t start off as the hero, nor does he even want to be a hero, instead living the limelight where he simply does whatever he wants without any consideration towards consequence. The film then takes a massive nose-dive as the convoy is attacked, the soldiers protecting Tony are killed, and Tony himself is caught in a fatal explosion before being captured by a terrorist group (known as the Ten Rings) in the middle of Afghanistan.
We then have the clever move of resetting the clocks and visiting Tony’s life prior to this event. A mere couple of days before the attack we see Tony being even more of a prick as he completely forgets to go to his own award ceremony, and instead pisses away his time gambling and making himself look cool in front of the ladies. He even has the nerve of just discarding the trophy he was given.
We learn that he’s a billionaire genius (son of another billionaire genius, Howard Stark) who took over his father’s business, Stark Industries, after he tragically passed away. Since then he has been building bigger, and better, weapons for the military in order to make the world a better place. It’s very clear that his attitude is very unlikable because he takes everything for granted, disregards things of importance, and genuinely thinks only of himself.
And yet, he has a certain charm to him, a charm in which you can easily follow and be entertained by. In many ways it’s fun to watch him be a complete, and utter, douchebag to everyone around him. But of course the real reason has to be Robert Downey Jr. who really becomes one with the part. It’s clear from the first moment you see his character, right until the end credits, that Downey lives and breathes the character, ultimately working hard to bring him to life and make him the best possible interpretation.
What adds to the role is the added humour which serves to give Tony a certain element that brings the audience to like him even when he’s being a complete arse, but it also serves to be a defining trait that follows him even past his point of realisation and transition into a new man.
Of course we continue to see Tony’s arrogance, and care-free behaviour, develop as we lead up to the events at the beginning of the film. It’s kind of strange that every time I re-watch this film I almost forget about what’s fast approaching because you get sucked up into Tony’s life beforehand and sort of feel like he’s untouchable, making the moment when you do remember, “Oh shit, he’s been kidnapped,” all the more challenging.
We learn that he was in Afghanistan to show off his latest weaponry, to which he has the audacity to proclaim, “They say that the best weapon is the one you never have to fire. I respectfully disagree. I prefer the weapon you only have to fire once. That’s how Dad did it, that’s how America does it, and it’s worked out pretty well so far.” Although, I will admit it is kind-of a catchy speech.
Iron Man becomes a very gritty, and dark, film upon the capture section. This is where Tony’s character is truly tested, thus becoming the best superhero transition at that point in time. This was where we begin to notice that Marvel films prior to Iron Man lacked something, and what we thought were masterpieces suddenly turned into huge steamy piles of shit. Marvel Studios raised the bar, and that bar would only get higher and higher as the years went on.
I felt that Tony being tested by being captured by terrorists really added something deep, and personal, to the overall narrative (not to mention really ballsy due to then climate of society), making his journey more believable. He is literally stripped of his power. He’s no longer the big man, or the cocky man, that can make anything happen by just clapping his hands together, or dishing out a massive check. He was now a prisoner of his own design. What hits him hard is the fact that his own legacy is being used against him, making him come to understand the “bigger picture” and his actual place within the world.
No longer did he see his work as something to be admired. No longer was it worth gloating over who had the biggest stick. In reality he was simply part of the ongoing problems, making the world a more dangerous place. This was added by the plot-element of him now being attached with a electromagnet in order to stay alive. Thus began his transition into Iron Man. Tony begins to see what he has to do to change his life, although there was a moment in which he simply wanted to give up because there was no hope (which again added to the transitioning process).
His transition is helped by his fellow captive, Yinsen, who motivates him to look at himself and find something worth fighting for. Yinsen in many ways allows Tony to look at himself in a way he’d never done before. He wasn’t a playboy philanthropist, he was a genius who could build anything he set his mind on. I just really love the set-up of Tony’s evolution as a character because it feels so natural and true to his character and the situation he’s in merely evaluates the brilliance of this process.
What I also like is how we see Tony utilise his greatest strength in order to overcome his capture, i.e. his intelligence. This, in many ways, is Tony’s superpower. With it he manages to build himself a new electromagnetic system, an arc reactor, to keep himself alive. With this he then builds an armoured suit in order to escape his captives. But in the process Yinsen sacrifices himself to allow Tony to escape, adding more weight to Tony’s ascent into heroism.
Upon returning home Tony wants to terminate the military division within Stark Industries but is quickly silenced by his partner, Obadiah Stane. It’s not at first clear that he’s the villain of the film but it quickly shows in the second half of the film as his acts get more and more suspicious, and it is revealed that he’s undergoing backdoor weaponry deals with the Ten Rings. Jeff Bridges is certainly good in the role and does add some really good intimidating scenes were you feel he’s in absolute control, but sadly gets wasted by the end.
Elsewhere, Tony starts to remodel his original designs for the Iron Man suit, which brings out some of the funniest moments in the entire film. His banter with his robots are simply perfect. Also I really like Tony’s connection with his AI, J.A.R.V.I.S. (voiced by Paul Bettany), to which feels like a real friendship, despite J.A.R.V.I.S. always appearing as a voice either in the background or within the Iron Man suit. In many ways J.A.R.V.I.S. deserves a lot of the credit when it comes to Tony’s actions because the super AI always has his back in every situation, often than not guiding his creator in battle, and on occasion questioning his somewhat foolish actions.
