It’s almost hard to judge 2008’s ‘Iron Man’ as a standalone film anymore. With the entire weight of the mega franchise that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe on its shoulders it’s almost weird to think of it as a singular entity, to watch it as if nothing exists outside of it, to see the many Easter eggs peppered throughout it as nothing more than knowing winks to the audience rather than an actual promise of what is to come. This is a movie that changed the entire film industry, that reshaped what we thought of as a franchise. Now that we are a full decade away from its release and looking upon the culmination of the entire MCU, I’m going to talk about it again.
Despite being the first entry in the MCU, I wouldn’t hesitate to put ‘Iron Man’ near the top in terms of how I would rank the plethora of movies to come from the studio. It’s such a character focussed movie that is driven primarily by the choices and actions of its protagonist that it is hard not to see it as a compelling character study. We are drawn in to understand who Tony Stark is as a person before the plot itself actually kicks in. We see his vulnerabilities and flaws but we can’t help but be endeared to him as a result of his charisma.
This may sound like basic story structure but in a genre that these days relies on our assumptions of who each character is and skipping it in favour of going straight to mindless action, it’s so refreshing to see a movie like ‘Iron Man’ that actually familiarises its audience with the characters so that their impending struggle feels all the more earned. The plot itself may be somewhat basic but it’s saved by putting such an intriguing character at its centre, and allowing him to drive the narrative in every sense of the word. The specific story details of ‘Iron Man’ could not exist in any other superhero film because there simply isn’t another superhero quite like Tony Stark.
So I might as well cut to the chase and talk about Robert Downey Jr’s performance since it’s pointless trying not to. He dominates this movie in a way that few actors every have within a s superhero movie. Franchises tend not to allow for big and showy performances like this for fear of dwarfing the action set pieces, but director Jon Favreau clearly understands that the heart of this movie lies in how invested the audience are within Stark as a character, so he lets Downey go all out on the role.
He crafts a performance that so brilliantly treads the line of likable but still deeply flawed. So as a result Stark makes for an intriguing and involving protagonist. We’re drawn into his charisma and energy but can recognise the weaknesses that lie within him, which not only leaves room for development but makes it feel highly earned as well. The film’s entire structure is locked around letting Stark’s own actions dictate exactly where the narrative will go, so we’re not just watching someone changing via external forces, we are seeing them directly confronting their own flaws.
Rumour has it that because Marvel we’re struggling to find resources to make the film, Downey improvised much of his dialogue to save on script writing. The result is a sporadic and quick witted mood that never grows stale or tiresome. It allows Downey to easily exude charisma whilst also giving plenty of weight to the dramatic moments when he is required to hit them. Also because a lot of the humour is character driven, like the rest of the movie, it doesn’t feel out of synch as it does in other MCU entries.
The only unfortunate by product of Downey’s dominance is that some of the other characters feel a bit side lined. Not in a way that deeply damages to film, but just in a sense that some of them feel a bit static as Stark evolves beside them. The script does an excellent job of conveying the characters dynamic so as the film moves along we don’t have to waste much time with exposition and feel to weight of each interaction as it occurs. Gwyneth Paltrow turns in a performance that acts as a great contrast to Stark’s more manic characteristics. Paltrow plays the role coyly enough that she avoids turning the character into the wet blanket she could have been. Pepper is a voice of reason but still has her own fully formed personality.
Jeff Bridges turns in an equally magnetic performance as Obadiah Stane. There are some issues with how quickly he assumes the role of antagonist which links back to the character development problems I said earlier. But at least when Bridges does become the villain of the piece he takes on the role with full bravado. Perhaps the reason is feels awkwardly jarring is that Stane isn’t introduced as the villain but rather morphs into one, which would be fine if his transition was a little smoother. But as I said, at least Bridges doesn’t go in by halves as he really stands against Downey to form a captivating adversary that stands as a pleasing thematic counterpoint to Stark as well.
Given the amount of special effects within ‘Iron Man’ it’s somewhat surprising that the movie has aged as well as it has. I think a lot of this is down to Favreau’s expertise with CGI and how to compose it within each frame. He demonstrated with 2016’s ‘The Jungle Book’ that he knows how to give CGI a tactile feel to it and he does exactly the same thing within ‘Iron Man’, injecting a sense of weight into every action scene and making them feel constantly engaging with his versatile methods of conveying each set piece.
‘Iron Man’ is a character driven superhero movie that even with the weight of the entire MCU on its shoulders, still stands as a stellar entry to both its franchise and genre.