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Dissecting the Classics – Iron Man

September 1, 2017 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
Iron Man Marvel Cinematic Universe

This week, Marvel Studios is releasing the debut of Inhumans in theaters. The abandoned movie turned TV series is something I’ll probably be skipping unless it gets really strong reviews. But it did get me thinking about how much pull Marvel has at the box office, and its humble beginnings. Well not every Marvel film would qualify for this column, I think that it’s easy to say that the MCU’s debut film is a modern classic.

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics , the column previously known as Taken For Granted. In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

Iron Man

Wide Release Date: May 2, 2008
Directed By: Jon Favreau
Written By: Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, and Art Marcum and Matt Holloway
Produced By: Avi Arad and Kevin Feige
Cinematography By: Matthew Libatique
Edited By: Dan Lebental
Music By: Ramin Djawadi
Production Company: Marvel Studios and Fairview Entertainment
Distributed By: Paramount Pictures
Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man
Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts
Terrence Howard as Col. James Rhodes
Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane/Iron Monger
Shaun Toub as Yinsen
Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson

What Do We All Know?

Marvel Studios rules the box office and shows no signs of slowing down. They’ve turned everyone from Thor to Ant-Man to household names and The Avengers in particular has completely changed the game of how blockbusters are made. It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t that long ago when Marvel Studios was a big risk. Who could have predicted that getting a barely-ready to come back Robert Downey, Jr. to star as one of their B-List heroes was the secret to launching a billion dollar franchise?

Of course, Iron Man is now one of the most recognizable superheroes on the planet and Robert Downey, Jr. is a certified A-Lister. The film connected with audiences in a powerful way, set the stage not only for two direct sequels, but also for The Avengers and everything that followed. The massive impact that Iron Man has had on the industry is unassailable… but how does it hold up? Nearly a decade later, is it really a genuine classic, or has the shine faded a bit?

What Went Right?

Like Superman and Spider-Man before it, Iron Man has two main goals; be an entertaining popcorn flick that audiences will enjoy on repeat viewings and, more importantly, making sure we understand and empathize with its main character. This second goal is where the film shines; Tony Stark’s origin story has the benefit of being really fresh, interesting and relatively unknown to the audiences who were introduced to him in the movie. Tony has a natural character arc from an oblivious war-profiteering billionaire playboy to someone who uses his genius and resources to help protect the world as Iron Man. We see him at his most carefree, at his lowest point of suffering, and we see him reprioritize and rebuild his life.

Having a strong narrative to build off of would have helped Iron Man regardless of who got the lead role. But make no mistake: this film succeeds because of Robert Downey Jr.’s performance. Downey had always been a talented and charismatic actor, but his charm, intensity and real life personal drama makes him an uncanny fit for this role. It’s a dream casting to be sure, but RDJ excels beyond reasonable expectations and holding the movie up on his shoulders. The film wisely takes advantage of his talent by giving us an in-helmet view, allowing us to still feel a connection to Tony even as the film has its flashy special effects action scenes.

Downey doesn’t go it alone though. One of the strongest parts of this movie is the chemistry between Tony and Pepper Potts. From their very first scene it’s evident that Pepper is the only woman that Tony values beyond the possibility of sleeping with her, and that she may be the only person who can keep up with him in a conversation. Their interaction is funny, sexy and often heartwarming, though they smartly don’t go for an obligatory kiss in the first movie. Pepper also feels right at home doing investigative work and helping the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and Tony defeat Iron Monger at the film’s climax.

Speaking of Obadiah, while the character basically falls off in the last half hour, Jeff Bridges adds a lot to the movie. He is convincing as one of Tony’s best friends and possible father figure, but also plays menacing very well. The scene with Pepper in his office and when he paralyzes Tony are two of the most tense scenes in the MCU. Also providing an assist is Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan, a small role that the director was perfectly suited to.

What Went Wrong?

The majority of Iron Man works, and the first two acts are an especially strong story. But to me, the movie peaks a bit too early. When Tony finally decides to use his Iron Man suit to save lives and goes to Golmira, the character arc is complete. The rest of the film essentially ties up loose ends and gives an obligatory superhero boss battle that has honestly never held my attention. Considering how well the dynamic is established and how good the characters are, a big fight between Obadiah and Tony should come off better than it did. The writing dips in quality here and it is hard to stay invested.

Lastly, you may have noticed my omission of a major character in the “What Went Right?” section. Terrence Howard’s take on Col. James Rhodes is the weakest performance in the movie. He never seems fully invested, and if rumors are true, he didn’t have much chemistry with Downey off-set either. My general dislike for Howard’s Rhodey is exacerbated by Don Cheadle’s contributions in later films. Cheadle is very good in that role and the friendship plays more authentically. Howard’s appearance in this film almost feels jarring in retrospect.

And In Summary…

While not every aspect works, Iron Man is still an excellent superhero film that holds up well. The action and spectacle is fun for the most part, the dialogue is engaging and funny, the character arc is especially strong, and Robert Downey Jr. owns the role so completely that it’s hard to imagine any other person playing Tony Stark. And oh yeah, there’s that little post-credits stinger that made all the nerds lose their minds. Knowing just how much Marvel delivered on the promise of an Avengers movie makes that moment even more satisfying.

But I think the reason Iron Man is held up as a classic is that it was a turning point for comic book films. Both the X-Men and Spider-Man films had arrived, peaked and crashed hard. Superman came back and was dead on arrival. The Fantastic Four had two movies and neither was worth much. Iron Man came out like a bolt out of the blue and reenergized the genre. And yes, The Dark Knight was also pivotal and had more immediate success, but you can look at the landscape today, and Iron Man won the long game.

Like This Column?
Check out previous editions!
Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club

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