Hello my fellow True Believers! Welcome to the first part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe Rewatch!
Recently, I completed my Masters degree in Television-Radio-Film, and during that time I talked about movies A LOT. The one thing that I noticed is that while everyone did love or enjoy the Marvel films, everyone seemed to qualify it. Now I’m not saying the films of the MCU are high art because they’re not. The impact that they’ve had on pop culture, however, is really fascinating when you think about it. If we talked about pop culture in the last ten years, MCU films will come up in the conversation. It’s hard not to talk about them.
So that’s what we will be doing.
Hi, my name is Bec!
I’ve been a Marvel fan since about 2011, which may surprise some people who know me. I have become a total die-hard fangirl for all things Marvel in this short time.
Some ground rules first. We’re only talking about the Marvel FILMS. I will not be talking about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or any other TV properties for the MCU. One, because Stephanie Coats does a fantastic job recapping those shows. Two, Stephanie and the big boss lady, Emmy, talk about it on 4YE’s Mission Complete podcast. Finally, while I love Agent Carter and Daredevil I show broke-up with Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. mid season one.
That’s pretty much it for rules for the column. I will be talking about the Marvel One Shots and post-credit scenes in mini-columns. I may do some character spotlights to focus on a specific character’s journey throughout the films.
Let’s just start from the beginning first.
I got my special handy Phase One case.
And all the films! Like seriously, all of the films.
Time to watch Tony Stark become a hero in Iron Man.
Iron Man should not have been as successful as it was.
It’s hard to imagine, but back in 2008 no one outside of comic book fans really knew who Tony Stark was. It was a huge gamble for Marvel Studios to take with this character and film. Sure, the plan for a universe of loosely connected films was a sparkle in their eyes. If Iron Man bombed, then who knows where we would be today.
It was actually considered a bad move, at least in Hollywood, to cast Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark. With his past history of substance abuse issues and arrests, most were a little weary to give Downey the lead role in a potential franchise.
Although when you watch his screen tests, you can see that Downey already had Stark down pat.
Marvel Studios and director, Jon Favreau, stuck by Downey’s casting, which was an excellent decision.
I believe that Favreau summed up best why Downey had to play Stark: “The best and worst moments of Robert’s life have been in the public eye. He had to find an inner balance to overcome obstacles that went far beyond his career. That’s Tony Stark. Robert brings a depth that goes beyond a comic book character who is having trouble in high school, or can’t get the girl.”
Robert Downey Jr. was always the perfect choice to play Tony Stark, even though Hollywood seemed skeptical. With a script that apparently, according to Jeff Bridges, barely existed and a character mainstream audiences have never heard of, it was a miracle that the film succeeded as well as it had.
So…why did Iron Man succeed?
I believe Iron Man was a critical and commercial success because of three reasons: its tone, its cast, and the overall journey of Tony Stark.
So let’s break it down, shall we?
There are a lot of important things to make a good film: direction, story, cast, effects, costumes, etc. Film is a collaborative process for a reason. One thing that I always find important in the finished product, however, is tone.
Without a consistent tone, a film tends to feel disjointed and the story doesn’t flow as well as it could.
The tone of a piece engages an audience’s emotional response. I tend to notice that films with a lot of hype but bomb (Green Lantern is a good example) tend to have a wildly inconsistent tone. TV series have a few episodes to get the tone down, films only have two hours to engage their audience. You need to connect right away to engage.
Iron Man sets up its tone very well. Take the opening sequence before the title, a caravan of military Humvees drive through the desert of Afghanistan. In one, blasting out AC/DC, is Tony Stark drinking something (scotch?) and talking with the soldiers. There is a lot of snappy and quick dialogue from Stark, but also genuine respect for whom he is with. Then suddenly, an attack and explosions, the people around him die, killed by Stark’s own weapons. He breaks out of the car, runs to what he presumes is safety when he is blown up by his own tech. Then he is taken captive by the Ten Rings and we go to title.
Now, here’s what we learn during this sequence: Stark is sarcastic but he has a decent heart. Then there is a sudden tone change, which shows that his world is filled with danger. He tries to get out of the car to fight, even telling a soldier to give him a gun to defend himself with. This shows that he does know how to fight. The best moment is when he sees the missiles because you can read it clearly on his face that he was not expecting that. Being blown up with his own tech starts an epiphany for the character.
It sets up the tone for Iron Man. The movie can be very lighthearted and fun, but there is also a lot of darkness. The opening shows the tonal balance between both aspects that is pretty much achieved in the film.
