Iron Man: An Auspicious Launch
Oh man, Iron Man is a weird place to start. It’s also, of course, not a weird place to start at all - it’s the leadoff hitter in the MCU (and I’m willing to bet did not contemplate the existence of later movies that might comprise an MCU, or at least not this many later movies, although I will do exactly zero internet research to support that supposition), and we’re doing this thing chronologically, so here are. But, still - it’s hard to watch this 2008 movie in 2019 and claim with a straight face that the whole shebang has aged gracefully. I recently caught Aziz Ansari on his current stand-up tour, and he did a poignant bit about how what is “okay” in pop culture has changed dramatically over a short window of time, and he used The Hangover as an example, but Iron Man works pretty much just as well. If you squint a little, you can kinda get an idea of what this movie probably looked like to your ideal 2008 audience, but what was once standard and expected in that era would be immediate fodder for popcorn-throwing and think-pieces (like this one, I guess) if unleashed today.
Harsh, maybe, but Iron Man deserves it, at least in some thankfully isolated spots. There’s plenty of good in it too, but we’ll get to that; I’d rather knock out the problematic parts first. Here’s one way to sum up Iron Man: Iron Man is so very 2008. It’s 2008 with some extra 2008 on the side. From the first frame, the cinematography and editing do that Bad Boys 2 thing where they set out to dazzle you until you can’t see straight, and however well director Jon Favreau and his film buddies may succeed at that from a visual standpoint, the script, at least early in the movie - mostly as applied to Robert Downey Jr.’s motor-mouthed, almost compulsively turbo-mumbling Tony Stark - falls significantly flatter. I remember seeing Iron Man in a packed theater and laughing my 22-year-old face off at Tony’s rascally antics along with a raucous collection of my peers, but shit - I was 22, and that’s a stupid age to be. In the cold light of 2019, Tony’s persistent, degrading quips, and the way the movie uses them to holds Tony up as a paragon of wit and humor and desirability to women, feels pretty gross.
In what is literally the first scene of the movie (set in Afghanistan and scored to AC/DC’s “Back in Black”, natch, because 2008), Tony, drinking bourbon in the back of a military humvee, is noted for his love of Maxim (Maxim?!) cover models, mistakes the female soldier driving the vehicle for a man, is shocked when she reveals herself to be otherwise, decides that, come to think of it, he’s actually very much attracted to her bone structure now that he’s confirmed her gender, and finally confesses that he’s so enraptured by her that he can’t look away. It’s a nauseating, bewildering mix of demeaning teardown and horn-dog objectification, and even if Tony is introduced this way so that he can learn some hard lessons later, the movie doesn’t present much motivation for change: the female soldier loves every second of it. There’s a good bit more of this sort of thing in Iron Man, although it’s mostly front-loaded, at least. You’ve got your run-of-the-mill gay panic jokes, like when Tony tells Rhodey’s charges that Rhodey may or may not have (mistakenly! MISTAKENLY, GUYS!!) been tricked into finding a man attractive during some ambiguous spring break-related incident. You’ve got Tony employing a few sleazy one-liners to lure a critical Vanity Fair reporter into his bed, only to have Pepper Potts summarily oust her the next morning so that he can later fail to even conjure up her name.
You get the picture. Iron Man feels like a relic of a different time, even if that time was only eleven years ago. Parts of it (sexy flight attendants carousing with Tony on his private plane?) seem ripped directly from the wish fulfillment fantasies of adolescent boys overdosed on, well, Maxim, I guess. I’m going to be surprised (and disappointed) if, when I finally make it to the most recent Avengers movie, these kinds of jokes are still present. I’m guessing they’re not, because I imagine I would have heard about them if they were.
