Stop me if you’ve heard this before: tech billionaire, dead parents, playboy lifestyle, British butler, self-made hero… yeah, yeah, yeah. Batman. Of course, Batman. Bruce Wayne, man’s man, nemesis to Gotham’s villains, brooding, lonely, tortured. But in this case, no: Iron Man. Tony Stark, Marvel’s tech billionaire hero, pushy, wry, motor-mouthed, packaged and delivered to audiences in the summer of 2008, the start of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
When Marvel first started shaping their new cinematic universe there was an inkling of an idea, a notion it could blossom into something larger—but as large as it’s become? I doubt anyone had any idea it could become this big. I doubt anyone at Marvel—and most certainly no one in the marketing department—would think that they could earn billions off of a tree man, a wise-cracking raccoon, and a green warrior woman all led by Andy from Parks and Recreation. Yet Groot, Rocket, Gamora and Star-Lord1 have become cultural touchpoints. Memes. Memes your mom sends out on Facebook. That’s reach. That’s powerful.
But it began with Tony Stark. And a promise the Marvel movies made from the beginning, a promise they’ve kept:
I am Iron Man.
At the end of the film, Tony is coached to read a SHIELD-prepared story as corny as the excuses K makes up for extra-terrestrial events in the Men in Black movies, some convoluted falderal about Iron Man really being his bodyguard and being there while he was gone because blah blah blah. He dismisses the cards, banters a bit with a reporter from Vanity Fair he earlier bedded and then reveals to her and the assembled journalists—and therefore the world—that he is Iron Man. Boom. Cut to credits.
Superheroes, long a staple of radio and then trickling slowly through television — The Lone Ranger and Superman in the 1950s, Batman the biggie of the 1960s—became a 1970s TV cash cow, giving us Wonder Woman, The Incredible Hulk, a Six Million Dollar Man, a Bionic Woman…For a while, TV was chockablock with heroes. And then the real force hit: Richard Donner’s Superman in 1978. Christopher Reeve as Superman, Margot Kidder as Lois Lane, and Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor lit up screens and gobbled up box office dollars. Superheroes were a smash. The franchise spawned three more films and a glorious wave that followed… except they didn’t. They dwindled off. It wasn’t until the second whack at putting DC on screen that it started to become a regular thing again. Tim Burton and Michael Keaton gave us 1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns (movies I am probably fonder of than anyone else at the site and could wax on about in their own articles) and Warner tried to continue the franchise with the terrible Batman Forever and the by now reappraised camp classic, Batman and Robin, with only the loosest of connective tissue being Michael Gough as Alfred and Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon. But superheroes were coming into their own. The franchise spawned a beloved cartoon show that branched off into a full DC universe of excellent cartoons, FOX got an entire lineup of Marvel series: X-Men, Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, Iron Man. Multi-season shows that covered arcs from the comics and went in their own weird directions as anyone who saw the Spider Saga—complete with a Stan Lee cameo in cartoon form—can attest to.
But the big deal was that now superheroes were a going concern. Studios were regularly trying to turn out new franchises. Some of it was reaching back to the classic days of The Shadow and The Phantom in attempts to bridge the pulp sensibilities of Indiana Jones with the classic status of Batman (not understanding, of course, that Batman himself was the apotheosis of these characters, not something that stood alongside them) while minimizing risk by getting the rights to these cultural dinosaurs for pennies. Or they went the new hero route, with characters like Steel and Spawn, attempting to turn 90s creations into instant classics. But the only one that continued to chug along was Batman.
Until Blade hit, that is. A quiet little production, doing its own thing, unloved, not noted to death by studio executives, Blade birthed itself into the world in 1998 and you could feel the change in theaters. Starring Wesley Snipes, the producers made the same smart choice Warner and Burton had made years before by going with Keaton. They chose a supremely talented man who had proven adept at both comedy and drama (at that point there’d be as many people who remembered Snipes from To Wong Foo… as from New Jack City) and let him loose in a film that, like Batman, chose to mix the origin into the over all story rather than going with an And Then structure.
