Yet again another reminder that, to quote Andrew Marvell, “But at my back I always hear, Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near”. I was sitting with my grandson, Theo, and he had put on “an old film” which he quite liked. He’s only four and a half so his idea of what is “old” is somewhat skewed toward the recent. What he had picked on this occasion was Iron Man; he is going through a dinosaurs/Lego/superheroes phase. Admittedly his absolute favourite is Spider-Man but he fancied ringing the changes and, as Iron Man is on my list of go to films, I just went with it. The fact that it opened, in the UK, fifteen years ago today was a coincidence!
Thinking back, it’s hard to imagine how pivotal Iron Man would actually turn out to be back then. It wasn’t the first time that a Marvel character had been seen on our screens. Animated TV series had been broadcast as far back as 1966 and live action from 1974. The big screen had seventeen filmed outings before Iron Man hit the screens. This was back before the rights to the Marvel output were anywhere near being reconciled. 20th Century Fox owned the rights to X-Men, Sony owned Spider-Man, Netflix made series around Daredevil and the other Defenders characters. In short the Marvel Comics Universe had around 70,000 characters but they were spread all over quite a large legal minefield.
They Were Bound To End Up On Our Screens
Still, Marvel characters were popping up on our screens. Admittedly the quality ranged from the very good (X-Men, Spider-Man, Blade) to the somewhat less than good (Howard The Duck, Daredevil, Elektra). Some actually managed to get a foot in both camps, that’ll be The Hulk if you’re wondering! Someone, like me, who is terminally unaware of all the legal shenanigans that go on behind the scenes might assume that, as the original source material came from the same publishing company then all of the characters would be fair game. As I now know, that’s not the case and it took quite a while for the dust to even start settling.
We’re half way through Phase 5 and we’re still waiting for a meaningful MCU outing for Deadpool, X-Men, and Fantastic Four. So, fifteen years ago, an effects heavy film based on another comic I used to read as a ten year old sounded like a good idea and well worth a watch. I’m sure I’ve said elsewhere and on numerous occasions that I preferred Marvel over DC comics. Back then there was only one shop near me that sold American comics and I used to walk the mile and a half there’d back once a week with my pocket money clutched in my hot, sweaty paws. I had my favourites; Fantastic Four, X-Men, Thor, and, with absolutely no surprise, Iron Man.
When You Move On From The Beano…
I have a feeling that when I started reading them they were part way through their runs. However, a few years later, I remember a UK version being launched. These were exactly the same stories that had been published earlier but not easy to find over here. It was also a compendium of stories rather than an individual character magazine. This meant that we, over in the UK, managed to get to read the origin stories. In the comics, Tony Stark became Iron Man in the Vietnam War. In the film, the character’s origin was relocated to Afghanistan as director, Jon Favreau, did not wish to make the film a period piece, but instead give it a realistic contemporary look.
One of the things that did strike a chord for me was the look of the suits of armour. In the comics the first couple of years saw Tony Stark encased within a very bulky, cylindrical looking outfit. This was represented by the initial manifestation built in that Afghan cave and discarded after he escaped by rocketing out of the Ten Rings compound and landed head first in a dune. So, instead of lasting a couple of years, the big bulky version only lasted about a quarter of an hour. The slim line, more powerful, and better equipped version was created in the comfort of his basement garage/workshop and in, what, a couple of weeks?
Ah Yes, I Remember It Well
But those minor differences evaporated as I watched. Partly thanks to the passage of time erasing a lot of my memories of the story. For instance, I had totally forgotten that the comic origins were based in Vietnam and only got a reminder when I was reading up for this piece. While fading memory may have had a minor part to play in my forgetting about the divergences between comic and film, the main reason was up there on the screen. It’s no secret that the nascent MCU were taking a risk in casting Robert Downey Jr in the lead. RDJ, at that time, was more widely known for scandal than stardom.
Let’s be honest though, prior to all the scandal Robert had proven himself to be a very fine and committed actor. The high spot was probably his Oscar nomination for Best Actor following his starring role in Chaplin. For that role he prepared extensively; learning how to play the violin, how to play tennis left-handed, and he had a personal coach to help him imitate Chaplin’s posture, and way of walking. There is absolutely no doubt about his depth of engagement with the role. He was unfortunate to be up against Al Pacino and Scent Of A Woman that year. He was also unfortunate to have been living the life of one with an addiction.
Talents Not Hidden, Just Buried
It’s a bit glib to say he was brought up as an addict but it’s not too wide of the mark. From the age of six he used marijuana with the full knowledge and consent of his father, also an addict. Downey later stated that drug use became an emotional bond between him and his father: “When my dad and I would do drugs together, it was like him trying to express his love for me in the only way he knew how.” There is no surprise that he took those habits with him into his adult life and ended up serving time in prison due to failing to turn up for mandated drug tests. Marvel Studios were reluctant to hire an actor with such a drug and drink riddled history
Fortunately though, director and co-star Jon Favreau saw that Robert Downey Jr was the perfect choice for Tony Stark and, by extension, Iron Man. Favreau was well aware of RDJ’s acting chops, it was hard not to be, but he also saw something that was vital for the role. Favreau’s vision of Tony Stark was of an adult man who reinvented himself when he discovered that the world is way more complex than he originally believed. Substitute Stark’s realisation of what being an arms dealer actually means with RDJ’s realisation of the effects of his chemical dependency and you can see what Favreau could see and why he stood up to Marvel.
