Miscellaneous Post: I is for Iron Man: Launching a Cinematic Franchise
It’s not a question of whether or not 2008’s Iron Man launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
Obviously, it did.
What’s amazing is that it did it so spectacularly.
And this is coming from someone who had absolutely zero interest in anything Marvel-related at all.
Being a DC fangirl, I paid zero attention to Iron Man when it came out. I scoffed at it. I could not care less. Then Iron Man 2 was just as big a hit. But I still couldn’t care about Iron Man or Marvel or anything of the sort. I was sticking with Batman and Superman, despite various cinematic disasters and “realistic” settings for a guy who dresses in a bat costume, not to mention a bunch of comics in which my favorite characters were getting killed (and let’s not talk about the New 52).
Then, I was on vacation, the weather was drippy and cold, and there was nothing to do all day. Bored of staying inside, I suggested we go to the drive-in, because A) I love the drive-in, and B) the night’s double feature was Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor. No, I didn’t care about Marvel, but at least the films would have some good action and would also go together, unlike some drive-ins showing a kiddie movie and something R-rated, or two movies that don’t go together at all (District 9 and The Ugly Truth for example; that was a long night). I didn’t even know anything about the Avengers at the time, or maybe vaguely was aware that there was some sort of Marvel movie thing that was happening, related to those two movies at the drive-in.
Anyway, through the misting drizzle and thin veil of fog, we watched Captain America and then Thor best their adversaries. Sort of. If you’ve seen them you know what I mean.
I still wasn’t that interested in Marvel’s The Avengers but eventually did see it. And loved every second of it. It has pretty much everything a movie-goer could want, and nothing that he wouldn’t (Unexpected Romance, I’m looking at you).
So then I had to backtrack through the other MCU films, starting of course with Iron Man, which Redbox had so conveniently put back into its system. I was, shall we say, impressed. The film was tight with no extra nonsense scenes, not boring or drawn out, shiny without looking fake, fun without trying too hard, and again didn’t slow itself down with romance (which would be out of character for Tony anyway, except of course where Pepper is concerned).
Tony’s childhood is hinted at but not embellished, unlike many superhero origin stories (Batman and Superman, I’m looking at you), so all the audience has to go on is the portrayal of the character before the inciting incident. Clearly Tony is selfish, a womanizer, doesn’t care about money because he has so very much of it, and pretty much is all about the flashy toys his money can buy and his company can build. He even comments about peace being a bad thing because it will put him out of a job. Of course, Tony changes his entire purpose for existing after Afghanistan, throwing himself into becoming a hero and changing the focus of his company, and working to ensure his weapons don’t end up in the hands of the enemy.
It’s amazing that nothing seems forced; the film is entirely about Tony’s growth from within, even if the change is initiated by external factors. There’re no agonizing-to-watch personal demon battles; Tony’s actual personal demon, Obadiah, is fought and ended in a very clean-looking fight.
I’ve described the effects and fighting as “shiny” and “clean” because they truly are. If someone didn’t know better, the computer effects are easy to confuse for practical effects. Too many films do not properly integrate CGI, leading to the effects either popping off the screen unpleasantly or looking flat rather than appearing within a three dimensional space inside the actual film (and yes, motion capture is different than creating a monster or something, but still). Iron Man doesn’t have that problem, which really does put it a step ahead of so many films, be they superhero (Green Lantern), science fiction (Transformers), action-adventure (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), disaster (2012), fantasy (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey), or pure action (The Expendables 2). That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy these films (give you a couple guesses as to which ones I truly did not enjoy), but my point is that there is clearly CGI at use in them. Things look fake or cartoony, and certainly if Iron Man is any indication, they don’t have to. I’m not even going to mention the seamless blending of effects in Jurassic Park, a 20-year-old film that runs circles around so many movies today. …okay, I mentioned it. But come on, dinosaurs!
All of this being said, my point is that Iron Man was designed to launch the MCU, as the after-credits scene with Nick Fury illustrates. If the film had flopped, Captain America, Thor, and perhaps even the Hulk wouldn’t have gotten their chances in the spotlight. Chris Evans would have had to stay Johnny Storm his entire Marvel career, and no one wants that. Robert Downey, Jr and Jon Favreau had a lot riding on their shoulders, and with their efforts and their teams’ efforts, the film was a huge success and deservedly so.
Remember, this is coming from a DC Comics person, who did not care less about anything related to Marvel Comics until after that soggy day on vacation coupled with Marvel’s The Avengers eight months later. Now I know more about the characters than people who’ve followed the movies for years. Clint grew up in a circus? Check. Thor uses Allspeak? Check. Loki has three kids? Check. I tell fans this stuff.
Anyway, Downey and Favreau really helped turn a DC fan into a MCU fan, though if we’re comparing DC movies to Marvel movies, there’s not much of a comparison (where is our Flash or Wonder Woman movie, hmm? Why do the Nolanverse films make less and less sense as the trilogy is explored? Are DC and Warner Brothers going to embarrass themselves by copying the MCU concept and then doing a terrible job of it?). I’m sure I’m not the only person who didn’t care a bit for Iron Man or anything Marvel but then was blown away by the movie. The film had to do so to save Marvel, and launch the other heroes and give the Avengers their chance.
Iron Man 2 kept the momentum going, ensuring an excited audience for Thor and Captain America. Iron Man 2 is darker at times and more serious with respect to Tony’s childhood and current/future health, and it ends with Tony not being accepted into the Avengers Initiative. However, Justin Hammer is a villain fans love to hate because he’s just so horrible, Agent Romanoff has her excellent side role, and Happy has some good lines. The relationships of Tony and his friends—Rhodey and Pepper—are explored in more detail, helping the viewing understand why they stay with such a narcissistic person, and why they keep coming back even after they leave. The film certainly rounds out Tony’s character in ways likely intentionally left out of the first film.
With Nick Fury, Natasha, and Coulson, the audience is further immersed into what will be the Avengers, providing characterization and backstory to get it out of the way and keep Marvel’s The Avengers as lean as possible by not having to go through too many backstories. The means of creating the MCU—individual back story films to clear the way for a truly epic team story—was ingenious. It really is the only way to get it to all work and not have a four hour movie full of explication, or a two hour movie with a bunch of random people. Everyone knows who Batman and Superman are, but Black Widow or Hawkeye are far more vague. Though Hawkeye certainly doesn’t get his fair share in the MCU, or at least hasn’t yet (can there be a SHIELD-focused Hawkeye/Black Widow film please?). The Avengers movie has character introductions to set the tone in case people haven’t seen the other movies, but it knows it doesn’t have to spend too much time on it, thanks to the foundation laid by Iron Man.
As someone who did not care about Iron Man until a year ago, I have to credit the success of the MCU and its future projects to Iron Man setting the example as a superhero movie that isn’t cheesy, isn’t overly complicated, isn’t poorly written, isn’t bogged down with a needless love story, and doesn’t have cartoony special effects.
Good job, Favreau and Downey. Let’s hope the other teams can keep it going through the second Avengers movie and beyond. And maybe it’ll inspire DC to get their act together on a Justice League film and do it properly.