Iron Man is one of the biggest gambles for superhero films in history. It represented a first in a variety of ways, notably it was the first in a series of Marvel films set in a contained canonical universe. This was something that had never been attempted before, especially with the series beginning with a relatively unknown character. Iron Man was a character that many had heard of, but few could give specific details about him or his rogues’ gallery. Sitting in the directors’ chair was Jon Favreau, someone who was not known for big budget action films. Casting Robert Downey Jr. in the lead role also drew skepticism; while he had cleaned his personal life, he hadn’t been involved in a big hit for quite some time. Favreau actually showed Kiss Kiss Bang Bang to Marvel and that allowed the project to be green lighted with Downey Jr. at the helm. The result is an enormous success that remains one of the best blockbusters of the 2000s.
Iron Man centers around Tony Stark; a rich, arrogant weapons manufacturer born with a silver spoon in his hand. He inherited his company and profession from his father as a teenager, passing over the head of Howard Stark’s business partner Obadiah Stane. While on a routine demonstration in Afghanistan, Tony is captured by a terrorist organization named the Ten Rings (a great reference to Iron Man’s most famous adversary the Mandarin) and told to build weapons for them. The majority of the first act takes place in a dark cave with Stark clinging to life and developing his escape method; he utilizes an electrical generator which keeps his heart beating to power a suit of armor and escapes.
Stark returns a changed man; after being rescued by his ally in the military Col. Rhodes, he holds a press conference and announces his company will bow out of the weapon business. Stane constantly tries to persuade Tony to change his mind, claiming it will harm the family legacy and company.
The superhero element comes from Stark creating a new suit and trying to take his weapons out of the hands of terrorists. His redemption is the heart of the story as is his relationships with Stane, Rhodes, and personal secretary Pepper Potts.
A great blockbuster or superhero film is one that can fall into other film categories. While Iron Man is a film with a large amount of action; it is above all a character study with comedic, dramatic, and real life inspired elements. It’s also a character study of arguably one of the most unlikeable superheroes considering all the strikes he has against him. Stark works with the government, is exceedingly wealthy, and incredibly self-absorbed. Amazingly, Robert Downey Jr.’s fantastic performance takes these three traits and uses them to create both a relatable and likeable protagonist.
While Stark creates weapons, he doesn’t do it for malicious or warmongering reasons. He just believes they’re necessary to make an imperfect world safer. By seeing firsthand that terrorists are stockpiling his weapons, he learns this outlook is naïve. By coming clean and leaving the industry, he overcomes his naivety. Stark despite being very wealthy, becomes proactive and doesn’t don a suit for a “higher purpose” or guilt; he uses it to take his weapons back and clean up the damage he has done. While he’s arrogant, he’s also very charming and charismatic. He doesn’t lose this, but this trait allows for most of the film’s comedy. When testing his suit, he is smacked into a wall and experiments next to his expensive trinkets. It may come off as slapstick in lesser hands, but Stark asks Pepper to throw away his old arc reactor from the cave. He claims “he isn’t sentimental” and shows that all his luxuries mean nothing.
Pepper Potts, portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow, serves as an excellent dual protagonist. The relationship between Tony and Pepper could easily come across as the typical romance, but both the actors and Favreau make it so much more. It’s clear they have feelings for one another but don’t make any romantic advances. Utilizing improvisation in many scenes is a great way to show they have known each other for quite some time and makes the relationship genuine. Pepper also objects to Tony’s persona of Iron Man, she doesn’t take it lightly and frequently questions it. She asks him why he chooses to be Iron Man and Tony responds with, “I know in my heart that I have to do this.”
The relationship between Obadiah and Tony is of equal importance. Downey Jr. and Jeff Bridges act as if they’ve been friends and colleagues for years. It comes as a real shock (if you haven’t read the comics) that Obadiah is the film’s villain and hired the Ten Rings to kill Tony. He’s been selling weapons under the table and planning to usurp the company for himself, using Tony’s own arc reactor as the genesis of his plan. Bridges perfectly exudes calm, scheming demeanor which offsets a rather generic revenge plot for a corporate businessman. The subtext of corporate espionage works very well in the context of the story and adds a sense of realism to the film. At the same time, this causes my main issue with the film. The climactic showdown between the two is serviceable, but that is the problem. If your big budget climax isn’t as strong as the rest of the film, then sometimes it’s not necessary.
Iron Man perfectly balances a variety of tones without appearing jarring. The opening showcases all of Tony’s character flaws. It’s played for laughs but then the entire cave sequence is very dark and serious. When Tony returns, it resorts to more humor which works much better than if Tony simply brooded constantly upon his return. It’s hard not to laugh along with Tony as he’s learning how to fly or making humorous quips much to the chagrin of Pepper or Rhodes. Downey Jr. is the main reason why this film succeeds; he created a Stark that was a manifestation of the comics but actually more likeable and charismatic. It’s evident that Stark doesn’t become a superhero for fame or greed, but to heal old wounds. That’s the heart of Iron Man and Jon Favreau perfectly captures the essence of great blockbuster filmmaking; spectacular action with a sense of character and fun.