If I ever meet a department from Marvel Studios (outside of wherever they keep their writers), I would really like to meet their casting department. Because seriously? These people are top notch and have an uncanny knack for picking quality actors for the role.
I’ll talk more about Downey’s performance when we get to his Tony’s character arc.
Let’s talk about chemistry. Not the science, but in an acting sense. Certain actors get on screen together and there is just an instant reaction between them and in their interactions with the main character. Sometimes this translates from a real life relationship (romantic or platonic), such as Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone in the two Amazing Spider-Man films or Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law in the Sherlock Holmes movies. Again, it has to do with that two-hour window to get the audience invested and the best way is showing chemistry between the actors.
Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr have more of a 40’s rom-com vibe for Pepper and Tony while the relationship with the Christine Everheart is more adversarial. This is different from the friendship portrayed by Terrence Howard and RDJ (I’ll get into Don Cheadle versus Terrence Howard in the Iron Man 2 rewatch).
The two “mentor” relationships in the film, Tony and Stane versus Tony and Yinsen, are both fruits of a different tree. Stane (Jeff Bridges) pushes Tony to his darker inclinations and demons, while Yinsen (Shaun Toub) challenges Tony to be a better man.
Bridges and Paltrow act different onscreen together then Paltrow and Howard. And yes, this may sound like a stupid thing to point out. Because in your head, you’re thinking “well of course they will because their characters have different motivations”. You would be surprised on how this fails though because of lack of chemistry between the actors and that kills a movie.
Stane is a weak villain (and Marvel had a villain problem until Loki) but Bridges is able to give him some menace, which is what saves that weak point from collapsing. Paltrow is able to show that Pepper Potts takes no prisoners. Howard shows Rhodes’ bravery. Toub gives Yinsen both dignity, levity, and challenge.
Not to mention Paul Bettany as J.A.R.V.I.S., who made us all fall in love with a snarky AI or Clark Gregg as Phil Coulson before we knew what a badass he is.
Chemistry for the whole cast is important, and Marvel nailed it really well with its introductory outing.
The Arc Of Tony Stark
The story of Tony Stark in the first Iron Man film is one of redemption.
He goes from a devil may care playboy to a superhero in the course of two hours. The transformation is handled really, really well. Due in part to Downey and the personal experience that he brings to the role.
To say that Robert Downey Jr. plays Tony Stark well is to say that Da Vinci was a good painter or that the Phantom of the Opera is a little bit obsessive. Downey is absolutely perfect in the role.
Now the redemption story is a very old story. I wouldn’t go as old as time, but definitely from the Bible days at least. We can find roots of it in The Prodigal Son tale. He starts the story with everything in the world, but no personal satisfaction or pride. Tony ends the story a changed man, redeemed in at least his eyes from who he was.
Tony Stark is stripped of everything that makes him Tony Stark: the cars, the women, the tech, the money. He is left to rebuild himself from the ground up with only his mind. In the process, he goes from the Merchant of Death to Iron Man. Tony Stark transforms someone without a sense of personal responsibility to someone who holds himself to a higher standard.
Yinsen is the one who issues the challenge to Tony. When Tony tells him that he doesn’t really have a family, Yinsen pretty much says that sounds like a terrible kind of life for a person. Before he dies, he challenges Tony to not waste his life again.
Tony is a man that needs to be challenged to do better, to be better. When Tony Stark does rise to a challenge, then he rises to it. Saving Gulmira and its people is Tony’s way of showing Yinsen that his sacrifice was not in vain, that Tony will live his life better.
Now the real balancing act is keeping the irreverence, but also showing the sense of responsibility that Tony now feels. Part of what makes Tony work as a hero is that he can have a sense of humor, which makes him stick out at the time of the very brooding hero (what up Batman?). So yes Tony makes mistakes in building the armor and flirts with Pepper, but the serious moments tempers it.
The moment when Tony says that he doesn’t want his legacy to be that of destruction to Pepper shows how much he has grown. When he talks about how his weapons were meant to help the soldiers and not to harm. How he saves the family in battle with Iron Monger. When he tells Pepper to disregard him in order to stop Obidiah, it shows his transformation from whom we saw earlier in the film.
Tony Stark has redeemed himself to become a hero, to make his own legacy.
That is what properly drew people here the most. Audiences love their badass anti-heroes, but we love a hero who redeems themselves.
Next week, we’ll talk about The Incredible Hulk, okay movies, and actor swapping.
See you then!