From there, audiences got the X-Men franchise (which is more of an up and down mess than a roller coaster slathered in corndog vomit) and Hulk, both giving certain hints as to the continued attempt to force a franchise that studios still seemed to be on. The best of the bunch is director Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy. Too saddled by the third’s somewhat disappointing turn, but not enough to sink it as a whole. And superhero movies would have gone along like that, an irregular, yearly or bi-yearly attempt by a studio to shift a few pallets of action figures and collectible Pepsi bottles if the brain trust that guides the Marvel universe hadn’t come along and thought of a better way.
There’s a reason I brought up Batman in the beginning of this piece and it has to do with more than just the surface level similarities between the two characters. In a way, it’s fitting that Marvel went with Iron Man, a B-level comic character, but one who shares many details with the famous Caped Crusader. They are both billionaires, their parents are gone, they live decadently, they both have British butlers (even if Alfred is flesh and blood and Jarvis is a series of robotic arms on tracks and an omnipresent AI voice), they’re both self-made heroes. But, like Dumbledore says to Harry, it’s not where they’re alike that counts, but where they’re different. And they’re very different. The movies make that promise.
By going with a B-character like Iron Man, Marvel had less of an initial audience expectation. Sure, comic nerds (or those who watched the cartoon show) might have had some notions about what they wanted to see, but Tony Stark was as blank of a slate as it was possible to go with. His origin is the Batman origin when it’s boiled down. His arc a clear story of a selfish man learning all too quickly the errors of his ways when the bad things he’s been allowing others to do in his name come home to him personally. And, like Batman and Blade, Marvel made the wise casting choice in choosing Robert Downey, Jr.: a man equally good at drama or comedy. That choice provides someone already highly strung, a live wire that’s entertaining to watch, but can dial it down to a level of adjusted reality that allows you to still see that energy humming inside.
Downey, Jr., on a comeback kick after his addictions derailed what was an incredibly promising career, was a perfect choice for this new generation of hero, a tech billionaire in the 2000s, someone who could be as charming as Steve Jobs in front of an audience but could also back it up in the lab. Stark is a man with an endless capacity for words, but if his mouth is running on fast forward his brain is twice that. He’s just this side of being an itchy character, somebody who, in the hands of someone with less skill, would be borderline unwatchable. Here you can’t take your eyes off him. Downey, Jr. so dominates that when he’s not on screen, your brain Poochies (as in the ill-fated addition to Itchy and Scratchy on The Simpsons) his character: Where’s Tony? What’s he doing? He’s a man with a lazy grace, evidenced outwardly in his undone ties and the tennis shoes he pairs with his suits, but also by the unstudied but purposeful movements Downey, Jr. makes, whether it’s operating a 3D computer interface or sloshing a whiskey glass. Downey, Jr. also provides Stark with an undercurrent of sex that at any moment can turn back into boyish playfulness rather than continue into something aggressive and uncomfortable.
As a story, Iron Man is political and timely. Stark’s whole story is about turning his swords into plowshares after one of his own weapons almost kills him. He near-death experience in Afghanistan leads him on a quest where he will discover his weapons are being sold to both the United States’ military forces as well as the insurgents they’re fighting against. There are obvious real-world comments being made, but the idea of the US intervening in the Middle East, playing sides against each other, goes back beyond the current, endless war that’s been going on in some capacity since Bush began it after 9/11. It goes back to the Gulf War, back to our installing of the Shah of Iran in the 1950s. Americans pissing around in the Middle East and pissing off the locals is nothing new and bits and pieces of all of this get referenced in the scenes of people with long standing grievances trying to arm themselves and murder those in their way.
Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), the villain of the film and Stark’s former business partner (and that of his father, Howard, before him), believes in total war. He repeatedly celebrates Howard’s work on the Manhattan Project that gave the world the atomic bomb. Ironically enough, he’s also a Batman-like character, at least in the surface details. He’s a billionaire who lives in a traditional, giant mansion, paneled in dark wood and decorated with world artifacts, like Wayne Manor. He’s always conservatively attired. He even sets about having his own super suit built to continue to press his fascist ideology.
