Updated: May 1, 2020
I hope everyone is staying healthy and safe out there while adjusting to the new status quo of COVID-19. I know social distancing can be difficult, but at Rewind Review, we hope to provide a bit of a reprieve from the monotony of limited human interaction. With that in mind, we are doing a complete rewatch, accompanied by reviews, of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) while the world is on lockdown. After all, when the world finds itself in need, its only fitting we turn to Earth's mightiest heroes to help pass the time!
Launched with 2008's Iron Man, the MCU revolutionized the film industry as we know it. Marvel managed to create one shared universe featuring a diverse roster of heroes and villains appearing across various media that collectively contributed to one cohesive story spanning 23 films. In total, the MCU has grossed over $22 billion worldwide, making it the highest-grossing film franchise in history (numbers courtesy of CBS News).
None of it would have been possible however if it were not for the success of Iron Man. Despite numerous appearances in both comic books and cartoons, Iron Man was not a hugely popular figure in superhero lore. The character was considered a B-squad hero in the realm of comic books, Marvel's watered-down version of Batman. Marvel took a big swing with Iron Man, one that would have ended Marvel Studios before it could get started if the movie flopped.
The fact a movie even made it too screens is a bit of a miracle in of itself. Rumblings of an Iron Man movie go back as far as 1990 when Universal Studios purchased the film rights to the franchise. Over the next 15 years, the rights were passed around from 20th Century Fox to New Line Cinema before finally reverting to Marvel Studios. During that time, some of the biggest names in Hollywood were attached to the project, including Nicholas Cage, Tom Cruise, and Joss Whedon. Even Quentin Tarantino was approached by New Line Cinema to write and direct the film
By the time the film rights reverted to Marvel Studios, they ready to self-finance films themselves, giving them more creative control of the stories; however, as a relatively new studio, they lacked credibility and funding. To gain the financial freedom they needed, Marvel put up several of its characters as collateral in exchange for an initial $525 million in funding. This was a major bet on themselves early on. If they succeed, they could grow. If they failed, the studio would face an uncertain future.
Luckily for Marvel Studios, they hit all the right buttons early on. No one could have predicted the critical or financial success Iron Man would garner. The added layer of a potential shared universe with other heroes provided a great deal of intrigue for fans over where the studio could go next. Over the next few years, the Avengers became a phenomenon unlike anything we have ever seen in Hollywood while Marvel subsequently became a household name. None of that success would have been possible without the very first film of what has become the Infinity Saga, Iron Man. So what about Iron Man worked so well?
Iron Man follows billionaire playboy Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), the CEO of a weapons manufacturer he inherited from his father. Tony's genius, along with successful defense contracts, helped grow his company, Stark Industries, to be one of the largest companies in the world.
While on a trip to Afghanistan to demonstrate the companies new "Jericho" missile to his friend and military contact Colonel James Rhodes (Terrence Howard), Tony's convoy is attacked by a terrorist group called the Ten Rings. During the attack, he is nearly killed when shrapnel shards impact his chest. After being taken prisoner, a fellow captive, Yinsen (Shaun Toub), saves Tony's life by implanting an electromagnet in his chest that prevents the shrapnel from reaching his heart.
Holding Tony hostage, the terrorist group demands he build them their own version of the "Jericho" missile in exchange for his freedom. Instead of building the missile, Tony enlists the help of Yinsen to build an armored suit powered by an electromagnet arc reactor to escape. This is the prototype of what will become the Iron Man suit. After a firefight with his captures, Tony is able to escape though Yinsen dies in the process.
Upon his escape, Tony is determined to reinvent himself. After witnessing the damage his weapons have caused on innocent lives, Tony cannot, in good conscience, continue to let others get hurt with his actions. Following his return, Tony immediately announces Stark Industries will no longer manufacture weapons despite the objections of his father's long time business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges).
Of course, Stane's intentions are more nefarious then he is letting on. Stane was the financier of the attack on Tony, hoping to remove him from the picture so Stane could assume control over Stark Industries. While Tony may not know all of the details of Stane's plan, he is leery of him. As he begins working on a newer, sleeker suite, Tony doesn't share that information, despite Stane's insistence that he needs to know what Tony is working on.
While Tony works to right the wrongs his company has caused, he also works too better himself as a man. He gives up his partying ways to focus on doing good in the world. Tony also tries to repair the strained relationship with his assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). The two deeply care for one another, but Pepper doesn't share the same appreciation for the loose, and sometimes self-centered, lifestyle Tony lived before his captivity.
Stane has the Ten Rings collect all the pieces from Tony's original suite so he can reverse engineer his own Iron Man suit. Meanwhile, Tony attacks the Ten Rings when he finds out they are still using his weapons to attack a small village. This puts Tony and Stane on a warpath with one another in the film's third act.
