With almost any extensively successful franchise, it is inherently valuable that we look at its crucial beginnings to discover how it became the juggernaut of achievement that it is today. In the current filmmaking climate of reboots, remakes, and the intertextual currency of Hollywood, only one franchise has seemingly defined the narrative of this modern landscape in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In retrospect, this universe would not be the shining example of franchise filmmaking that we see today without Jon Favreau's unexpected 2008 hit, “Iron Man.” A story that centralizes around a relatively lesser-tier marvel hero in Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), a playboy, rockstar, multi-billion dollar businessman at the head of a weapon manufacturing company that was handed down to him by his father. After an unintended interaction with a terrorist militia, Tony (Robert Downey Jr.) discovers the dangers of the corporate greed that he, himself, has relished. In response, Tony (Robert Downey Jr.) is forced to face the repercussions of his own selfish ambitions and begins to seek redemption by becoming something more than a smart, rich kid with fancy toys.
Robert Downey Jr. is Tony Stark. Many have made the same claim with other character depictions from different actors like that of Ripley and Sigourney Weaver (“Alien;” 1979) or the T-800 and Arnold Schwarzenegger (“Terminator;” 1984), but Robert Downey Jr. feels as if he is depicting a volume upped version of his own public persona. He’s quirky, brash, quick-witted, arrogant, irreverent, and self-deprecating. He plays upon his own personal struggles as a celebrity brought down to reality by his battle with substance abuse, and strides with the charm and improvisation that he’s infamous for in films like Shane Black’s “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang;” 2005. He was also a different breed of superhero than we’ve seen before on the silver screen. He was intriguing, reflective, and timely. He lacks the gravitas of a Superman and the psychic weight of Batman. Instead, he is flimsy and light-hearted. He begs the question as to how serious he takes these dire dilemmas of catastrophe. He smiles in the face of disaster and shrugs off self-destruction. He was a hero that we hadn’t seen before on the silver screen, at least not in superhero movies. It only fits that we would see a villain like we’ve never seen before later that same year in Heath Ledger’s depiction of the Joker (“The Dark Knight;” 2008)
Even more fitting was the idea of a businessman accepting responsibility for his faults, a theme that was culturally relished after the housing crisis. We all grew frustrated with those who occupy Wall Street, but Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) became a cathartic representative of a sinful tycoon realizing that financial prosperity can lead to casualties. Calamities that are not met with more substantial funding for security preventions or more weaponry, instead Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) morally chooses disarmament. How fitting for a character that seems to defy our expectations throughout the film's runtime.
“Iron Man” becomes a true character study in the process of the film’s story as Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is not only the protagonist, but he is the focus of the story. Instead of exposition or an epilogue filled montage from Howard Stark, the film begins with two minutes of snark-filled banter between Tony (Robert Downey Jr) and those who he provides weapons for, before the inciting incident explodes our story into action. The internal worlds that Favreau produce revolve around our protagonist. From his private jet to his interactions to his workshop, we solely follow Tony (Robert Downey Jr) as we do most of Marvel’s heroes, which allows “Iron Man” to be blamed for the proverbial shortage of quality villains in the franchise. Marvel studied the success of “Iron Man,” and because its success primarily stemmed from its hero, Marvel replicated its brilliance throughout its filmography by focal pointing the protagonists and using the villains as mere plot devices. It may work in “Iron Man” as Obadiah (Jeff Bridges) is not the most interesting of villains, but it births a gaping hole in quality for other films in this ever-expanding universe.
The fellow characters behind Tony (Robert Downey Jr.) are not near as casual as he is though, they are rather prudently placed by Favreau. Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) become the proverbial good cop to Downey’s bad cop, remaining serious and stern while Downey has all of the fun. This is not to say that their performances or characters are unmemorable, quite the opposite. Paltrow is elegant and beautiful as Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr) assistant whose concern revolves around this lovable asshole killing himself in the hopes of turning over a new leaf.
Jeff Bridges is the opposing opposite of Stark (Robert Downey Jr) as he devotes himself to power by any means. A mischievous and conniving businessman who feels naturally placed in the story, but he lacks the charisma as a character to become more than a mere opposite of Tony (Robert Downey Jr.). The lack of screen time given to our villain has to be taken to account as well, as the brother-like friend in Col. Rhodes (Terrence Howard) seemingly suffers from the same complication. He is far more charismatic than Bridges, but he’s not necessarily irreplaceable as we see in the film’s sequel. Clark Gregg may have been a slightly humorous standout; he too feels forcefully placed at times as he would soon become the interlinking connection between Earth's mightiest heroes.
Though the characters seem to be lacking in context or depth, they are seemingly augmented by Robert Downey Jr’s performance which makes these characters feel memorable. Though they may not be some of the best aspects of this cinematic universe, they feel essential to the role of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr). They become the proverbial building blocks to Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr) character arch.
“Iron Man” can be a visual treat at times. Primarily founded on its special effects, VFX legend Stan Winston left his last mark upon cinema with a remarkable collection of captivism. The momentous sequences of Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr) first flight in the new suit, his first mission, and his final battle against Obadiah (Jeff Bridges), become iconic to the franchise.
Favreau also earns his own praise for his toleration of freedom given to the cast. He becomes the ultimate fan almost, as he sits back and watches everything takes place before making the final decision on what makes it into the final runtime. The imagery is reflective of Jack Kirby’s and others. Not their artwork necessarily, but their visions of enormity, sleekness, and underground laboratories. Favreau may not become the star of the film's success, but he plays his role like everyone else does in making sure that “Iron Man” could become the best film possible, as, in all actuality, Robert Downey Jr is the star of this film. He is the carrying force behind the story that metaphorically pushes the film through the door of excellence. He showcases the importance of casting the right actor for the big part, as he not only showcases his strengths as an actor but as someone who is all too familiar with the internal sadness and the dread of tarnishing a father’s legacy, the same two characteristics that drive the character he depicts.
Favreau had to have had a hunch about the integral relationship that Downey Jr would have with this character, or maybe he, like Marvel Studios, just got lucky. Because, like all great franchises, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was not founded through world-building, blockbuster glamour, or a large budget, but character, a character that could only be brought to life by Robert Downey Jr.