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Hello and welcome to In Too Deep Into Marvel, where I go through the Marvel movies over the next few months.
It’s only now, a good six years after this film first came out, that we can really stop and realise just how much of an impact it had on the superhero movie genre. It really set the trend for what would become superhero movies for the next few years. So without further ado lets see how much this film set a new bar for an entire genre.
Before we start, some cultural background is needed. Because although Iron Man was one of the best reviewed movies of 2008 on the surface it ‘lost’ the superhero battle with another well-known film: The Dark Knight. Heath Ledger’s Joker was a revelation that, combined with his unfortunate death, give the film such a huge publicity boost that everyone loved the film. It’s only now, six years later, does one stop and look at it to realise that there are many flaws in it. Mostly having the Joker’s plans revolve more around luck than anything else, the running time of the film drags on for way too long and a lot of plots end up being thrown about randomly throughout the movie. But this film was a hit and, due to its snub at the Academy Awards, convinced the guys who vote for the Oscars to actually have a wider variety when it comes to ‘Best Picture’. This film was The superhero movie, the one that supposedly set the bar. I mean Iron Man was great and all, but look at what the Dark Knight was doing. It was making superheroes all gritty and realistic, making it something cool and not just for little kids any more. And to be fair, The Dark Knight did a lot to help out the superhero genre. It did make it more acceptably mainstream and gave Marvel the platform it needed to become one of the highest grossing franchises of all time. So The Dark Knight won the battle…
But then lost the war. For you see, while ‘dark and gritty’ worked well for Batman… it absolutely fell on its face when they tried it on Green Lantern and Man of Steel. And for the record, I enjoyed Man of Steel. It’s my favourite Superman movie (even though, paradoxically, it has absolutely nothing to do with Superman in its entire run time). But this is Warner Bros. looking at what made Batman successful and trying to copy it, without making the logical connection that just because the concept worked on one character, it doesn’t mean it’s going to work on every character. The Dark Knight both saved and ruined the DC franchise in one swell swoop. It give DC the idea that this is what audiences wanted without understanding why audiences loved The Dark Knight to begin with. So The Dark Knight ultimately crippled DC comics in the film race. But what about Marvel?
Well I can honestly say that Iron Man was one of the first Marvel films I actually enjoyed, even though I didn’t see it to years later. Mostly because it figured out the incredibly simple concept that most superhero movies fail to grasp: For the love of Odin make your lead character interesting in and out of costume. The first Spider-Man film (both original and reboot) is a bore to me, since Peter Parker is a fundamentally dull character. Same goes for Daredevil and the Fantastic Four. These characters, when they weren’t fighting bad guys or using their superpowers, were incredibly boring to watch. Even Batman in 1989 figured this out and didn’t bother making the film an origin story, instead being a film that focused almost solely on Batman. Alter egos are boring because the point of superhero stories is to try and escape the humdrum life we’re living. It’s escapist fantasy, which is only fun when we can actually escape. Even The Dark Knight made the sensible decision of focusing solely on Batman over Bruce Wayne, giving it the edge over most superhero movies. So why do I bring all this up?
Simple: Tony Stark is such a fantastically written and portrayed character that you really don’t get upset that he’s not Iron Man for that much of the film. He’s great fun to watch, a smartass that has the brains to back it up. He’s funny, witty, other words ending in ‘y’. He is a great character. And that’s the key. We fall in love with Tony Stark so much that we can forgive that ‘Iron Man’ only appears about three times in story, and that the climax is actually rather crap. Tony Stark is a much more interesting and fun character then whiny Peter Parker or perpetually glum Bruce Wayne. This was the first time the superhero’s alter ego was actually fleshed out into a character that audiences wanted to watch, not something that was needed for exposition purposes only. He’s just such an interesting character to watch on-screen. But of course there’s one secret weapon that helps this film more than anything else.
For those not in the know, a majority of the script’s dialogue was improvised. The action and story was written and tightly focused, but the dialogue was at the behest of the actors. And it works, it simply works. Oh sure, the downside is that we lose a climax. But the upside is that we get such interesting and believable characters that we’re willing to overlook it. Iron Man is such a fun movie to watch. The characters actually feel like proper human beings, not stock standard groups of clichÃ©s. It was a risk, but one that pays off nonetheless. Because these characters feel human we relate to them far more than â€œMy parents are dead and that’s all that defines meâ€ Bruce Wayne. But that’s how Iron Man is a good film. How does it change the genre?
