The Marvel-verse clearly owes Jon Favreau a huge debt. As much as Kevin Feige, in his own formative way, he’s the man who set the tone for their cinematic endeavours. You only have to look at the okay performances of the other contenders in the then-forthcoming Avengers to recognise Favreau had found a particular alchemy that the rest, at the time, lacked. It was he who pushed for not-so-long-since persona-non-grata Robert Downey Jr to take the lead (and there hasn’t been a piece of Marvel casting so assured since, with the possible exception of Tom Holland). And it was his looser style that allowed the characters to breathe, ensuring a solid, workmanlike structure didn’t feel restrictive. Yeah, then he went and made Iron Man II, but nobody’s perfect.
Favreau isn’t a great director, mind. He’s a proficient journeyman – no shame in that whatsoever – but he has several crucial tools in his arsenal that put him ahead of many of his peers. Firstly, as an actor, he’s a dab hand at eliciting strong performances. Added to which, he has no fear of special effects.
Where he isn’t necessarily so hot is with story, something you can see to a greater or lesser extent with all the pictures he’s directed since Iron Man made him a hot property (Iron Man II, Cowboys and Aliens, The Jungle Book). At his worst, his naturally relaxed style can lead to a sense of bloat and lack of focus (Iron Man II, ironically Chef, which many saw as a response to being critically hauled over coals with Cowboys). At his best, you get Iron Man, where the majority of the movie works like gangbusters. It’s only with Marvel’s Achilles’ heel, the final act, that the picture comes something of a cropper, and even then, it’s through simply being rote rather than rubbish.
As with Hulk, Iron Man had undergone in the region of two decades of development hell by the time it finally entered production (including directors Stuart Gordon and Joss Whedon, and actors Nicolas Cage and Tom Cruise). The screenplay wasn’t even finished during filming, hence more nerves for Marvel (a lead they weren’t sold on, dialogue changing by the day).
The process had seen Favreau cherry pick the best of two different scripts, with a polish by the reliable John August, but it’s difficult to tell if the improv of the leads (and Downey Jr in particular) was really a result of this or Favreau’s approach generally (“if Robert Altman had directed Superman”). Jeff Bridges called it a “$200m student film” (it cost $140m, but $200m is the common price tag these days), but the freedom of performance and interaction is only possible because the chosen structure is tried and tested.
Well, to an extent. The most obvious path would be a complete change on the part of the protagonist, from unscrupulous arms dealer to saint. Instead, we have a cake-and-eat-it transition from amoral self-involved narcissist to moral self-involved narcissist, one with a healthy disrespect for authority to boot; the seeds are here for the shift in attitude Stark will undergo in Civil War, but right now he’s on the other side of the fence.
Indeed, the picture’s one that juggles an apparently overt shift that perhaps isn’t as resounding as we’d like it to be. “Peace means having a bigger stick than the other guy” has only really moved from Tony giving the United States Corporation a free hand to making himself the arbiter of what’s appropriate; he’s the one wielding the bigger stick now, and implicitly right in his course, based on what a really bad guy would do (Bridges’ Obadiah Stane). Most superficially demonstrating this “Do as I say not do as I do” ethos is that the first thing he does on returning to “civilisation” is get a McDonalds.
Black Panther co-writer Joe Robert Cole, who helped deliver possibly the blandest superhero yet committed to celluloid in T’Challa (and that’s including Captain America), recently offered his thoughts on whether Tony would be acceptable in the current environment, one with “this very vapid, unintelligent President… Think back to Tony Stark, him being douche and being okay. I wonder if the response would be ‘Oh, it’s cool that he’s douchey and disrespectful to women… That’s fine’. I think we’re at a different place. I think that it’s a better place”.
Given the moribund characterisation in Black Panther, that less-than-insightful analysis doesn’t really surprise me; Tony’s entire arc is that of a flawed individual required to grow as he continues to make mistakes, and accordingly, his every facet isn’t intended as a positive (he was an unabashed playboy, one who eventually forsook the lifestyle). Of course Tony Stark’s cool (which doesn’t mean everything he says or does is cool); he’s an enormously charismatic character as played by Downey Jr – superhero movies haven’t seen the like before or since – and alas, T’Challa’s an unfortunate vacuum by comparison.
So, if you’re keen on the elimination of nuance and movies delivering anodyne product, yeah, we’re in a better place; I’d much rather not have to make a choice between having interesting characters at the heart of superhero movies and ones ticking boxes on the progressiveness scale (get a strong writer, and they can be both). Both Black Panther and Wonder Woman are deeply average pictures, however laudable their achievements in changing perceptions of movie-going demographics.
Favreau’s movie has a habit of telling you one thing while doing another, much as the ramifications of later Marvel movies don’t quite seem to follow through (the corruption of SHIELD in The Winter Soldier, for example). It’s evident that arms dealing is bad, and dealing arms to terrorists is “badder”, but by moving the Vietnam of the original comic to Afghanistan, a choice of convenience, the picture is guilty of complicity in perpetuating the myth of the justified War on Terror.
Indeed, the best, most effective and enthralling sequences come from Tony fighting this foreign foe, rather than the corporate overlord who makes hay from conflict. It’s essentially the kind of lazy villainy that gives us the Libyans in Back to the Future, but unlike the guilt-free catch-all of Nazis in The First Avenger, it carries with it strains of racism and stereotyping.
That’s evidently why Professor Yinsen (Shaun Toub) is on hand to help Tony, serving the get-out of the filmmakers being able to say they weren’t racist because look. He not only literally saves the hero’s life, but also serves the function of the “Magic Negro” trope, displaying impossibly spiritual wisdom (“So you are a man who has everything… and nothing”) in the face of materialist ignorance. This is revealed to be a particularly cynical and arbitrary device in Iron Man, as Yinsen in sacrificed in the most blatant and unnecessary fashion to buy Tony time; in other words, he’s immediately expendable so Tony can get on with his own, more important story.