Another thing Iron Man does differently is that it firmly establishes itself in some version of our reality. This isn’t the Gothic Noir of Burton’s take on Batman, or the more grounded version of Nolan’s three times at, uh, bat. Even at its best, Gotham is a wonderland of a town with its own banks issuing its own money; its citizens never read the New York Times, but the Gotham Tribune. It’s so separate from reality that it’s barely connected to the DC universe as a whole. Contrast that with Tony Stark’s world. The man lives in Malibu. He’s captured in Afghanistan. The Air Force operates out of Edwards Air Force Base. Real locations that lend a genuine grounding to the story.
All this aside, however, it’s still Tony’s owning of his super persona that marks the film out. I am Iron Man. It’s not just a promise the movie makes about itself, it’s a promise to audiences for the entire Marvel universe.
A huge part of the Batman films, and most superhero films in general, is the will they/won’t they Sam and Diane tug-of-war between the hero maintaining his secret identity or being found out. Batman appalled comic fans when Alfred let reporter Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) into the Batcave and she discovered that Bruce was Batman. Batman Returns was centered around a do-si-do of secret identities, Selena Kyle (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Bruce figuring out each other through their work and interplay. Batman Forever, a true fart-fest of a movie, is the dumbest of the bunch. In this film, Batman (now played by a wooden Val Kilmer) does a dance of the dunces with Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman, making the best of an abysmal yo-yo of a character) who, whenever she’s with Batman fantasizes about Bruce, and whenever she’s with Bruce hungers for the Dark Knight. Even Nolan’s films keep hinging huge chunks on the revealing and hiding of Batman’s identity. If you were to strip each Batman film of plot shenanigans centered around protecting Bruce Wayne and his secret identity you’d lose a third or more of each one. You’d lose that much time out of probably two thirds of all superhero movies in general. Forget the eyeglasses—if Lois couldn’t put two and two together that Superman is around when Clark isn’t and vice versa, God help the investigative reporting for the Daily Planet. It’s lazy. It’s a crutch for sloppy writing. In terms of story, it’s those scenes in an episode of Scooby Doo where the Swamp Ghost is chasing the gang while they crisscross in and out of doors in the same hallway—but stretched out for half a movie. And these early franchise attempts did it over and over again.
Contrast all of these with Iron Man and the difference is, not to be too punny (well, a little), stark. Iron Man isn’t concerned with eating up plot minutes hiding who he is. He tells his friend Rhodey (Terrence Howard here, Don Cheadle in the rest of the films) who he is over the phone while Rhodey watches Iron Man outmaneuver planes on a monitor. In a scene that, in a different film—a Batman film, perhaps—would be played for camp, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Tony’s assistant, comes downstairs into his destroyed workshop while Tony frantically tries to get out of his suit. A lesser film would have had her distracted long enough for Tony to strip out of his costume and plant himself on a sofa, playing off why he was breathing so heavily, while she blithely believed his white lies and his persona was safe a while longer. Instead the film has her come across Tony tangled with the arms of Jarvis, trying to get the pieces off himself—essentially, she catches him with his pants down. It’s fresh. Tony is Iron Man. He knows it, the world can know it.
It’s Marvel’s promise to their audience. It’s their way of saying they aren’t going to do things the way they’ve been done over and over again. I am Iron Man: These are attempts at grounded stories. This isn’t just generic “World at stake” nonsense involving hulking, nearly identical monstrosities *coughAresSteppenwolfcough*. It relates to us, even if it is more spectacular because of the additional comic book flair. I am Iron Man: These stories aren’t going to devolve into farce over keeping the movie’s love interest in the dark about what magic underwear her boyfriend wears when he goes off to save the planet once more.
Don’t get me wrong. I think there are a fair number of issues that can be brought up with the Marvel movies. Someone complaining over too many origins would get a commiserating nod from me. But at the same time, we get so much more. So much more imagination, so much more joy, so much more heart. Characters who fight side by side because they love each other or fight each other because they are blinded to each other’s needs because they’re so close. I am Iron Man isn’t just something Tony says to own his status as a superhero. It’s a promise to the audience about what to expect from the universe unfurling before them. Marvel is Iron Man.