An outsider’s take on the Marvel Cinematic Universe: ‘Iron Man’ (2008) (Movie review)

With the Marvel Cinematic Universe pretty much owning the 2018 blockbuster calendar with three new releases, it seems like a good time to finally watch the series. I’ve caught some of it, but this blog series will chronicle my first viewing of the complete movie saga. I’ll examine each film under various categories that reflect popular MCU talking points. “Iron Man” (2008) kicks it off:

STRENGTHS

Robert Downey Jr., cast on the strength of his quip-laden turn in “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (2005), carries this film as the title character, often playing off robots in his lab rather than human actors, but making it work.

WEAKNESSES

The villains are very much stereotypes, and I wasn’t surprised to see there are four credited screenwriters. There’s a slight but unavoidable whiff of the boardroom to a film that has so much riding on it in terms of franchise potential.

HEROES

Tony Stark/Iron Man starts as a low-grade womanizing a**h*** who is blissfully unaware that Stark Industries’ weapons have proliferated throughout the Middle East, well beyond the hands of the “good guys.” His captivity under an Afghan warlord literally and figuratively gives him a change of heart. I worried that I’d feel a jarring disconnect between Tony in and out of the suit, but it’s not a problem. Already a very rare type of corporate magnate in that he is also the most brilliant engineer in his company, he resolves to use his smarts and established corporation to do good things.

VILLAINS

You can almost see the slime dripping off Jeff Bridges in his turn as Stark Industries turncoat Obadiah Stane, who has been selling weapons to generically evil Afghan warlord Raza.

WOMEN

Although “Iron Man” starts with Tony noting that one of his military escorts is a woman, and that it’s a good thing, the hero and the overall film are regressive – admittedly on purpose, since this is who Tony Stark (invented for comics in 1963) is. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, his assistant, is likable and competent, although the Tony-Pepper relationship follows the cliché of a playah discovering genuine affection for the sweet girl. Featuring one scene of Pepper trading barbs with Tony’s latest conquest (Leslie Bibb) the morning after, “Iron Man” falls short of passing the Bechdel Test.

MIRROR TO REALITY

While not exactly a probing examination of American war policy in the Middle East, “Iron Man” does show awareness of how the proliferation of weapons inevitably makes war endless. And it doesn’t offer a simple solution: Even when Tony decides to stop weapons production, Obadiah undercuts him. And even if Stark Industries stops weapons production, we know the U.S. government will buy them from another corporation. The film has no easy answer for this problem, which has not changed a lick in the last decade. Despite the fact that Iron Man became a popular kids’ Halloween costume, this war-centric film doesn’t feel remotely like a kids’ movie.

BEST ACTION SCENE

When Iron Man stops a group of bad guys (Afghan rebels, I guess we can call them) from massacring a village, it’s out of his need to set things right, but it’s also a great test of the suit. It’s cinematic wish-fulfillment to have a high-tech suit where you can fling baddies against a building or pick them out of a crowd of innocents with pinpoint shots.

BEST COMEDIC MOMENT

Most of what comes out of Tony’s mouth is worthy of a smile, but I never get a sense he is playing to an audience like, for example, Deadpool. Consider when he gives Pepper the backhanded compliment “I didn’t recognize you. You look beautiful.” Downey Jr. has the suaveness to get away with it. It’s hard to imagine Tony saying anything that comes off as stupid.

WORLD BUILDING

I recognize Agent Coulson from “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” of which I watched the first season without feeling engaged. MCU fans have since told me the network TV shows don’t play well without a grounding in the film lore. The first of the now-famous post-credits teasers finds Coulson’s boss, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), inviting Tony into the “Avengers Initiative”; I’d have to be living under a rock to not know he will accept the invite.

FINAL THOUGHTS/EXPECTATIONS

“Iron Man” is a strong introduction to the character, but I worry that Tony, a loner at heart, will become watered down as part of a team (like Batman joining the Justice League). But by the same token, he needs more non-robot friends to riff with, so I won’t mind following Iron Man into sequels and team-ups.

 

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