One of the biggest things that stuck out at me when I was watching â€œThe Amazing Spider-Man 2â€ in theatres was this: Peter Parker has to spend a lot of his time trying to hide his secret identity from his Aunt May. Answer me this: When is the last time a superhero spent the film trying to hide their secret identity? The Dark Knight Rises is all about Bruce Wayne, Man of Steel is all about Kal-El, the Avenger movies never made the character’s identities a secret. Spider-Man plays this trope entirely straight, and even then subverts it by making Gwen Stacy know. The idea of the superhero having a secret identity seems almost laughably out-dated nowadays. But why is that? Well because of the last four words at the end of this film: â€œI am Iron Man.â€ Oh sure, there’s the thematic significance of the character’s arc (Tony Stark finally working out who he is and what he wants to be), but on top of that we have the startling twist that suddenly the superhero has no secret identity. Everyone knows who Iron Man is. So now the tired trope of ‘I must protect my identity to protect my loved ones’ is all but ignored. Superheroes aren’t trying to hide who they are, they’re embracing it. They’re fully admitting that they’re superheroes. Since this was such a new twist at the time it gave us something new to look forward too. It opened up new possibilities. It got rid of tired clichÃ©s. And it all started from this one film here.
Another big change it brought to the genre is the reinvention of the superhero. Now more than ever superheroes were tired into the current world and the problems it faced. I’ll elaborate more on how The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Solider play off current fears in society (unless I forget of course), but lets look at this film here. 2008, we still had terrorists being a problem. They were a big, scary, foreign threat. We had a war in the Middle East that didn’t seem to be doing anything except costing innocent people their lives. These were all real-world concerns and Iron Man addresses them. Now it’s been said before that Iron Man is capitalist wish fulfilment, the fantasy scenario where capitalism saves the day. Well here it’s very much the case. Capitalism is what comes in to save these people and defeats the bad guys. Iron Man is a symbolic representation of what America wants to be when it comes to the war in the Middle East. While there were shades of this more ‘modern’ themes found in Nolan’s Batman trilogy, on the whole superhero films tended to be non-political. They tended to focus more on fantasy settings where good guys and bad guys could fight each other. A timeless setting that could be applied to any generation. Whereas Iron Man is a film that could only exist within the early 21st Century. Oh sure, it was adapted from the idea of Tony going to Vietnam, but the visuals shown are very much tied into how we see the modern world. While Gotham will always be a mystical place that reflects the world, Iron Man’s universe is something that could easily be set in our world. For the first time superhero movies were moving into the realms of politics, and they’d stay there for a very long time.
But we’re dancing around the issue. There’s one really, really, really obvious thing that caused Iron Man to change the superhero genre forever: the stinger. At the end of the film Nick Fury appears and approaches Tony Stark about the Avengers initiative. We of course look at this now and go ‘aha, that’s where it all started’. However, Nick Fury’s cameo was originally suppose to be nothing more than a joke. Something for the fans. Not something to base a franchise on. A simple little joke… that was so well-received it caused the filmmakers to stop and go ‘hey, why don’t we expand on this some more?’ And thus the concept of the Avengers was born: Set up a bunch of heroes in their own movie before bringing them all together in their own epic. From just one stinger the idea of actually tying separate movies together into one universe was born. Now I’ll talk about this more when we get to the pay-off of this, but it is interesting to see how it all ties together.
But the stinger is the obvious continuity tie together. What’s really interesting is that if you watch the films in chronological order (aka start with Captain America and the backstory to Thor) and then watch Iron Man… it’s almost as if this was all planned from the start. The giant arc reactor explosion is similar to the Tesseract’s ‘explosion’ at the end of Captain America and The Avengers looks almost identical to the reactor explosion. Now of course it’s obvious that since Iron Man came first, everything was built off what was in it. But it’s clever little visual clues like this that indicate that the world is a much bigger place. That it is all connected. You watch Iron Man now and you’d swear they’d already planned out the next eight movies, rather than making it up as they went along. Most of it is subtle, but when you take into account the film’s timeline, it’s amazing how it all ties together.
So there you have it. My look at Iron Man and how it managed to change an entire film genre. If you disagree with anything, or have anything to add, feel free to leave a comment. Till next time.