Home Entertainment ‘Iron Man’ rescued superhero movies. Ultimately, it wrecked them.

‘Iron Man’ rescued superhero movies. Ultimately, it wrecked them.


It was 15 years ago, almost to the day, when I first saw “Iron Man.” I don’t remember where — most likely a nondescript multiplex in the Baltimore suburbs. Was the room abuzz with anticipation? Maybe so. Big studios had already released adaptations of “Spider-Man” and “X-Men,” but this would be the first release from Marvel Studios, formed by Avi Arad and Kevin Feige to bring coherent vision — and creative control — to the potential gold mine of Marvel Comics’ intersecting storylines, larger-than-life characters, multigenerational brand recognition and rabid fan loyalty.

Honestly? I couldn’t have cared less either way. I had been dutifully dazzled by Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire’s endearing “Spider-Man” when it was released in 2002, but by the third iteration, its web of childlike charms had begun to sag. Christopher Nolan’s moody, broody Batman had left me a little cold. Let’s just say that, at that “Iron Man” preview, I arrived with notebook open, pen uncapped, eyebrow cocked and elbows decidedly out.

Maya Angelou observed that people might forget what you said, or what you did, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel. I’ll never forget how “Iron Man” made me feel two hours later, having roused me from my cynical torpor and sending me out of the theater on a cloud of joy, amazement and gratitude.

Here was a Hollywood genre exercise — just another superhero movie — that managed simultaneously to honor and reinvigorate the form. With intelligence and economy. Humor and finesse.

And, most important, with Robert Downey Jr.

As billionaire inventor and reformed death merchant Tony Stark, Downey made sure that “Iron Man” stuck the landing literally and figuratively, cracking wise with sarcastic patter one minute and conjuring credibly somber emotion the next. It’s impossible to overstate how seamlessly Downey’s cocksure persona fused with his character’s own hubristic confidence: It was that wondrous, vanishingly rare case of an actor finding the role of a lifetime, in the last place we would have looked for him. Downey’s performance was all the more impressive for being delivered, for much of the film’s running time, while trapped within the confines of a cramped metal suit.

The genius of “Iron Man” was that, its astonishing $585 million box office haul notwithstanding, it was essentially a scrappy, let’s-put-on-a-show indie: The Iron Man character was chosen not because he was as beloved as Spider-Man or as iconic as DC Comics’ Superman, but because he was available. Downey, bedeviled by substance abuse issues and some box office flops, was anything but a sure bet back then. Although director Jon Favreau had made “Zathura: A Space Adventure,” no one was sure that he could handle the blend of practical and computerized visual effects “Iron Man” demanded. (It turned out he very much could.)

It was precisely because “Iron Man” wasn’t reverse-engineered as a crowd-pleaser that it managed to please nearly every crowd, from viewers who didn’t know Jarvis from Jar Jar Binks to the Comic-Con faithful who, when the Marvel team announced “Iron Man” in 2006, immediately wondered if an entire Cinematic Universe might be in the offing. “We had no real plans at that point,” Feige told Vanity Fair in 2017. “It was a pipe dream.”

A decade and a half later, it beggars belief that Feige’s pipe dream could ever be in doubt, so thoroughly has the MCU permeated real life. Forget the Cinematic Universe: As a sly critique of America’s Military Industrial Complex, “Iron Man” wound up launching Marvel’s Cinematic Industrial Complex, which would transform the way modern-day visual storytelling is conceived, produced, consumed and understood. For people who grew up with “Iron Man” and its successors, Marvel is now what movies look like. For actors and directors, spandex spectacle is the only game in town. And, fueled by social media, an obsessive brand of fan culture once reserved for Hall H at the San Diego Convention Center has now infiltrated everything from the art house to business and politics.

As in all things that succumb to overkill, it all started innocently enough. In the case of “Iron Man,” everything that Favreau, Downey and Feige did right couldn’t help but be copied, iterated, supersized and doubled-down-on to near oblivion. The most obvious result is that pop culture has morphed into franchise culture, with studios and streamers searching their vaults and new acquisitions for series-friendly IP like so many nickels in couches.

Gone are those felicitous, quirkily original one-offs that were simply the result of a good idea executed with skill and solid entertainment value; even “Air,” the most recent example of that kind of unicorn, could only be made with the branding behemoths of Nike and Michael Jordan at its back.

Chronic sequelae is now our shared preexisting condition. It’s the only language Hollywood understands, because it’s global, lucrative and easy to translate.

It’s precisely their global reach — and that sweet, sweet, Disney money — that made “Iron Man” and its Marvel brethren so irresistible to auteurs who might be expected to turn their noses up at such widget-y product. Indeed, part of Marvel’s strategy for conquering mainstream entertainment has been to come for the indies, with wallets tantalizingly open. Having grokked the piratical sensibilities that gave “Iron Man” its punchy, irreverent vibe, Marvel set about poaching actors and directors from that world — with admittedly smashing results: Mark Ruffalo fans who caught their first glimpse of the actor in small movies like the delicate family dramedies “You Can Count on Me” and “The Kids Are All Right” might have been bemused when he ended up in 2012′s “The Avengers” playing the Hulk, but no one could begrudge a big payday for a talented actor who had been toiling in the low-budget vineyards. Ditto Jeremy Renner, whose breakout performance was in the Oscar-winning “The Hurt Locker,” and Tom Hiddleston, the British actor best known by cineastes for his work with experimental filmmaker Joanna Hogg, now known to millions as Loki in the “Thor” movies.

Suddenly, the actors who had been well-kept secrets among the cognoscenti were being scooped up left and right by prestige-hungry comic book projects — as were emerging directors fresh out of their Sundance debuts. No sooner had Ryan Coogler made a splash with the searing drama “Fruitvale Station,” about the killing of Oscar Grant III, than he was enlisted by Marvel to create “Black Panther.”

