by Michael B. Hock
Ten years ago a quick conversation between Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Downey, Jr. changed the face of superhero movies forever. It took place after the credits, so you had to know to stick around. Unfortunately, staying after the credits wasn’t really the norm back when Marvel first released Iron Man in 2008. We had heard rumors that Samuel L. Jackson would be playing Nick Fury, but we didn’t know that it would happen for sure. We also didn’t know that it would end up spanning 10 years and over 18 movies.
To take you back to what Avengers: Infinity War means to me as a fan, I’m going to talk to you about one of my favorite terrible movies: Steel. If you haven’t heard of it, then you’re right on par with everyone when the movie was released. Steel was a superhero who came out of the Death of Superman… a former weapons scientist who went into hiding as a construction worker, he put on a suit of steel to honor Superman’s death. The movie, starring Shaquille O’Neal was… not good. It dropped the whole idea of “Superman” and mostly featured a 7 foot tall man running around in the world’s least convincing suit of armor.
I bring this up because this would be the world’s easiest movie to have started the trend of cinematic universes: Here’s a guy who idolizes Superman, builds a suit like Superman, and saves the day like Superman. His origin, costume, and general aesthetic is based on Superman. And yet, they made an entire movie without once saying the word “Superman” and the closest we get is a close-up of Shaq’s Superman arm tattoo. It would be similar if you had a movie about Lincoln, but skipped that whole “Gettysburg Address” thing. It was unthinkable for two superheroes to show up in the same movie, unless it had been negotiated out years in advance.
My point is, I’ve been waiting for these cinematic universes to pop up for a while. So, Avengers: Infinity War for me is less of a movie, and more of a culmination of all the things I’ve wanted to see in superhero movies for a while: a bunch of superheroes building towards something. And because of that, I revisited Iron Man.
It’s difficult to watch Iron Man now and not think about all of the ways everything has changed since this first movie, back when we were just getting the one Marvel movie a year. The biggest noticeable difference is that there’s a new actor in the place of Rhodey, who would go on to be War Machine. (I like Don Cheadle better, but watching Terrance Howard isn’t terrible.) But his presence is interesting as they set him up to be this major character, so I think, while we all accept how great Don Cheadle is, something jarring about seeing him in this movie right now.
Phil Coulson keeps showing up, and I had forgotten that he really did just sort of had this weird presence in the movie. He’s certainly important, but at the same time he blends in like you’d expect a SHIELD agent to, trying to get information on rumors of this suit of armor that Tony Stark built, all while pestering mostly Pepper Potts. It’s odd seeing him, particularly with the way he was excised from the Marvel Universe and onto the TV show and away from everything. That part makes me a little sad. I really liked this version of Coulson, and I wish we could have seen him develop a lot more.
Iron Man is a small movie compared to what would happen down the road. I don’t mean that as an insult… but it’s a very personal journey for Tony Stark to figure out who he was, and it’s one that has a very strong through line in the rest of the Marvel movies. I really think these movies could be viewed as the Tony Stark story as he looks for the best possible way to help people, and failing a lot of the time. His arrogance in Iron Man 2 brought people villains like Whiplash, and it was that arrogance that almost got Hydra their own fleet of Ant-Men in… well, Ant-Man. As he sought to make the world better, he also gave us Ultron, and eventually, a Civil War. It’s interesting to see him pull back, now trying to mentor someone like Spider-man. But Iron Man really kicks off that arc, it shows us how he wants to change, how he wants to be a better person. I think that’s often missed as the third or fourth building gets thrown at the bad guy in these later stories. (After 8 lines of dialogue in which we’re assured they’re empty. Thanks for overacting to Man of Steel, critics.)
There are some bumps. The villain, played by the Dude himself, is very one note, and basically defaults to (a very popular trick at the time) an evil version of the superhero. Also, he’s dispatched pretty quickly, despite the fact that in the comics Obadiah Stane has a long history of making Iron Man’s life pretty miserable. Also, there are some tricks in Iron Man’s suit that seem a little outdated, like the terrorist seeking missiles in one scene. But these are minor, and they show growing pains for something that would be perfected and enjoyed.
I liked revisiting Iron Man. I liked that throwback to see where it all started. It was a great movie then. It’s a great movie now. But honestly, I really enjoyed looking back on what started this grand vision of what the Marvel Cinematic Universe eventually became. I like this embrace of childlike wonder that allowed a movie franchise to develop that wasn’t afraid to bring in our heroes, and show us an actual comic book, come to life. All it took was one little scene, filmed as a little in joke in between two actors having fun.