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Fangrrls on Film: Iron Man

Contributed by
Feb 2, 2018

Film criticism is a very dude-heavy industry. According to a 2016 study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, men account for 73% of the top critics on Rotten Tomatoes, resulting in men often shaping the narrative of what makes a "good" film or a "bad" film—what's worth seeing and what's not. And even the most well-meaning, wokest of men wouldn't necessarily catch the microaggressions or tropes that tend to define whole genres.

So, as our answer to years of male critics driving and basically shaping the movie industry with their opinions, Fangrrls on Film re-reviews films from a fangrrl perspective.

Iron Man was released in 2008 to near-unanimous praise and presently sits with a 94% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. We revisited the film to see how it holds up through our Fangrrls-purple-colored glasses.

Rebecca: Is this going to be the Christine Everhart Appreciation Hour? Because that's what I logged in for. Girl got SCREWED. SCREWED BY THE NARRATIVE.

Kristy: He could have at least given her the scoop on him being Iron Man.

Clare: I settled into the movie and when we hit Pepper smilingly telling Christine she’s trash, I was like … oh. Oh, I do not like this at all.

Rebecca: She just hits so many negative tropes: journalist who sleeps with her source, as this catty, petty, spiteful bitch who gets all attached after a one-night stand. She’s a PROFESSIONAL GOD-DAMNED JOURNALIST, and her continuing interest in Tony Stark's dealings is presented as "why's she so BITTER" as opposed to "woman doing her job.”

Clare: That entire conversation at the gala is hard to watch, because Christine is being professional—asking why Tony has the nerve to show up here when Stark weapons have been used in a very high-profile attack on civilians—and the “joke” is that Tony thinks she’s a crazy, clingy bitch. Especially because the audience is meant to react to Christine as a threat to Pepper because Tony’s just left Pepper outside.

Rebecca: And the movie presents her that way! In that scene and in the press conference at the end: She has a hate-boner for Tony. Not "she's following up on a story."

Kristy: And of course she's annoyed with him at the gala. He had his assistant kick her out, and then she actually has a solid point to make about the terrorist group using his weapons. And we're still supposed to think, "What a bitch!"

Rebecca: "She's just bringing this up because she's bitter that he rejected her."

Clare: And even the initial interaction is weird; Tony only talks to her because she’s attractive and she is asking hard-hitting questions, and then the film treats her as a one-night stand to prove that the ladies love Tony.

Rebecca: As opposed to "she's bringing it up because she's a tenacious journalist"
How funny, LOL—even smart, professional women who went to Brown want to have a one-night stand with the playboy billionaire! Which is true in real life, and fine, but the movie treats it as somehow shallow and sordid.

Clare: Yeah, especially because there’s no buildup. Tony hits on her once and then they’re in bed.

Rebecca: And then that's the entire arc of her character for the rest of the movie and Iron Man 2: hot journalist who hates Tony. It’s a weird combination of slut-shaming and finger-wagging at the "feminist man-hater brigade.” It’s the aspect of Iron Man that most dates it, I think. Other than that it holds up really well.

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Kristy: I mean, this movie is 10 years old now. Which feels insane. This is the Marvel movie before we could even imagine an MCU.

Rebecca: I still have that starry-eyed feeling watching Iron Man. "Oh, this is when this still felt new."

Clare: The core of it remains very tight. To this day, I adore the fact that they spend an hour on Tony designing, building, and testing the suit, so you’re 100% invested—but it kind of took me back to action movies of the Bush years in a really specific way.

Kristy: Also they managed to create a way to have the villain chase Pepper without reducing her.

Rebecca: I love how Pepper manages to take traits that are typically labeled as “weak"—that "oh, what tech is that?" moment, being Tony's aide, wearing high-heeled shoes and taking out the dry cleaning and all that—and still come across as completely badass. Pepper Potts is confident as hell and takes no shit, ESPECIALLY from Tony.

Kristy: She's not a "damsel in distress," only put in peril to get at Tony. She was his partner in uncovering what Stane is up to, and so she is a witness.

Rebecca: She feels like a fully realized character in a way that Marvel sometimes struggles with in the case of its supporting cast.

Kristy: And with female characters.

Clare: Tony does trust her and sees her as the most capable human on earth, which is refreshing, but I have to say … I kind of despise how Tony treats her. The steamrolling until she agrees to a thing made me uncomfortable.

Rebecca: And it's particularly Stark (LOL) when you put Pepper, who says the traditionally feminine can be badass, against Christine, who represents an excoriation of different traits associated with femininity. You have this progressive badass and these regressive misogynist tropes right next to one another.

Clare: Those tropes are coded as “good woman” and “bad woman”; Christine is bad, Pepper is good. And all other women are set dressing. I think the issue for me is that the current slate of Marvel movies—and cinema in general—does a lot better with female characters these days, and revisiting a point in time where we had to take something decent like this version of Pepper with the way the film treats Christine and other women.

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Kristy: Something still really rich and relevant is the theme of consequences. Tony made weapons for decades, and now he has to face the blood on his hands, the red in his ledger. That's a hell of a statement for a superhero origin movie.

Rebecca: And the theme of a bad guy (Stane, in this case) wanting to use aggression and weapons to force others to adhere to his (or America's) agenda is something that pays off throughout the rest of the MCU.

Kristy: Downey is just perfection in this role. He's so charming, but in a roguish way.
And he also elegantly lays in the loneliness behind all the bravado.