I want to get to the good stuff, though. Because, with the above out of the way, there’s a lot I loved about this movie. First off, the casting, of two roles in particular, is killer. The content of Robert Downey Jr.’s schtick aside, he brings a neurotic, fireball charisma to the role that goes a long way towards explaining why Iron Man is the movie that launched a thousand superheroes. He completely sells the “entitled playboy MIT robotics genius” thing, which has got to be hard as far as sells go (Elon Musk has been trying and failing for years now), and I found myself rooting for him even after strongly disliking him for the first hour or so (it helps that Pepper declines his advances at the end, as he certainly does not deserve to “get the girl” just yet). Terrence Howard is good, although his character feels a bit lost; Gwyneth Paltrow is fine, although GOOP; but the real prize here is Jeff Bridges, who I had completely forgotten was in this movie, personifying pure corporate evil as a shave-headed, mondo-bearded, Walter White-esque, fully pinstriped monster named, holy shit, OBADIAH STANE. My takeaway from Jeff Bridges in Iron Man: we need to let Jeff Bridges break bad more often. Dude is good at it. He’s chummy and gruff, like usual, but there’s an evil glint in his eye, and his demise, delivered via sky-piercing electrocution following events that allow him to grin menacing grins, pilot what looks very much like the iron giant from The Iron Giant, and generally inflict widespread carnage, feels like the only logical endpoint for his character.
The story is entertaining without being overly complex or too lore-heavy, a pitfall characterizing some of the later movies I’ve seen (again, though, it could be they’ll make perfect sense to me once I’m all caught up). My plot summary is as follows: Tony is CEO of an arms manufacturing company; he’s developing a sweet new missile; he’s kidnapped by the opposition team in Afghanistan, who demand that he build the missile for them instead; with the somewhat inexplicable help of a fellow prisoner-machinist named Yinsen, whose name I definitely heard as “Yensid”, as in “Disney” spelled backwards, as in the maybe-evil sorcerer that helped out Mickey Mouse in the 1940s, Tony builds a prototype Iron Man suit instead, and his captors somehow don’t notice him doing so, even with copious surveillance cameras; he Iron Mans his way out, goes home, announces an end to arms manufacturing, and is undermined and eventually betrayed by Stane, who loves money way more than he loves minimizing warfare and arms races; he has a rock ‘em sock ‘em robot showdown with Stane, who has built his own, more humongous Iron Man Suit; he comes out victorious; roll credits. Good stuff! Favreau ensures the story is briskly and competently told (all the more impressive given this, well, turbulant-skewing take on the filming process), and he bakes in plenty of then-revolutionary special effects, most of which still look totally passable today.
Summing up: Iron Man is a proud, defiant product of 2008, and even if a lot of the peripheral stuff is a little icky by today’s standards, it’s mostly in the first half hour or so, and I found the movie overall to be eminently watchable and remarkably confident as a standalone superhero caper. That it also ultimately functioned as a lift-off point for an entire universe of subsequent films is nuts, and I’m jazzed to see who we check in with next. Well, that’s not true, I’m actually not jazzed at all - I know we’re checking in with the Incredible Hulk, and I know his movie is supposed to be less than Incredible. But this is the task I’ve assigned myself, and I’m not one to shy away from a challenge. See you next time.
Bits & Pieces
Sweet, merciful capitalism, the product placement! Audi must have dropped many, many hundos to secure this many car cameos, and it’s hilarious that not one of its cars incurs any serious damage. Burger King’s plug may be even more shameless, though: when Tony returns from imprisonment, all he wants is an “American cheeseburger”, and that apparently means a Burger King cheeseburger, which is showcased in lavish close-up. Tony...that’s gross.
Hey, there’s that guy from SHIELD! I didn’t realize he was involved this early on. The fact that he parades in and out of scenes without ever identifying what the fuck he’s doing or why he’s there indicates that there was, in fact, a plan for sequels, because otherwise, WHAT are you doing here, Phil Coulson?
First Stan Lee cameo too, as, uh, Hugh Hefner. For some reason, I thought he tended to show up either as himself or as just a face in the crowd. Looking forward to seeing how this evolves.
I liked the props given to hard science/R&D/trial and error. Tony tries to use his homebrewed Iron Man suit to literally “reach for the stars”, utterly fails, makes some changes to the suit, and later uses that knowledge against Stane, who has failed to put in the same level of work.
I wrote down “Tony SNARK hahaha” in my notes but couldn’t find a way to incorporate that into my write-up, so...Tony SNARK hahaha!