Marvel Studios launched the most successful film franchise in history with four of the world’s most recognizable faces, the director of Elf, and a $140 million budget. 2008’s Iron Man was by no means a Cinderella story, but the fire-engine red and gold hero was not a guaranteed box-office juggernaut. Twelve years later, it’s easy to retrace the studio’s journey behind a charismatic star, a perceptive producer, and its beloved universe of characters.
Weapons manufacturer and military-industrial-complex darling Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is in Afghanistan to show off his company’s new death dealer, the Jericho missile. Tony demonstrates the weapon’s destructive capabilities by blowing up a mountain for prospective military buyers. On the way back to base, Tony’s humvee is attacked by Raza (Faran Tahir), leader of a terrorist organization known as the Ten Rings. Tony is severely injured, and Yinsen (Shaun Toub), a fellow captive and inventor, saves Tony’s life by crafting an electromagnet to keep shrapnel from reaching his heart.
Raza offers to spare Tony if he agrees to build a Jericho missile for the terrorist’s own use. Tony and Yinsen instead build a suit of armor to escape the Afghan cave they’re being held captive in. Tony narrowly escapes the cave while Yinsen tragically dies. Back in the U.S., Tony instructs his assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and bodyguard, Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) to schedule a press conference. Inspired by his near-death experience, Tony says his company, Stark Industries, will no longer manufacture weapons. Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), Tony’s business partner, will go to extreme lengths to stop the company’s transformation.
In 2012’s The Avengers, Marvel’s first superhero coronation, Chris Evans’s Captain America asks Tony what he would be without the Iron Man armor, “Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist,” Downey Jr. quips in response. Tony’s identity as a military contractor, womanizer, and beneficiary of millions of dollars in inheritance makes for an onerous sales pitch today. In fact, in this environment, it’s difficult to imagine Tony Stark as the foundation for a 23-movie franchise without the hindsight of his complete character arc. Spider-Man and Captain America would make sense in 2020, but Marvel Studios focus-group tested the hell out its characters, and in 2008, it landed on a rich kid with daddy issues.
Iron Man, as with other action movies of the time period, is a reaction to the Iraq War, the war on terror, and the George W. Bush administration. Unlike most superheroes, though, Iron Man’s comic origin story is indivisible from war; the character’s 1963 debut is eerily similar to director Jon Favreau’s 2008 movie, only Afghanistan is swapped for Vietnam. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the architects of Marvel Comics, helped create Iron Man when Lee allegedly dared himself to try something difficult. In an interview for the Iron Man DVD, Lee said, “I think I gave myself a dare… The readers, the young readers, if there was one thing they hated, it was war, it was the military… So I got a hero who represented that to the hundredth degree.”
Writers Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway’s screenplay stands the test of time, outside of numerous off-color jokes from our hero. The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) penchant for humor is discernible from the start, though it didn’t truly enter the studio’s style guide until 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Favreau separates Iron Man from contemporary action movies with coherent action sequences and clean cuts from editor Dan Lebental. Marvel hedged its bets for a potential sequel by including fellow superhero James Rhodes (the soon-to-be-recast Terrence Howard), professional bureaucrat Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), and superspy Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).
In retrospect, Iron Man was an unlikely starting point for the most ambitious and profitable film franchise of all time. Iron Man isn’t without its problems; the script has a few genuine blights thanks to mid-2000s masculinity. But Downey Jr.’s charm was an impeccable match for Favreau’s skilled stewardship of multimillion-dollar IP, and the two forged a solid first entry in Marvel’s storied movie canon.