When Director Jon Favreau was brought onto to helm the film, he envisioned treating the production more like an independent film rather than a big studio production. This vision paved the road of success for the movie. Despite being a big-budget film, Iron Man is an intimate affair, focusing on the relationships of the characters on the screen over the glitz and glam that come with superhero movies. It is that willingness to get personal, even as the universe gets bigger, that makes the MCU so beloved. As the MCU has grown, so has the scale. But the one quality that is threaded through almost all 23 films is their willingness to provided intimate, personal stories into the larger narrative.
Of course, great storytelling needs great actors portraying the roles on the screen. Robert Downey Jr. is perfectly cast as Tony Stark. In a lot of ways, Downey's story mirrors that of Tony Starks. Like Tony, Downey has looked to reinvent himself in the face of great adversity. Life in the fast lane took a toll on both men, but their drive to be the best version of themselves drive their actions. Downey effortlessly exudes all of Tony's qualities. On top of this, the idea of reinventing oneself is a journey we can all relate too, so it is hard not to root for Tony.
The other standouts from the cast are Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts and Favreau's Happy Hogan. Paltrow and Downey have great chemistry together. Pepper is the perfect foil to Tony, and it is Paltrow's understated performance that brings Pepper to life.
As for Favreau, Happy has become somewhat of a fun side character who continues to take on a bigger role throughout the larger MCU. It could be argued he is just there for laughs, but Favreau has a natural comedic timing that helps bring levity to the film.
The film really fires on all cylinder, especially the writing, directing, acting, and special effects. Sometimes, when you watch an older film, the action, CGI, and effects feel dated. Upon our rewatch, the effects didn't feel that way at all. Using a mix of CGI and practical effects, Iron Man felt realistic. The practical effects are particularly effective as they make his suits feel tangible even though you know they aren't real. More importantly, it set a high standard of effects that future films have continued to meet and exceed.
What doesn't work
No MCU is perfect, though a few of the Phase Two films come close. While Iron Man is firing on all cylinders, Jeff Bridges's Odabiah Stane is not an overly compelling villain. Bridges' performance is perfectly fine, but Stane isn't that memorable.
This is a reoccurring problem of the MCU. Far too often, villains feel one-note, especially compared to their hero counterparts. Come to think of it, none of the villains from any of the Iron Man films particularly stand out, except for one character from Iron Man 3, but that is probably for all of the wrong reasons.
The other main issue is the performance of Terrence Howard as Colonel Jame Rhodes. I imagine this wasn't a complaint when the film was released, but with the hindsight of the next 20 or films in the MCU, it is a declaration I feel comfortable making. For those unfamiliar with the casting history of Rhodes, Terrence Howard was replaced with Don Cheadle after a salary despite between Marvel and Howard.
Due to this, it is hard not to compare the performance of Howard and Cheadle. It may not be fair to Howard, who was only given a singular performance to make his mark, but it is just the reality of the situation. And truth be told, Howard doesn't make his mark. He is fine in the role, but Cheadle brings a much-needed levity and charisma missing from Howard's performance. Quite frankly, it's hard to imagine James Rhodes being played by anyone other than Don Cheadle at this point.
Should you rewatch it?
I remember going to see Iron Man on opening weekend in early May 2008. I saw it the night of my senior prom actually. People always ask me if I regret skipping prom to see a movie. My answer is always a resounding no.
The MCU has been a big part of my life these last 12 years as I have gotten to experience this larger than life universe and all of the stories it has to offer. In a weird way, it permitted me to believe in something bigger than myself at a time in my life when I was struggling to find myself. Perhaps I feel like the story is a personal one because it is personal for me. As I was beginning my journey of self-discovery in the world, so was Tony. Maybe I related to it more than I'd care to admit looking back on it now.
Either way, the film still holds up well. The script and direction are perfect, creating an intimate affair in what happens to also be a grand superhero movie. More importantly, the film is full of talented actors and actresses performing at the top of their game.
The film does feature a weaker villain, but this can be overlooked considering Marvel's reoccurring issue with providing compelling villains. Terrence Howard also feels oddly placed now that we can look back at the collective unit of all 23 MCU films together, but that is by no means Howard's fault.
Overall, Iron Man holds up. It's funny watching these earlier films with the knowledge of how the overall arc for Tony ends. You can see some of the seeds being planted here for his ultimate journey even if they didn't know where it was going. Quite honestly, this rewatch makes me appreciate the totality of the MCU's Infinity Saga that much more. I loved this movie at 18 when I first saw it in theaters and I loved again here during this rewatch. In honor of Tony, I'd give it 8 out of 10 martinis!
Next: Instant Rewind: Parasite