With the Avengers: Age of Ultron near, it’s the right time to consider the appeal of Iron Man. Here’s a list of reasons to love the character, movies and brand.
1. Robert Downey Jr.
Downey always excelled as an actor. His work on Chaplin (1992) is a pure genius: arguably funnier than the real Charlie Chaplin and a very versatile dramatic performance. But US Marshals (1998) was by his own admission, something of a downer for Downey.
And, save occasional supporters (notably Mel Gibson), he found himself isolated thanks to ‘that’ little problem and its embarrassing fallout (and we don’t mean appearing in the tv show, Ally McBeal!).
2008 turned everything around. Here was a great actor, finally getting a leading man outlet in an action/adventure film, whilst preserving his improvisational and artistic sensibilities. Iron Man is a story about reinventing yourself and taking second chances in the wake of a traumatic experience just as much as it is a monster mash of metal machinery. Life and art were in harmony here.
Downey has remained loyal to the role and played it six times, with a seventh imminent for 2016’s Captain America: Civil War. He was born to play Tony Stark /Iron Man; personifying the correct sense of moral reinvention, innovation, adventure and ethical hedonism. Nobody else could do it. A charitable champion; he radiates joy and humanity. Robert Downey Jr. IS Iron Man!
2. Blockbuster Aims, Independent Method
Iron Man 3 grossed a billion dollars. Yes, these movies are marketed to the max, with high investment in production values and the bang for buck ethic that defines most action/adventure product. And yet, they have artistic integrity.
Iron Man was an ‘independent’ movie. Whilst distributed by Paramount (later episodes now with Disney); the film was the first true ‘Marvel’ movie. An independent outfit, Marvel movies’ creative future depended on the success of one film. That experimental risk and joy infected each entry in the series: exhibiting improvisation and individual vision.
3. Supporting Players
You are only as good as the people you are surrounded by in any franchise. Iron Man is no different, but models the virtue with distinction.
Director Jon Favreau started the ball rolling on the first two films, before passing the post to Shane Black (their visions are not radically different yet remain distinguishable, nonetheless). But Favreau plays Happy Hogan (Stark’s Bodyguard) in all three Iron Man movies. Continuity and community pervade the brand (Terrence Howard became Don Cheadle as Rhodey but hey..).
The calibre of actors playing adversaries is consistently high, even if the villainous plans or final set-pieces sometimes lack invention or pace. Jeff Bridges! Mickey Rourke! Guy Pearce! Sam Rockwell! Sir Ben Kingsley! Rebecca Hall! It’s an impressive list.
So, whilst each adventure is more or less self-contained and the guest stars come and go, there is an evident ensemble family ethos. That’s why Iron Man blends so seamlessly into the Avengers spin-offs.
4. Style, Soul and Sex Appeal
Admit it: you want to be Tony Stark. You want that Malibu beachfront pad. You need someone as lovely as Pepper Potts (the adorable Gwyneth Paltrow) in your life to push you forward yet rein you in.
How great would it be to possess a brain as brilliant as Einstein’s, whilst wielding the super-cool charms of a super-rich playboy? Who doesn’t want to work with an Artificial Intelligence Butler / sentient computer assistant JARVIS, whilst rocking away to AC/DC or great music scores (Ramin Djawadi, John Debney, Brian Tyler: all amazingly atmospheric).
Imagine being the cleverest, funniest and sexiest man alive; frequently flanked by a flock of fitting fillies. Live the life of a 20-30 something but with a 40something’s discerning distinction and limitless wealth; equally adept at confronting arms dealers and Gods /aliens.
You don’t just watch an Iron Man film. You LIVE it. It’s vicarious wish fulfilment; glossily lit pure fantasy and refreshing to watch. The building and testing of the various armoured suits is a particular joy; modelling a spirit of engineering experimentation amidst stunning visuals. And the verbal interplay between Stark and Pepper is right up there with the best romantic/comedic double acts in classic Hollywood history.
But it’s not all consequence free or devoid of depth. Stark the weapons designer becomes a peace broker; the playboy a devoted monogamist. Simplicity meets complexity and fantasy marries reality: a major factor in the charm and ongoing success of these wonderful movies about a now beloved character /universe.
Do you know what? I feel a sudden need to go and watch an Iron Man film.
We love Iron Man. Long may he thrive!
James Murphy /April 2015