Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Rust Proof: Iron Man at 15

Here in 2023, we're still a long way off from the golden anniversary of the Golden Avenger's first solo film but I say the fifteenth anniversary of the release of 2008's Iron Man is still a momentous occasion. Not only is it the anniversary of Iron Man but it's also the anniversary of the MCU. Being the first release from the newly minted Marvel Studios, the first time that Marvel itself was fully in charge of bringing its characters to the screen, a lot was riding on Iron Man. And by "a lot," I mean everything. It's no exaggeration to say that the success of Iron Man changed the course of modern popular culture. It's impossible to imagine the current pop culture landscape without the MCU and none of it would have been possible without Iron Man having forged the foundation. 

To put Iron Man's success in context, you have to first consider that by 2008, the superhero wave had been going strong since 2000, much of which had driven by the success of adaptations of Marvel characters like the X-Men and Spider-Man. 

By the time Marvel Studios got to work on Iron Man, the most popular, best known aspects of the Marvel universe had already been well represented on screen and those characters were still in the hands of other studios. The characters that Marvel Studios had access to were largely thought of as B-listers at best, characters with little chance of becoming household names. In a CNN Money article, "Marvel goes Hollywood" from 2007, writer Devin Leonard asked "Can Marvel prevail with a slate of characters - Thor, the recently deceased (but sure to be resurrected) Captain America, Ant-Man - that, beloved as they are to longtime comic fans, are mostly unknown to today's kids?" Most of the talk surrounding Marvel Studios prior to Iron Man centered on the fact that Marvel was, in the eyes of many, being forced to work with scraps. 

Added to the challenge of launching a film series with lesser known characters was the fact that the entire superhero trend could possibly have been starting to wind down by 2008. Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy had concluded in 2007, the X-Men trilogy had ended in 2006 and as much as other films were in the pipeline, there was a case to be made that we might well have already seen superheroes peak. Just over a month before Iron Man's release, the spoof Superhero Movie came out and while it was only a moderate success, usually once a genre receives its own parody, it's a sign that the genre is starting to wane. Was there even going to be an audience for Iron Man?    

Cut to today where the MCU is far and away the biggest entertainment franchise in the world and where millions of people who have never cracked open a comic know the details of the Marvel Universe. As much as the phrase "superhero fatigue" is often trotted out, that supposed fatigue is seldom is reflected in the enthusiasm of ticket buyers. What superhero films were before the release of Iron Man, as successful as they often were, looks downright piddling compared to the heights that the MCU has reached. Some might say the MCU peaked with Avengers: Endgame in 2019 and will never reach the same heights again but I say don't bet on that. Even if that were the case, though, what an unparalleled run the MCU has had, none of which could have been imagined when Iron Man was released on May 2nd, 2008. 

As a fan, I remember feeling that the first real encouraging sign when it came to Iron Man, back when it was just ramping up into production, was the casting of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark. It seemed so perfect, just the ideal match of actor and character, and I believe that casting Downey Jr. was the decision that really put everything in place early on. It gave the project an automatic stamp of legitimacy and ever since then, the continued strength of the MCU has always come down to casting. Even when the films themselves have been so-so, the appeal of the characters always pulls them through. The first Thor wasn't anything more than ok but yet Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston as Thor and Loki were so terrific in their roles that it elevated the entire movie and created a demand to see more. Casting has been the ace up Marvel's sleeve throughout the MCU, their steady saving grace, all the way up to today with the instantly likable Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan, and it all started with Iron Man

Given where the MCU is now, with a multitude (and a multiverse) of narrative balls in the air, it's wild to think back on what a simple thrill it was to see that first post credit scene with Samuel L. Jackson making his debut as Nick Fury, coming to talk to Tony about the "Avengers Initiative." As much as the Marvel Universe had already been well served by the first two X-Men movies and the Spider-Man films, that thirty second or so appearance by Fury promised so much more. If you want to point to a single moment where nerd culture truly took over the mainstream, that might be it. Star Wars, Star Trek and previous superhero films were instances where nerds and mainstream audiences happened to find common ground. The MCU, however, put everyone on hardcore nerd turf. After Iron Man, being comic literate became key to navigating pop culture in a way that it never had been before. 

Last year, Iron Man became the first MCU film to be inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. To be eligible to be inducted into the Registry, a film must be at least ten years old and be "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant," the first two of which Iron Man definitely qualifies as. Aesthetically, Iron Man isn't exceptional but it is an example of top notch mainstream filmmaking, a piece of pop cinema where all the components are in harmony (special shout out to the work of Stan Winston Studios who brought Iron Man's armor to the screen so faithfully - including the initial gray Mark 1 suit). It's a testimony to the craft that Jon Favreau, Kevin Feige and co. brought to the initial MCU outing that even stacked up against the celebrated likes of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Endgame, it still ranks as a top tier MCU entry. Fifteen years later, Iron Man's gleaming red and gold armor doesn't have a speck of rust on it. 

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