Then there’s Tony’s interactions with his assistant Pepper Potts (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) and his friend James Rhodes (played by Terrence Howard). It’s clear from her first scene earlier on in the film that Pepper has to basically look after Tony because he is too childish to consider attending everyday needs. But you can see even in his arrogant days that he respected her, almost caring about her, as he appreciated her hard-work.
Upon his transition he becomes more attached with Pepper and begins to realise he has feelings for her, with Pepper too realising this but not straight-away jumping on-board with the idea (which I liked, because I do hate forced romantic set-ups for the sake of having a love-interest). It’s also great that Pepper questions his current actions because she fears for his safety, believing he may end up killing himself with his reckless new lifestyle.
But this then reaffirms the idea that Tony believes this is his new purpose in life, that he’s finally found his calling. Tony’s determined to undo his wrongs by destroying his own legacy in order to rightfully make the world a better place. Then you get Pepper transitioning into Tony’s helper in “saving the world” by helping him download Stane’s secrets, thus uncovering the facts that he instigated Tony’s capture.
I will admit it’s hard reviewing Rhodes’ character within his first appearance simply because it’s hard not to consider the fact that the actor changes within Iron Man 2, making his appearance here feel disjointed. It’s extremely difficult to get away with such a radical change like this, and yet, Marvel Studios had the balls to pull it off not once, but twice, without a fucking care in the world. “We’re Marvel Studios, deal with it!”
But I will say that all the ground-work is laid out in Iron Man in which you can see the tension between Tony and Rhodes, and how Rhodes is extremely pissed with Tony’s earlier lifestyle and his wasted opportunities. Things begin to change upon Tony’s return and Rhodes slowly comes to respect his friend more once he discovers the truth about Iron Man. I always enjoy the fun moment where Tony has to ring up Rhodes in order to try and call off the jets that are trying to take him out, resulting in Tony accidentally crashing into one of them. But, in his defence, the jet did technically hit him.
Tony’s first acts of heroism (which takes a while to happen as we spend quite a bit of the second half building, and testing out, the Iron Man suit) is taking out the Ten Rings after he sees on the news that they’re using his weapons to terrorise a small village. And, honestly, this is about as far as Iron Man goes as a hero in his first outing. Despite this film being called by a lot of fans, “the best superhero film of all times,” it doesn’t actually have a lot of “heroism” in it.
I think Iron Man certainly holds up as one of the best introduction-pieces within the superhero genre, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s the best superhero movie. There are clearly better ones out there. But, nevertheless, it’s still a damn good film that keeps you engaged, and entertained, from start to finish. The only downside to this film is the third act and its underdeveloped conclusion.
As I mentioned earlier, Stane starts off as a good, intimidating, villain in which we see him overpower the leader of the Ten Ring’s, manipulate events from behind-the-scenes, before seeking into Tony’s penthouse and gloatingly steal the arc reactor from Tony’s chest, thus leaving Tony to die. This was all good stuff to witness but sadly he then quickly dissolves into a generic mad-man, without any clear motivation other than, “I want more power”.
I think it’s sort of clear that crucial development scenes for the character were taken out during the editing process because I don’t fully understand his character, and by the end, I just don’t give a fuck. I just see him as the half-arsed villain and nothing more. Which is a massive shame because there was real potential for this villain. It’s also quite sad when you consider all the Iron Man films suffer with this problem (but at least their threat and confrontations got better as each film went on).
And so, we end up with a conclusion portraying “a robot suit vs. an even bigger robot suit”. It’s very unsatisfying and doesn’t do any real justice to the well thought-out narrative that came before it. You get the impression that director Jon Favreau either ran out of ideas, simply wanted a massive fight sequence but couldn’t quite fully ultise this idea, or Marvel Studios interfered. Either-way, it just becomes a fucking mess and doesn’t feel remotely interesting, often than not deflating the uniqueness that Iron Man had going for it.
Plus, it makes Tony’s revealing as Iron Man all the more anti-climatic because he hadn’t really done much to warrant a big fuss by the paparazzi. The fight between him and Stane (aka Iron Monger) wasn’t all that epic, and mostly took place either around Stark Industries, or on a nearby motorway. It’s not like it was a big, epic, and destructive fight sequence worthy of the third act of Man of Steel. This revealing kind of seemed forced for the sake of skipping past the over-used “secret identity” storyline we’d seen a billion times before, which I will admit pays-off for the sequel, but in the moment just felt very forced for cheap shock-value.
But despite the minor flaws towards the end, Iron Man still stands tall and has so much to be thanked for. Because of its success, and re-vitalising the superhero genre for a brand-new age, it made way for the Marvel Cinematic Universe that we know and love today. Another big round of applause for Downey for making the role of Tony Stark his own and doing the fans a great service ever since.
And how can I forget to mentioned Marvel Studios and their ballsy move of sneaking in Agent Coulson (played by Clark Gregg) in there in order to introduce S.H.I.E.L.D.. I bet that had fans puzzled and speculating throughout the film, and just when they thought their theories couldn’t come true Nick “Motherfucking” Fury (played by Samuel L. Jackson no less) appears in a post-credit scene to talk to Tony about the Avengers Initiative.
“Holy shit! Marvel Studios are actually daring to undertake the task of building-up a universe of characters in order to produce the very-first Avengers film! Shit the bed!” Though we had to wait a while to see whether this was a pipe-dream or not, it was certainly a great way to start off the franchise, and even if things hadn’t paid-off, at least we still would’ve been left with a great film in Iron Man.