Over 10 years ago in a dark Californian office, a futurist began to build a cinematic universe the likes of which the world had never seen from a metaphorical box of scraps.
That man was Kevin Feige, the office belonged to a nascent Marvel Studios, and the scraps were the remaining characters the studio had left to them after selling off its major properties back in the nineties.
One of these characters was a certain red and gold Avenger, who most people presumed was a robot, I’m talking of course about the indestructible Iron Man who Marvel was considering using to launch their cinematic universe.
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But did Iron Man and his arc reactor have the spark to jump-start what would come to be known as the MCU?
After all, like Tony’s original suit, the film had failed to get off the ground several times in the past despite the star power of Tom Cruise and a script by Stan Lee attached to elevate the project.
Well, it turned out that the ‘Scarlet Avenger’ was made of tougher stuff (adamantium perhaps?) than people realised.
The film, which eventually starred Robert Downey Jr as the genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist, Tony Stark – better known as Iron Man – was a colossal success.
It took $318.4 million in the United States and scored worldwide gross of $585.2 million as well as the thirteenth biggest-opening day ever at the time.
In fact, the film did so well that Downey Jr recently joked he had enough money to retire after the film’s opening weekend.
He told the Toronto Sun:
I’ve been semi-retired since the first weekend Iron Man 1 opened. The great thing about life is good things happen – and I’ll speak for myself – and you get inflated.
You think, ‘Oh my God, I’ve created everything that’s great in my life. And then things happen where you go, ‘OK, there’s evidence to the contrary’ and at this point, you go back to thinking, it’s nice to be on this call sheet’.
Now 18 movies in Iron Man remains the most important film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) as the keystone that holds the whole thing together.
Why? Well, there are a number of reasons, the first and most obvious being that the film is the first in the series, but like Tony’s armour, there are a lot of elements that make up the movie which became intrinsic to the MCU.
The film introduced us to Tony Stark, the man at the heart of the entire MCU, who would delight in hearing that an entire (fictional) universe revolves around him.
In many ways, Iron Man is the first Avenger (sorry Cap) and Stark has links with almost every single character in the MCU, acting as the staples holding Marvel’s comic book movie universe together.
Stark is also the character who drives the conflict at the centre of the first three phases of the Universe both literally and metaphorically.
The villain he faces in the first film The Iron Monger, AKA Obadiah Stane, is a dark reflection of both secret and public identity. Like Tony, he’s a weapons dealer, who wants to change the world.
The difference being however that Stark sees the error of his ways and uses his own genius to try and make the world a better place, while Stane profits from the genius of others and refuses to change his warmongering ways.
His Iron Monger identity also reflects the notion that the two characters are somehow two sides of the same coin. They both use powered suits but while Tony favours a nimble technologically advanced suit, Stane likes brute force.
This yin-yang relationship can be found throughout the MCU from Cap’s evil super soldier counterpart the evil Red Skull to Black Panther’s Killmonger.
Not only does his first antagonist foreshadow almost every villain in the rest of the MCU, Tony also shoulders a lot of the blame for the arrival of Thanos and the Earth’s lack of defences when he does arrive.
You see, Stark creates the Iron Man suit which sparks the new age of heroes and Nick Fury to begin recruiting the Avengers. This all comes to a head when Loki is defeated by the superteam in The Avengers and Thanos gets the idea to head to Earth.
Tony’s tech is later used to upgrade SHIELD’s helicarriers which allows Hydra to finally reveal itself as the brains behind the ‘top secret’ operation and leads to Steve Rogers inadvertently destroying the peacekeeping force.
Stark also creates Ultron with the help of Bruce Banner who in turn builds Vision. The mind stone then becomes lodged in Vision’s head trapping the cosmic MacGuffin on Earth ensuring that the Avengers will have to face Thanos.
Finally Tony Stark allows himself to be manipulated by Zemo in Civil War into signing the Sokovian accords, an act which fractures the Avengers just as the world needs them most to defend from Thanos.
So much for putting a suit of armour around the planet…
Far more importantly though Tony Stark’s creation informed the tone of all the Marvel movies to come (for good and bad) and without Iron Man, there’d be no Guardians of the Galaxy, no Thor: Ragnarok or even Black Panther.
You see Iron Man had a rather unusual style of shooting. Rather than actors reciting pre-written lines, the director Jon Favreau gave the cast room to experiment and ad lib.
This led to the film’s improvisational tone and helped the charcters in Iron Man feel more grounded and natural, despite the movie’s larger than life subject matter.
More importantly, though, it gave the film a certain bathos or glibness that other superhero films and franchises at the time lacked.
As strange as it seems now at the time superhero films were either rather dour affairs, dedicated to presenting gritty flawed versions of characters like Christopher Nolan’s lauded Dark Knight trilogy or action romps like 20th Century Fox’s much maligned X-Men.
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Iron Man managed to take a different track, combining visually stimulating action, great character work and set the foundation for a stunningly interconnected world populated by superheroes.
That’s not to say Iron Man is any way a better film than The Dark Knight or X-Men, it just means it’s a better comic book movie, accurately reflecting the values of the source material in a way others in the genre failed.
Finally, Iron Man proved two things. The first that Marvel Studios, despite selling off its more popular properties, was capable of making commercially and critically successful films.
Which in turn made it clear these lesser-known superheroes could compete with the likes of Batman, Spider-Man and Superman if treated with a degree of respect.
All in all Iron Man isn’t the best film in the MCU, nor is it the boldest, but it is the most important for informing all the films that would follow in Tony Stark’s billion dollar footsteps.