The one that changed the Hollywood blockbuster landscape, Iron Man is still highly regarded among fans of the superhero genre. It is often ranked up there with The Dark Knight trilogy, though it arguably has a lot more in common with Richard Donner’s Superman or even Tim Burton’s Batman.
Superhero films were definitely making a comeback. Sam Raimi’s Spider-man trilogy renewed interest, while Bryan Singer’s X-Men films and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins showed us that one could use the genre to tell compelling stories with real-world issues in the fold. Jon Favreau and Marvel Studios showed up on the scene to give us something closer to the comic book experience while retaining a sense of fun adventure that hadn’t quite become staples of the genre in the post-Spider-man boom.
The strength of the first Marvel film is its casting. Favreau excels as the goofy, overzealous bodyguard Happy Hogan. Jeff Bridges brings gravitas to a character motivated by simple greed, requiring such a demeanor. Paul Bettany is the perfect voice for the dryly sarcastic JARVIS. Gwyneth Paltrow is surprisingly agile enough to keep up with the star. But obviously, as is the case with every Iron Man film, Robert Downey Jr. is the core.
Quite literally the whole franchise is built around RDJ. His take on billionaire weapons manufacture and egomaniac Tony Stark is a bit different from the comics, but in a way that makes for a more engaging movie experience. He does an excellent job being both smarmy and charming. His on screen persona meshes into the off screen so seamlessly that it’s not hard to wonder how much of it is actually acting.
There’s an interesting thing that one can’t help but notice upon closer inspection: there really isn’t that much of a development to the character. In part, superheroes can’t change too much, lest fans start to become less fanatical over them. At the same time, character development is important for compelling stories, and without it in any capacity, fans might move away from them out of general boredom.
It is kind of difficult to see any particular character development in the film. Tony Stark is essentially the same smug asshole at the end of the film as it he as the beginning. After being hurt by his own weapons, he suddenly sees the light and decides to stop manufacturing lethal weapons, or so he announces at a press conference. Yet it actually appears that it’s less that he shouldn’t be making lethal weapons as much as it is only he should have them. This a concept that would get explored in later Marvel movies, but within two+ hour run time of Iron Man, Tony really doesn’t change at all. It would be one thing if it attempted to explore the idea of how strange his way of becoming “accountable” is (in that he makes himself literally unaccountable to anyone other than himself), but Favreau doesn’t seem particularly interested in going anywhere too deep.
Thus, given where we are now in the world of superhero films, it’s hard to find much about this one that really stands out as truly great. The action is small compared to other Marvel films. The character doesn’t grow or get explored much. The humor is fine, but it’s not especially funny. It’s largely just an origin story and a vehicle to test the waters for the grand experiment that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become.
It’s certainly something that the film is still enjoyable today. And certainly, its role in kickstarting the modern superhero craze cannot be understated. In some ways, a more family entertainment take on superheroes was the best possible way for Marvel Studios to handle it, given the popularity of Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which brooded on screens to financial and critical success in the same year. It was, in some ways, the yin to Nolan’s yang. And, as we now know, the yin is easier to digest.
Still, below the surface, there just isn’t much beyond a typical origin story. It’s entertaining, but there probably isn’t too much of a need to revisit it, besides to see just how far the MCU has come. I suppose that’s one of the downsides to episodic, continuity-driven cinema. Just as people don’t often revisit old comic back issues, there is increasingly little to take away from revisiting older MCU films.
Reductive Rating: It’s fine.