This is one in a series of posts discussing the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including their narrative strengths and weaknesses.
Superheroes have been present in film for decades, although the quality of those films have fluctuated dramatically through the years. As a genre, superhero films seemed dead by 2000. Following the declining quality of Batman films in the late 1990s, people had given up on good superhero films. The last good Superman movie had been released in 1980, and the last good Batman movie had been released in either 1992 or 1995, depending on whether you enjoyed the MTV hypercharged Batman Forever. Still, Batman Forever marked the beginning of the end for superhero films in the 90s. For better or worse, that film was a drastic shift in tone for the Batman film franchise, and its follow up, Batman and Robin, was considered a disaster.
The superhero genre would lay dormant, for the most part, until 2002 and the release of Marvel’s Spider-Man. Directed by Sam Raimi and featuring both Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, Spider-Man brought new energy and life into the genre. Its sequel, Spider-Man 2, was widely considered one of the great works of the genre. It also transcended its own material, inspiring hope and portraying a vibrant New York at a time when the city was still recovering from the impact of the 9/11 bombings. It was the success of those films that set the stage for the launch of Marvel’s own foray into film. Beginning with the only moderately popular superhero, Iron Man, Marvel Studios set about to create its own line of films. These films, part of its Marvel Cinematic Universe, would be managed by Marvel itself, rather than outsourced to other studios like Sony, who had created the Spider-Man franchise.
As a narrative start to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Iron Man had a lot of heavy lifting to do. First, it had to win over the audience with a hero who, while popular, wasn’t nearly on the same level of popularity as other Marvel icons like Spider-Man or Wolverine. Marvel solved this by taking an approach to its film that it would later repeat in its other cinematic entries: its narrative focus was placed on the person of Tony Stark, rather than on the superheroics of Iron Man.
Stark, the playboy billionaire, womanizer, and heavy drinker, is portrayed as charming and suave. In terms of character development, the audience is presented with an individual that they can both be entertained by one the one hand while also feeling somewhat cautious about, considering Stark’s irresponsible behaviors. The film’s focus on Stark’s charm is paired with his genius, which is on display as he creates a highly advanced suit of battle armor while sitting in a cave with only rudimentary equipment. So, the opening half hour of the film balances both the irresponsible side of Stark as well as the admirable side.
Once Stark does return, changed by his experiences in a war zone, the energy of the film shifts toward portraying Stark’s ultimate motivation for developing the Iron Man suit: to make up for the weapons his company manufactured and deployed into war zones. While it’s easy to assume that Stark is working on the suit because he think it’s cool to be a superhero (and make no mistake, Stark takes obvious joy in the suit he creates, Stark is constantly presented to the audience as a man who, having seen the devastation his company’s weapons can create, is determined to change the course of his company and forcibly remove such weapons from war zones.
As such, the writers also made a smart choice is opening the movie in Afghanistan. Following Stark’s character development is centered around his transition from playboy to conscience burdened hero, the movie continues to ask its audience whether the unfettered development of weaponry is smart, even if that development is done by ‘the good guys.’ At the time (and even today), American remained trapped in a war in Afghanistan that seemed to have no end despite heavy weapons development and production. Whether more weapons development can provide a true solution to global problems is debated here, in Stark’s character development. This is a theme that carries over into Iron Man films as well as the Avengers series of movies, but here in Iron Man, it reaches its natural conclusion with the development of the Iron Monger warsuit, an adversary than can counter the Iron Man suit and one based on Stark’s own technological breakthroughs.
It should also be noted that the movie does all this character and thematic development while doing a fair amount of universe-building and portraying believable, engaging relationships. The writers of Iron Man set just enough pieces in place, like the presence of Phil Coulson and his position in S.H.I.E.L.D., to indicate that there’s a larger Marvel universe to come. Unlike some future Marvel movies, which became too focused on universe-building and setting up new franchises, the original Iron Man never gets too bogged down in trying to portray the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe it belongs to. It’s a case of a little going a long way.
The relationships portrayed in the film also take center stage, probably occupying as much screen time, or more, than scenes in which Iron Man goes into battle. Stark’s philandering ways put him at odds with his personal assistant, Pepper Potts, but as he grows and shifts into a more responsible adult, he also finds himself comfortably sliding into a relationship with Potts. His relationship with best friend, Rhodey, moves a similar direction throughout the film. As Stark continues to develop and assume more responsibility for his past deeds, the respect Rhodey has for him grows.
It should be noted that Stark’s character, though it shifts with respect to responsibility, never deviates from his portrayal as the cocky, smartest-guy-in-the-room. Stark continues to be cocky and slightly insulting, but the degree to which he shows he cares does change. His willingness to invest in the people around him grows alongside his newfound social conscience. As such, Iron Man succeeds on multiple levels from a narrative perspective, deftly weaving relationships, character growth, and world building into one single film.
It’s amazing to think that, had Iron Man failed, there might not be a Marvel Cinematic Universe. Had the film failed, it might have put an early end to this grand experiment in the superhero genre. For writers looking to the film for example of how to succeed, there are many lessons to be taken away. However, the most important is that well developed characters are the key to a successful narrative. Their development over the course of a story not only creates an engaging plot line, but also carries the development of a story’s themes. Lose the character, and you lose the story.
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Bonus! Enjoy one of the most definitive scenes from the original Iron Man.