2008 truly was a different time. When Iron Man was released during the summer of that year: there were no sprawling cinematic universes, The Dark Knight was still in post-production, and I was an 11 year old heterosexual. Over the past 13 years, all of that has changed. Cinematic Universes seem to be a dime a dozen, The Dark Knight has gone down in history as one of the greatest superhero films of all time, and I have become a 24 year old bisexual with a marvellous fiancé. One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is how good the original Iron Man is. The origin story of weapons manufacturer-turned-vindicator Tony Stark has found its way into the mythos of popular culture, kickstarting a decade-long franchise that shows no sign of slowing down. Batmen have come and gone over the years but it seems like Robert Downey Jr is practically irreplaceable as Iron Man.
It’s easy to forget just how much was riding on the success of this film. At the time, Marvel Studios was best known for its infamous 1986 movie Howard the Duck, and as a result had sold off many of its most popular characters. The rights for Tony Stark in particular had spent time with Universal Pictures, 20th Century Fox, and New Line Cinema before Marvel reacquired the rights in 2006. Even then, Marvel was relying on Paramount Pictures to actually distribute the film. Meanwhile, the casting of Robert Downey Jr was a major deal considering he was making a career comeback after his well publicised arrest relating to drug possession in the late 1990s. All of this was riding on the shoulders of director Jon Favreau, hot off of the heels of Zathura, and Kevin Feige, who had been present for every Marvel-related film since X-Men. Feige hoped that if this and the following film The Incredible Hulk did well, that perhaps they could make several other films to culminate in a project about The Avengers: Earths Mightiest Heroes.
Needless to say, Iron Man was a success, raking in $585million at the Box Office and earning the title as the 8th highest grossing film of that year. It kickstarted the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which at the time of publication, has grossed $22.56billion and has practically single-handedly ensured that nerdy film critics continue to have things to write about. I know it sounds like I’m gushing, but I really feel like I can’t overstate how important Iron Man was, and still is. Without it, there is no MCU, and there might not even be an Avengers. There’s an alternate timeline where Kevin Feige’s experiment failed and it is seen as their Dark Universe, but I am so thankful that it’s not this one. With all of that history laid bare, let’s take a look at the film itself to see how it sits within the universe it created.
Chronologically, Iron Man is the 3rd film in the MCU, taking place in 2009. At the time, it was presumed to take place in the year it was released but, with further MCU releases, the timeline became a little bit murky. The official Marvel timeline has it taking place in 2010, closer to the events of the following films. The main reason that Iron Man, and the rest of those “Phase 1” movies, work, is that it stands alone instead of setting up a grander universe. I could write an entire article about why practically every single Shared Universe fails these days, but the main reason is that they attempt to recreate Avengers Assemble instead of Iron Man. Yes, Avengers Assemble was instrumental to the MCU’s success, but it was built on the foundations of Iron Man. This film didn’t set up the universe as much as the universe extracted elements from this film. As a result, this also works as part of the larger story by showing us what happened to Howard Stark, Nick Fury, and Phil Coulson, whilst introducing us to Howard’s grown son Tony who will become a lynchpin going forwards.
Iron Man really isn’t about the MCU, it’s about Tony, so as a result there isn’t much chronology to discuss here. Perhaps the biggest seeds planted are The Ten Rings, and the treatment of villains. In retrospect, this introduction to The Ten Rings is fairly understated. They’re presented as your run of the mill villainous organisation, but they’re never actually “defeated” as such. A couple of seemingly key players die, but the organisation itself will live on to appear again in Iron Man 3 and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. The real villain here is Tony’s mentor Obidiah Stane as a representation of Capitalism, which is an irony not lost on me. Special shout out to the Walt Disney Concert Hall, named after the man but not owned by the company, which feels like a reminder of what is to come. Stane ends this film by dying, which is something we’re going to see happen to a lot of these MCU villains, and he’s one of the best ones. Previously we’ve seen Red Skull die but Yon-Rogg survive, so this feels like the start of a pattern.
Iron Man is a film that I have no issues gushing about. It led to a franchise that I love, is arguably one of the most important films in pop culture history, and still genuinely holds up today. It works on its own and as part of a larger narrative that hadn’t even been written yet. The soundtrack is noticeably 2008, which sets it apart from the rest of the film (so is the CGI, though that is consistent through the franchise). I know that what came after has become an unstoppable behemoth and there are some who tire of it, but damn Iron Man is good.