Upon deciding to start a series of films with the scope of the MCU Marvel must have felt at a disadvantage. With rights to their two major franchises, Spiderman and the X-Men both being held by Sony, building a cinematic universe without those characters must have seemed like a daunting task. While it's true that Marvel's other properties might enjoy decent success in the states, outside the US characters like Thor or Iron Man didn't have as much big name recognition. Growing up in the UK where the US comics culture existed in a very small capacity at best and mostly around collectors, I knew Iron Man from his appearances in the Spiderman cartoon from the 90's and, while I had a basic working knowledge of the character, he certainly didn't attain the same amount of received wisdom and cultural acknowledgement that Spidey and Wolverine did.
But any good creator can take their limitations and run with them and that's exactly what Marvel did with this film. They took a B-list superhero with a fairly unmemorable rogues gallery and, knowing the challenges of recognition they faced, worked hard to use this film to build Tony Stark as a likable character and make sure that viewers would want to see him in further films down the line. The result is a film which is more character focused than the action heavy film a larger studio might have made given the same source material.
I mentioned in my intro for this series that this was the only Marvel film I'd seen in full before starting these reviews and that, at the time, I found the film fairly underwhelming. Watching it with fresh eyes years later I found it a much more enjoyable film than I remembered. It's certainly not perfect, and watching it I still find it hard to believe that it captured people's imagination in the massive way that it did, but it's a fun little action flick with a decent focus on character, which is a trait I much prefer when it comes to this type of movie.
The movie spends a huge percentage of it's runtime showing the two sides of Tony Stark, either partying, sleeping around and generally being a dick or sitting alone working hard in his lab, driven to create. These two sides seem at odds with each other but Robert Downey Jr totally nails both aspects of the character and manages to make them fit together. He's lovably unlovable and that's no easy feat to pull off.
The other characters don't fare so well, with both Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts and Terrence Howard's Rhodey begging for more time to make an impression. Jeff Bridges fares best and gets a decent amount of screen time to build his character of a charismatic but selfish business man and the way he mirrors Stark leads to an enjoyable dynamic - he's a nice guy in his public persona but evil behind closed doors - but there's still a feeling that his character was wasted. The original plans were to have him as Stark's confidante in this film but revealed as a villain in the sequel which seems, in hindsight, like a better move, and seriously, how do you get Jeff Bridges on board for your fledgling multi-film project and kill him off in the first movie?
The lower focus on action works in the film's favour as it gives most of the high octane scenes a reason to be there. Fewer action scenes with a point will always beat nonstop action that's utterly mindless and that's what we get here. The big explosions are left to Tony's escape from the Terrorists that capture him or returning to Afghanistan to destroy the weapons the terrorists have stolen. Both scenes play out very differently with the former being gritty and brutal, the latter being slick and stylish as Stark's superhero persona develops and both feel like they advance the plot.
Not all scenes fare so well though, the fight with the jets feels pointless and exists purely for spectacle and the final battle with the Iron Monger feels more like the writers simply decided they needed a baddie for Iron Man to fight and crammed one in at the end. Overall however, the action is well handled and engaging.
There is one major problem I had with the film though and it's not such an easy one to brush away. There's a strange feel of propaganda for the US and the US Military that runs through the film that left me feeling uncomfortable and that I found hard to shake off.
Iron Man is, at its heart, a redemption arc for Tony Stark. From selfish weapons developer to altruistic hero but his path to heroism is a little muddy when you dig a little deeper into it.
Tony Stark is introduced to us, selling a new line of highly destructive missiles to the US military for use in Afghanistan. When he is captured by a terrorist cell, you might expect that he would be confronted firsthand by the results of his work. Seeing the injuries his weapons inflict, the families broken up, innocent civilians killed. Instead, Tony decides it's bad to sell weapons when he realises the terrorists have got ahold of them. He's still fine with his his weapons being used to kill civilians in Afghanistan but baulks at the idea of them being used to harm Americans.
Indeed the only time we ever see the devastating effects of these weapons is when the terrorists use them to attack a village. America's involvement in the war is portrayed as completely bloodless throughout the film.
Add to this the glamour shots of US jeeps and jets set to kick ass heavy metal tunes and the fact that a large chunk of the film is a cool, playboy genius American using his advanced tech to murder savage Muslims dressed in rags and you're left with a film who's “War is bad” message is constantly undermined to a frankly creepy degree.
Tony Stark is only called out once in the film for his actions, called “The merchant of Death” by a reporter who is immediately made out to be a joke as she abandons her principles to sleep with Stark because he's just sooo irresistible and seriously, am I the only one who's a little disturbed by this?.....
Creepiness aside however, I found myself enjoying this film much more than I expected to. It's far from perfect but it's a good way to start of the series and shows that Marvel have a good idea of how to make action engaging to a story rather than exist for it's own sake. How well they manage to maintain this level of quality going forward remains to be seen, but for now I'm cautiously optimistic about what the rest of the series has in store for me.