Just Make It Up As You Go Along!
Another bonus from hiring Robert Downey Jr was his experience with stand up. The script was not completely finished when filming began. The filmmakers were more focused on the story and the action. As a result the dialogue was, in the main, ad-libbed. Jon Favreau said that this made the film feel more natural. RDJ would ask for repeat takes of scenes, so he could try something new. Gwyneth Paltrow struggled trying to match Downey with a suitable line, as she never knew what he would say. Jeff Bridges said he felt really uncomfortable not having a script or rehearsals. It dawned on him that it was like he was in a “two hundred million dollar student film”. This took the pressure off and made it fun.
So I think it is fair to say that if it wasn’t for Robert Downey Jr then Iron Man and, indeed the whole MCU may have turned out very different. People genuinely liked Tony Stark/Iron Man despite him starting out as a spoilt, self centred billionaire playboy. But if not RDJ then who? Hugh Jackman, Tom Cruise, and Nicholas Cage were all in the running for the role of Tony Stark. Perhaps less likely to affect the outcome was the fact that Kristen Bell, Famke Janssen, and Rachel McAdams were being considered for Pepper Potts. Perhaps the biggest game changer might have been if Quentin Tarantino accepted the gig to write and direct!
And The First Film Is…
Looking back, it’s easy to say that Iron Man was the perfect start for the MCU. But is that just a question of hindsight being 20/20? What were the alternatives? Well, next up was The Incredible Hulk. I was quite surprised to find out that the storyline for this film was originally intended as a sequel to Ang Lee’s 2003 version called, simply Hulk. Perhaps there may be some justification for giving that the title of MCU debut! The thing is that computer effects had come a long way in five years, doubtless proof of Moore’s Law, and amongst the biggest flaws in Hulk was the computer-generated imagery.
There was only about six weeks between the releases of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. Either could have kickstarted the mega-franchise. However, one big difference between the two was consistency. All of the main cast of Iron Man stayed in their roles throughout the run of the various phases up to the end of the Infinity Saga. Apart from Terrance Howard as “Rhodey” Rhodes who bailed due to contactual issues. But back then Rhodes was a relatively minor role and a long way before War Machine was mentioned on screen. The Incredible Hulk, however, had to recast the lead after artistic disagreements between Edward Norton and the studio. Fortunately, Mark Ruffalo proved to be an excellent Bruce Banner as well the Hulk and the later Brainy Hulk.
How Did It All Begin?
Other contenders for first out of the MCU traps could have been Thor or Captain America: The First Avenger. These were the next offerings after Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and Iron Man 2. OK, so those two came out in 2011 but, I’m positive, all five named films would have been in some stage of development at the same time and any one of them could have been pushed ahead. Of the other two I can see that Captain America: The First Avenger could have had the potential for hubris as it would be announcing a series of films that hadn’t been properly thought through! They could have just called it Captain America…
As it was, Captain America: The First Avenger was another rollicking good film! I had never read many Captain America comics as a child so had no idea about the origin story. As a result I can’t say how accurate it is just it was a jolly good story. The other contender, Thor, was different in that I did remember the origin story. As a result, I knew that the film was nowhere near the same story. No Dr Donald Blake and his walking stick for a start! That, though, was pretty much irrelevant. I didn’t know the Captain America origins and it made no difference to my enjoyment. Iron Man’s origins were close enough and the passing of time had blurred the edges.
What, for me, was the nail in the coffin of Thor was Kenneth Branagh. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love and admire Kenneth Branagh as an actor and, usually, as a director. As and actor he has always proven himself to be flawless. A lot of his directed films are wonderful. Belfast is superb, Peter’s Friends is delightful, and his Agatha Christie adaptations are very good. However, where Sir Kenneth seems to fall down, as a director, is in the action/fantasy genre. Elsewhere, I have recorded my disappointment with his treatment of Artemis Fowl. That should have been the start of a Harry Potter rivalling cinema franchise.
And Thor was, sadly, dull. I have seen it twice but the second time was because it was part of my preparation for Avengers: Endgame. It is my least favourite film in the whole MCU and I’ve seen Eternals! So, as far as I’m concerned, of the best choice for the opening film for the whole Infinity Saga comes down to a toss up between Iron Man and Captain America: The First Avenger. Both good stories, both good films, both entertaining and well executed. Maybe Iron Man just got the nod because, if it had all gone badly, it could have been cut adrift. As a standalone in a manner similar to Hulk in 2003. Still, it didn’t flop. It was quite marvellous…and I’ve been trying not to use that adjective in an MCU article!
Movie Grade: A+
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Former teacher, lecturer, homelessness administrator, pharmacy dispenser now happily retired, happily married, and a very happy granddad. I live next to the Mersey but on the side Daniel Craig and Taron Egerton come from rather than the side the Beatles came from!