Black Panther co-writer Joe Robert Cole suspects that the response to Tony Stark from the original Iron Man would have been much more critical, had the movie opened in theaters now. The Marvel Cinematic Universe celebrates its tenth anniversary this year, meaning it’s now been a decade since Robert Downey Jr. made his big screen debut as the “Genius, Billionaire, Playboy, Philanthropist” weapons manufacturer turned superhero. It also means the world has changed a whole lot since Iron Man first suited up in the MCU.
There’s been an increased focus on diversifying not only the MCU but the Hollywood industry at large in the years since Downey Jr. and Jon Favreau made their first comic book movie together. Characters such as Wonder Woman and Black Panther have now starred in films of their own, earning much praise for their sense of authenticity and inclusivity on both sides of the camera. The push for better representation for women of color especially across the industry is gaining strength too. So the question is: would a superhero movie featuring a misogynistic white male billionaire as its lead play well with audiences nowadays?
For Cole, the answer is probably not, as he told the crowd at the Superhero Science panel at SXSW 2018 over the weekend. The writer was there with fellow MCU creative Nicole Perlman – cowriter of Guardians of the Galaxy and the upcoming Captain Marvel – and he brought up the original Iron Man after being asked if he thinks superheroes’ values are a reflection of the culture at any time in history, or vice versa. Cole further referenced U.S. President Donald Trump while also nodding to movements like #MeToo, with his response (via IndieWire):
“Think about where we are now, with this very vapid, unintelligent president and our world is crackling on the edges because of that. Think back to Tony Stark, him being douchey and being okay. If that character, Stark, was created in a movie today, I wonder if the response would be like, ‘Oh, it’s cool that he’s douchey and disrespectful to women … That’s fine.’ I think we’re at a different place. I think it’s a better place.”
Over the course of the last ten years, the Tony Stark character has undergone a dramatic redemption arc in the MCU and often been forced to reconcile with not only mistakes that he made in the past, but the present as well. Captain America: Civil War even made Tony the antagonist of the story, while last year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming acknowledged that Tony’s nobler actions can have effects on the working class that he’s oblivious to. Iron Man 3 even tried to confront his disrespect towards women directly by originally making Rebecca Hall’s Dr. Maya Hansen its main villain, before her role was reduced during shooting.
Cole nevertheless raises a worthwhile point. Though the MCU has continuously striven to redeem Tony, his initial popularity can be in no small part attributed to audiences finding him to be a likable bad boy. His behavior probably would come off less as charming and more obnoxious in today’s world, making it harder for audiences to root for him as he constantly struggles to better himself, yet always comes up short. Iron Man, like all films, was a product of its time and it stands to reason that Tony’s antics (especially, with respect to Pepper Potts and the other women in his life) would be framed in a far more critical light today, for that reason.
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