The rest of that story is cinematic history at its richest, most textured and groundbreaking. But Marvel’s co-opting of indies has incurred an inestimable cost. Not only were gifted young directors immediately sucked into a pipeline defined by someone else’s highly regimented vision, but the results were often muddled and undistinctive. For every Taika Waititi who grafted his signature antic humor to “Thor’s” family tree, we’ve witnessed underwhelming misfires like Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s “Captain Marvel” and Chloé Zhao’s “Eternals.”

When I interviewed her in 2021, Zhao remarked that, having been born in the early 1980s, comic-book spectacles defined what cinema meant as she came of age: Whereas baby boomers and Gen-Xers might conjure both “The Godfather” and “Star Wars” when they hear the word “movie,” for millennials and Gen-Z, movies overwhelmingly mean one thing: hyper-potent supernatural beings fighting for control of the cosmos because something-something-evil, in a fantastical world that is guaranteed to keep expanding (some would say metastasizing). This year’s big Oscar winner, “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” has made the influence of “Iron Man” more palpable. The trippy action-fantasy, about a humble laundromat owner who becomes a metaphysical superhero, marked a watershed on many levels, not least as evidence of an ongoing generational transfer of cinematic capital that threatens to reduce movies to little more than a self-iterating monoculture.

“Iron Man” certainly didn’t invent franchise obsession in Hollywood, which has always depended on familiar source material and serialized installments to de-risk an inherently speculative (and wildly expensive) proposition. But it did create a new language for comic book movies, less in its visual language than its tone, which felt bracingly fresh in 2008 and now feels rote, predictable and cloying.

Downey’s improvisations with his co-stars kept “Iron Man” aloft with quippy spontaneity that immediately became the chief hallmark of the Marvel house style, composed of expositional mumbo-jumbo, punctuated by a glib one-liner, followed by a screeching chase or variation on the run-from-fireball trope, segueing into snarky cross-talk, punctuated by another one-liner. Rinse and repeat; nostalgic Top 40 needle drops might be optional, but the end-credits stinger is contractually mandated.

Have audiences finally begun to tire of the formula “Iron Man” accidentally perfected? The latest “Ant-Man” movie — as well as installments of DC properties “Black Adam” and “Shazam!” — indicated that franchise fatigue is real, although the recent $100 million-plus opening of the final “Guardians of the Galaxy” suggests otherwise.

Regardless of the MCU’s future, it has already worked on us in deep and possibly permanent ways. We may not like every movie that the Marvel content farm is extruding, but the company has brilliantly convinced us that we need to see them all, in order to get the big picture — not only have they co-opted talent, they’ve co-opted filmgoers who, if they expect to get anything out of the latest streaming spinoff or prequel, feel duty bound to study and memorize the MCU begats.

It’s a truism that comic book movies have infantilized the culture, rewarding our craving for frictionless wish fulfillment fantasies of unaccountable power and righteous impunity. But something took stronger hold after “Iron Man” made its debut. It’s no coincidence that the film arrived at the dawn of social media, when iPhones, Facebook and YouTube were still young and Instagram and Twitter hadn’t dropped yet; those combined forces would create a world in which pandering has become a prime value. The comic book aficionados who once felt unfairly marginalized were suddenly all-powerful in the eyes of the studios adapting their beloved master texts; with full-blast fully enabled, they turned tyrannical — to the point where New York Times film critic A.O. Scott cited the Marvel-DC-Pixar behemoths as a major reason why he left the profession earlier this year. “You create something so enormous and so powerful that it seems like such just a fact of nature, almost,” Scott told his colleague Michael Barbaro on the podcast “The Daily.” “[I]t just crushes any dissenting voice or point of view and doesn’t give you a lot to talk about.”

Those critics who haven’t opted out entirely have been fairly accused of caving to the pressure, grading Marvel movies on a curve because we don’t want to alienate readers or simple because our arms are too short to box with Groot. There have been some genuinely excellent films within the canon, with the “Captain America” chapters and early “Ant-Man” flicks carving out a distinctive look and tone within the myriad deliverables. But as the saga has inexorably expanded, the stakes have shifted: How to judge a movie on its own merits when those merits consist of setting up the next one? Viewers are no longer expected to be invested in the survival of characters we care about as much as the survival of the franchise itself. We’re now in thrall to building the very behemoth that was Feige’s pipe dream when he set out simply to make “Iron Man” a good movie.

Toxic fandom has become particularly distressing in our civic life: Just as Feige and his filmmakers anticipate and cater to their core audience’s every expectation, today’s politicians aren’t expected to make policy or solve constituents’ problems as much as serve up viral content and stay true to canon, preferably in trailer-worthy clips. Tony Stark’s reach as corporate influencer can be detected in everything from the Roy kids’ painfully un-witty, pseudo-smart banter in “Succession” to the evolving mythology of Elon Musk who, according to “Iron Man” screenwriter Mark Fergus, inspired Stark’s character (and later had a cameo in “Iron Man 2”).

Just as “Iron Man” didn’t invent the franchise, nor did it invent fan service. But few can deny that fan service’s indulgent ethos and shallow exuberance has colonized our collective psyche in the ensuing decade and a half, in ways that make us dumber, harsher and more entitled. It’s pointless to expect Hollywood to kick its superhero addiction cold turkey. There are too many more Phases to be rolled out, their narratives and imagery too ingrained in young filmmakers’ imaginations to be exorcised anytime soon. Still, there’s reason for optimism. “Iron Man” proved that anything can be reinvigorated, with the right convergence of talent and taste. For now, we’re all trapped in that cramped metal suit, until someone swoops in to break us out.

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