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Credit: Marvel Studios

This Week in Genre History: Iron Man suits up and changes cinema forever

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May 6, 2020

Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world’s greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.

For all the talk of Iron Man being thought of largely as a peripheral Marvel character until the Marvel Cinematic Universe turned him into the linchpin of everything, there sure were some big names associated with a movie version of the character for nearly two decades. Tom Cruise. Quentin Tarantino. Nicolas Cage. Stuart Gordon of Re-Animator was even going to do a small, Swamp Thing-esque version. Obviously, someone saw something in him.

This week, we look at the original Iron Man, which hit theaters on May 2, 2008, only 12 years ago in the real world but several lifetimes ago in the scope of film and superhero history.

Everything about the film was a risk. Jon Favreau had made Elf a hit but had just suffered from a massive flop with kids' fantasy film Zathura: A Space Adventure. Robert Downey Jr. was a brilliant actor but one with a troubled, infamous off-screen history and not much proof that he could carry a big comic book action movie. Even the idea of a Marvel movie seemed a stretch; the three Marvel character films from the previous year were Ghost Rider, Spider-Man 3, and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.

It sure didn’t feel like the start of something that would dominate movies for the past decade-plus.

But that’s, of course, why it worked so well. It was made by people who didn’t have to do anything but make a smart, fun movie precisely how they wanted to make it. And it would end up being the foundation for an ever-expanding, billion-dollar universe.

Why was it a big deal at the time? Favreau said his inspiration for Iron Man was “if Robert Altman made Superman,” and while, uh, Iron Man isn’t anything like that at all, it was the mindset that counted: This was meant to be an indie film that happened to be about a comic book character. Favreau and Downey (who helped with the script) had a fun, infectious humor about them that audiences responded to immediately and overwhelmingly.

Iron Man wasn't the only superhero on the big screen in 2008. The Dark Knight would hit theaters in July and go on to become a critically acclaimed smash-hit, but Iron Man benefitted greatly from the sense that it was the lighter, funnier, more audience-friendly version... while still packing some dramatic oomph itself. The movie was a huge hit opening weekend and kept going; a sequel was apparently greenlit almost immediately. But that, of course, was only the start.

What was the impact? It might be impossible to overstate the impact of Iron Man, honestly. It, of course, led to two other Iron Man movies, but, more to the point, it led to the creation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which formalized and professionalized Favreau’s smart irreverence and his knack for spectacle, turning it into the biggest franchise in the history of movies.

Many of the Marvel movies are different from Iron Man, but they are all built in its spirit; they are lively, emotional, and tell their own stories while setting up future ones. Favreau laid the groundwork. Marvel has been perfecting the craft ever since.

And everyone else has been trying to figure out how they did it ever since... so they can emulate it. 

Credit: Marvel Studios

Has it held up? It’s sort of stunning how freewheeling and loose Iron Man plays now. The MCU movies, for all their virtues, can feel lumbering and ponderous at times, mainly because they’re in many ways just smaller cogs in a larger machine, chapters in a massive, ongoing story.

But Iron Man, more than any other MCU movie, feels like its own, self-contained movie when looking back on it today. It’s good that they kept making MCU movies. But if they never had, this could have absolutely held up as its own thing. Much of what it does we now have seen done a hundred times, so the movie doesn’t feel as revolutionary now as it did at the time. But it’s still an absolute blast, thanks to Favreau’s light touch and, mostly, Downey’s infectious energy. It’s unbelievable that it took him this long to play this character: Strangely, it’s what he was building up to his entire career.

Iron Man, considering all that would come after it, can feel almost like a found object now, a perfect little pearl untouched by the outside world. The universe it created became something as vast as movies are capable of being.

But on its own, before all of that, it might be an item that’s nearly as rare: a lovely, perfectly crafted standalone movie. We’ll never see it out of the context it led to again. But with or without context, it’s still great.

Will Leitch is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Tim Grierson review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

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