Rebecca: He really brings the pathos to Iron Man. You feel for this guy, even though he is—in so many ways—a complete dick. It's why RDJ-as-Iron Man works and Cumberbatch-as-Doctor Strange (in my opinion) doesn’t; they’re essentially the same character type, but Downey's charismatic enough that you like him despite being a dick.

Kristy: Also Tony's working to grow out of his father's shadow. There's something deeply relatable to that that Doctor Strange doesn't offer. When you see his confidence buckle, it's a gut punch emotionally.

Clare: I definitely think Downey is a fantastic, flawless Iron Man, but I think Tony Stark’s lost his shine for me over the last decade in a way that’s influenced how I watched this film. Tony is an 11-year-old boy’s fantasy idol during the last days of the Bush presidency.

Rebecca: There's definitely been a resurgence in the "roguish asshole genius man" trope over the last 10 years. It's worn thin. 

It's so nice that Iron Man is basically a personal story. Obadiah Stane is, essentially, his father. Or at least a close uncle. It’s nice to dial back to that after Sokovia and Civil War and all that.

Clare: Yeah—that the stakes aren’t the end of the world.

Rebecca: It's weird to see Pepper Potts run around in heels in the movie's climax
in this post-Jurassic World discourse landscape.

Kristy: I mean, at least she was at the office. Not a f*cking dino zoo.

Rebecca: I love how they handled the romantic elements of Pepper/Tony dynamic in the finale, and indeed throughout the movie. It was clear that there was chemistry, and that things were moving in a romantic direction, but they didn't shoehorn that in because there were other things going on. (Subtweet to Thor, which had Thor and Jane fall in love in, like, three days.) 

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Rebecca: How did the arc reactor still have power in the end? It should have died. The entire rest of the MCU takes place in Tony's head while he's in a coma.

Kristy: HOT TAKE!

There's great action moments in this. But when he's evading the jets and breaking out of captivity? Those are more thrilling to me than the Transformers-like finale. It is a nice touch that Stane's fatal flaw is essentially his machismo/ego.

Rebecca: What really struck me about Iron Man is that there are so many superhero movie conventions that have become so used since 2008—and were before, it's not like Iron Man invented the genre—but somehow they still feel pretty fresh and good. Because Jon Favreau knows his sh*t.

Clare: I agree. I think part of the appeal of Tony is that we get to see him fail and come up with new solutions constantly. He learns from his mistakes, often on the fly, just because that’s how his engineer’s mind works.

Kristy:  Also, Tony realizes Stane is essentially a monster of his own making and he does offer to go down with the ship, as it were.

Rebecca: Tony goddamn Stark, stop trying to sacrifice yourself by flying up real high! It's a THING with you! Pepper's gotta install a baby lock where he can't go over a few hundred feet in the air.

Clare: We get a big hit of Tony’s guilt in this film when he talks to Pepper about how only the next mission matters and how if he survived what happened, then it better be for something good.

Kristy: It reinforces the lesson from the cave. He says he may only have a week to live, and his buddy Yinsen says something like, "Then this is a very important week for you.” If he only has a week, he needs to make it count.

Rebecca: Yinsen was the one who came up with the whole "Use a magnet to keep the shards away from Tony's heart" thing. None of this would be possible without our pal Yinsen.

Kristy: He was brave, but without ego.

Rebecca: And he was still kind. Let’s pour one out for Yinsen, y’all.

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Kristy: I'm so glad they recast Rhodey.

Rebecca: Don Cheadle has more of a warmth to him. He feels more engaged in the Stark shenanigans, in a way.

Kristy: Also more attitude. Howard played it flatly. Cheadle's Rhodey pushes back on Tony more.

Clare: Cheadle plays it like a buddy who will get back into the shenanigans at a moment’s notice, while Howard's Rhodey is definitely more responsible and seems over that time in his life. I actually enjoyed Howard here; I found their reunion actually effective.

Kristy: There's no sense of fraternity between the two in the first film.

Rebecca: In the first Iron Man, they are essentially co-workers. You get the sense that Rhodey only hangs with Tony because it’s a professional requirement.

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Final thoughts:

Rebecca: Pepper Potts is a badass, Robert Downey Jr.'s goatee is bad, #JusticeforChristineEverhart. Iron Man hits a lot of the beats that the MCU has hit repeatedly in the years since, but does it damn well. Aside from the messy misogyny with Christine Everhart, Iron Man holds up. Still a top-five MCU movie. Though it's weird for me to think back on how I didn't catch the Christine stuff at all when the film first came out. We're always growing and evolving.

Clare: For me, Iron Man shows its age, especially when it comes to female characters and its treatment of violence. Pepper gets to be a fully fleshed-out character (although I hate how Tony steamrolls over her telling him no in a way the film wants us to find “cute” but is really just … not), but it feels sort like an echo chamber when the other female characters are the maligned Christine (JUSTICE!!!) or set dressing. The core of it still sings—you believe in that suit after an hour of making it right alongside Tony—but it’s starting to sag for me.

Kristy: I’m impressed this is still such a satisfying movie from a storytelling standpoint. Tony's arc is challenging and thrilling, and romantic without the love stuff feeling tacked on. But, man, that finale doesn't hold up for me. It feels like we switch from an engaging super-human drama to a Saturday morning cartoon. Still, it's interesting to look back and see the groundwork of the MCU laid here—specifically with themes, characters, and relationships—and what they learned from Iron Man's shortcomings. Namely, getting Tony's face out of that suit as often as possible in battle scenes.