The device of repositioning the man who has everything as the underdog is well-worn and so entirely succeeds, helped in no small way by Downey’s ready wit. It’s such a thoroughbred that it could be retooled for Dr. Strange eight years later and not feel repetitive (unlike Stark, Strange does undergo a dramatic change of personality). Favreau delivers the escape with due care, ensuring that it’s imperfect by design (the prototype War Monger) and execution (Stark shoots high before plummeting low).
The best staging comes with his subsequent revenge on his captors, however, when Yinsen’s village comes under threat (because there needs to be a personal stake, or they wouldn’t matter?) This sequence stands up with the best action Marvel has offered, and crucially, the effects still look dynamite (Favreau took care to make the cuts between the CGI and physical suits seamless). Tony can blast Afghani terrorists with impunity, of course, but when he encounters the US Air Force (continuing a superlative extended set piece), resulting in a mishap to one of the F-22 Raptors, he saves those innocent war mongers.
Tony’s necessary surgery, inserting an electromagnet that keeps shrapnel from entering his heart, is about as grisly as a PG-13 will allow, and Favreau shrewdly opts to dilute subsequent sequences with humour, such as Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) helping Stark connect up the MKII arc reactor. It does, nevertheless, beggar belief that he can survive with a hole in his chest so massive that Pepper can all-but stick her arm in there and fiddle around (and while we’re being practical about these things, it’s a wonder he isn’t permanently on drugs to prevent infection and rejection).
Tony effectively becomes a cyborg as a result, and the Stan Winston suit design is just great (a rare case where it’s arguably superior to the comics). I suspect it’s no coincidence that the two most popular big screen superheroes (the other being Spidey) have the most effectively transposed “costumes”.
As such, Iron Man is the positive, friendly face of Elon Musk’s nefarious transhumanism agenda (tellingly, Favreau and Downey met Musk prior to production), one oddly shaded by his converse sounding of the alarm over the AI threat. Albeit, Tony will ultimately buck the trend of ever-increasing reliance on technology, wrestling back his own body and personal space, at least to a degree. Iron Man’s sharp relief is a more tangible, immediate threat, however: the overt weaponisation of Stark’s invention by Stane (“Do you really think that, just because you have an idea, that it belongs to you?”)
This is where Marvel’s villain problem first announces itself, right at the outset of the decade-spanning endeavour. There’s nothing to complain about in Bridges’ performance; quite the contrary, he’s the perfect combination of charm and duplicity (it’s also one of his last roles prior to becoming fatally infected with mumble mouth). Stane was originally intended to become the villain in the sequel (we have, ironically, Mark Millar to thank for nixing that, having voiced his complaints about the Mandarin), moved up when the Mandarin fell away.
The problem is, there’s nothing original or engaging about Stane’s scheming; he’s out of the Lex Luther school of corporate mischief making, and by the time he suits up as the Iron Monger he’s been well and truly reduced to B-grade villainy. That functionality is evident in the climactic fight too, a better-rendered version of the unending finale of Robocop 2, as two metal men slug it out and the more diminutive ultimately perseveres.
Other elements have gone through evolution since, but remain essentially the same, positive or negative. Rhodey is essentially a massively boring character, whether played by Terence Howard or Don Cheadle (just as his War Machine suit is an uninspired derivation of the Iron Man costume). As such, the sequel beckoning “Damn. Next time, baby” could only possibly titillate the comics faithful.
In contrast, Pepper Potts ought to be a bit of a loss, the faithful assistant nursing unrequited love for her boss, but Paltrow and Downey bring such chemistry to bear that she’s one of the highlights of the movie whenever on screen (all the Gwynie deniers will no doubt strenuously disagree). Paul Bettany’s J.A.R.V.I.S. is likewise a treat, entirely deadpan and earning regular laughs accordingly.
One thing I can’t get on board with is SHIELD, though. Even when used deliberately as a plot mechanism in The Winter Soldier, the fact of them fails to fascinate, so being expected to appreciate Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) popping up throughout, unable to reduce his organisation to an acronym, is no kind of treat. Coulson is ultra-bland (I never understood the appreciation for the character, or why his death was supposed to mean anything in Avengers – which, of course, it didn’t, thanks to the Whedon magic wand). And, as much as the group may serve to whet appetites for the eventual Avengers Initiative (cue: the first in an albatross of post-credits sequences), in and of themselves they’re bereft of interest or dramatic heft.
Also of note: a decent score from Ramin Djawadi, but what you remember, alas, is the insistent AC/DC and Black Sabbath, neither of whom really grab me. The Stan Lee cameo represents one of the series’ best gags full stop (“You look great, Heff”), meanwhile. Iron Man’s secret is that it’s a solid movie elevated by its key casting decision and intuitive design nods. Neither of which is to be underestimated, but the plot is only ever serviceable and unremarkable. It doesn’t need to be anything more to introduce the character (busying it up further would likely have led to diminishing returns): it works, it’s agreeable and it’s all about the star-making Downey Jr turn; he’s given the role and runs with it, doing what he does best, which is be a ball of relentless, whip-smart energy and creativity.
The lesson is, you can also apply all the Iron Man elements without a solid backbone, plot-wise, and you get Iron Man II. That said, the sheer confidence with which Stark concedes the traditional secret-identity trappings is the perfect capper to Iron Man, announcing that, however many beats the movie makes that are readily recognisable and well-worn, it’s hero is fundamentally distinct. And remains so a decade on.