When Iron Man was released in American theaters on May 2, 2008, few people could have expected it would lead to movies that feature characters like Rocket Raccoon, Kang the Conqueror, and Namor, the Sub-Mariner. But now that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been thriving for a decade and a half, it’s worth looking back at what made all these massive movies, Disney+ shows, and cinema debates possible.
After years of scattered superhero movies that ranged from masterpieces (Spider-Man 2) to duds (Daredevil), Iron Man — and technically The Incredible Hulk the next month — was released with the intent of jumpstarting a cinematic universe. That goal would obviously be realized on a massive scale, but a big part of why that’s the case comes down to one simple thing — Iron Man is a legitimately great film.
Within the first five minutes, Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark has already been thrust into his character-defining journey. We receive some flashbacks right after, but Iron Man has a fantastic start that gets you immediately interested. The flashbacks are essentially supplementary background story, as the snarky but charming character of Tony Stark and his reputation as an arrogant weapons manufacturer is established quickly and effectively. Just as the flashbacks make you wonder whether you should be rooting for Tony, we’re warped back to the present, where he’s a hostage to the Ten Rings with a low-budget surgical job keeping him alive.
We hang out with the present Tony and his savior/fellow hostage Yinsen as they build a missile for the Ten Rings, and we begin to see the human side of Stark. This is where he starts to become the flawed but admirable hero that fans followed for over a decade, as he and Yinsen speak with each other and realize the desperate situation they’re in — all because of Tony’s own weapons. By the time the rudimentary Iron Man Mark I suit is complete and Stark is blasting through gunmen, you’re completely behind him. Yinsen’s memorable death instils that pivotal bit of humanity into Tony, making you ready to see him become a superhero.
Seeds of the continuity that the MCU will thrive on are planted once Phil Coulson, the likable SHIELD agent that appears in multiple movies, shows up for Stark’s first post-abduction press conference. It’s fun to look back at this little appearance whilst knowing that Coulson will eventually be the driving force behind the Avengers teaming up. His little appearances in Iron Man don’t feel gratuitous — partially because he’s an MCU-original character rather than a strict reference — but establishes that there’s a bigger world out there.
It’s also fascinating to see Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts and Terrence Howard’s Rhodey at this point, though for their own unique reasons. The fact that this earlier Potts would go on to run Stark Industries, marry Tony, befriend Spider-Man, and don the Rescue armor is a wild thought. Howard is great as Rhodes, though in a different and slightly more serious way then Don Cheadle. That may have more to do with quippy humor becoming more prevalent in later MCU movies than it is here, but either way, Howard puts in a strong performance that would have made for a different Rhodey than Cheadle.
A good portion of the movie’s second act is made up of Tony being fun and witty while showing off how he’s changed since being abducted. From returning to Afghanistan and taking on the Ten Rings in his new suit to trying to stop his company’s illegal shipments, we see firsthand that Tony has grown. It helps that everything he does looks so cool, even with the more dated 2008 CGI.
It’s difficult to overstate how incredible the first suit-up scene was to me as a 12-year-old comic book dork. Though Iron Man certainly wasn’t the top-tier well-known hero he is now, his appearances in the video games Marvel Ultimate Alliance and X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse made me of the opinion that he and his suits were very cool. Seeing a big budget movie iteration of him giving the iconic red and yellow suit was a big moment for both myself and many other comic fans at the time.
It seems like Jeff Bridges doesn’t get enough credit for his portrayal of Obadiah Stane/Iron Monger, who serves as an excellent obstacle for Downey Jr.’s Stark. He’s very imposing and quietly vicious for the most part, outside of when he screams at a scientist for not being as brilliant as Tony Stark. It’s funny to think now that that scientist, played by Iron Man executive producer and A Christmas Story star Peter Billingsley, would come back in Spider-Man: Far From Home as a minor antagonist who works with Jake Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio. Just another retroactively neat bit of continuity.
Though the final battle between Iron Man and Stane’s Iron Monger establishes the “hero vs. evil version of the hero” dynamic that would end up being a bit too frequent in the MCU, it works pretty well the first time around. Seeing the two mechanical suits wail on each other with everything from fists to vehicles is a blast, but this mirror match is also thematically relevant. It shows that, for all Stane’s prattling about holding Stark Industries and Tony himself up, his suit (and by extension, his mind) just can’t compete with Stark’s.
As for Stark, what’s left to be said about Robert Downey Jr.’s brilliant portrayal? Even in this first outing, he has a charismatic confidence that feels right at home with the character. This is a superhero portrayal that ended up being so excellent that it would somewhat alter the comic version of Tony Stark. In the comics, Stark was less charming and fairly antagonistic — especially as a result of the then-recent Civil War event. Downey Jr. imbued the character with a likable and flawed spirit that makes this superhero billionaire genius feel somehow relatable. He got even better as the MCU went on, but from the get-go, this pairing was already a winner.
The movie ends with that iconic line, “I am Iron Man,” which would hold even more weight when it’s uttered for the last time in Avengers: Endgame. That being said, even without the whole future of the MCU in mind, Iron Man is a thoroughly enjoyable movie. Rewatching it years later, it makes sense that this movie was the spark for a whole cinematic universe. If it weren’t for this fun and snappy adaptation of a then-B-list hero, we’d have never gotten movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and cinema would be in a very different place. Wherever you stand on the MCU and Marvel Studios now, it’s hard to argue that the first Iron Man was, and still is, a genuinely excellent movie.