Originally published May 1, 2016, on comicbookmovie.com
In 2008, Marvel Studios was scheduled to release its first film. Based on a second-tier comic character, directed by a comedic actor/director, and starring a “washed up” lead actor, Iron Man was a risky venture for any studio, let alone a startup company able to exist only because its parent had finally overcome a decade-long bankruptcy through licensing its upper-echelon catalog to major production companies. Not only could the film’s failure have squelched the fledgling studio before it really started, but it also could’ve been a harbinger of doom for the comic book hero flick in general, as the previous 2 years’ major genre entries had been only moderately received at best. (2006 had seen Superman Returns and X-Men: The Last Stand, while 2007 yielded the likes of Spider-Man 3 and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.) An underperforming first-time outing for an untested superhero franchise surely could’ve meant disaster for all involved and had far-reaching effects throughout the industry.
As history shows, however, Iron Man was an international smash with critics and audiences alike, ending with a worldwide box office of $585+ million and a Certified Fresh rating of 94% on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. So what was the recipe for the film’s massive success?
The opening sequence is chock full of quick-witted zingers delivered by Robert Downey, Jr. as the titular hero’s alter ego, Tony Stark, and ends with a rather gut-wrenching, real-world action sequence that sees the hero of the piece sustain a life-threatening wound to the chest. The ensuing flashback to the previous day’s events briskly and effectively encapsulates Tony’s backstory and establishes the characters of most of the main cast (who turn in solid performances for the most part) without wasting a bit of screen time.
After returning to the chronology divergent point of the film’s opening, director Jon Favreau and crew continue to waste no time in storytelling as they swiftly execute a believable change of heart in their primary protagonist, which leads directly into Stark’s transformation into the film’s super hero namesake. The sci-fi tech aspects are juggled quite handily throughout the film as well.
Unlike most previous superhero adaptations, the story boasts a sense of real-world relevancy, dealing with the post-9/11 hot topics of war and terrorism. The character arc of a protagonist beginning as an unrepentant, self-justified, war-capitalizing jerk yet ending as an armored defender of justice and innocence everywhere brings an extra measure of thematic gravity to the piece that so many of its peers lacked then—and even still lack today.
The narrative continues along at a brisk pace with plenty of spectacular action sequences, as well as meaningful, personal character moments, until climaxing with a necessarily-cliche, though deftly delivered smackdown between hero and villain, fully clad in robot-suits—a sci-fi fanboy’s dream come true.
While the picture takes risks here and there that very few similar flicks would dare, perhaps no two are as shocking and commendable as Tony Stark’s closing revelation to the world and an after credit cameo for the ages.
As I exited the theater after first seeing the film, I turned to the person with whom I had viewed the flick (who was not as big a fan of the genre yet was as equally as impressed with the effort as I) and said, “That film clicked on all cylinders.” I stand by that assessment.
While the intelligent script, RDJ’s career-rejuvenating performance, and Jon Favreau’s pitch-perfect direction ultimately anchor the film, the peripheral elements, including a stellar supporting cast featuring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeff Bridges, dazzling visual effects and action sequences, and an unforgettable post-credit stinger, also help to forever galvanize Iron Man as a genre game-changer and one of the greatest comic book films of all time.