In 2008, after a decade-long history which saw Marvel Comics on the verge of bankruptcy and the sale of many of the publisher’s property rights to big name production companies, Marvel Studios finally released its first independent feature-length film based on one of its less iconic characters. At the time, a lot of risk surrounded Iron Man. The success of major superhero blockbusters such as Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy as well as Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins were positive signs, but there was worry that another franchise could over-saturate the market, driving down ticket sales for the character. In the end, Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige rolled the dice on the project, resulting in cinema’s biggest on-screen universe to date.
As the first entry in the long-standing franchise, Iron Man can seem like the wise old man of the group, but in fact, it's the linchpin of the universe. Setting the precedent for everything that followed, it broke ground on uncharted territory before the full conceptual groundwork for the MCU had been laid out. Now almost a decade removed from the premiere, it remains the crowning achievement of the cinematic universe, often duplicated but never quite topped. As we prepare for the end of Tony Stark’s reign as the head honcho of the Marvel world, we take a look back at his first exploits as we remember the 15 Reasons Why Iron Man Is Still the Best Movie of the MCU.
15 It Relaunched RDJ’s Career
For a period of the ‘90s and extending into the early part of the next decade, Robert Downey Jr. was shunned by Hollywood circles, cast out as a pariah for his bad boy persona and public struggles with drugs and alcohol. Since 2003, RDJ has maintained his drug-free lifestyle, crediting his wife Susan for helping him with his sobriety, but it was the consideration of director Jon Favreau that can be credited with getting the actor back into the spotlight.
Openly admitting the casting struggles involved with the first Iron Man film, Favreau recalled being rejected by multiple executives after bringing up RDJ’s name as a potential leading man. Not only was a former drug-addicted star attached to the role, but the movie was largely centered around an unknown character that few people knew anything about. Still, Favreau insisted that Stark’s own battles with alcoholism and his playboy lifestyle were a match for RDJ’s persona and life story. In the end, Marvel Studios took the chance, and the MCU’s leading figure has since become one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood, proving that you can't keep a true talent down for long.
14 Marvel’s Self-Made Hero
Powered by a gold and titanium alloy suit and an arc reactor with a palladium-based core which keeps him alive, Tony Stark’s meteoric rise from the world’s largest weapons manufacturer to one of the most renowned superheroes of the MCU began when he was forced to own up to the dire realities of his company. Imprisoned by the Ten Rings terrorist organization, he self-engineered the Mark I suit as an escape strategy, only to realize its potential as a life-saving weapon later on.
Compare Stark to the MCU’s other big name heroes, and it's easy to see why the mega-franchise began with the playboy philanthropist’s origins first. Next to a super soldier, a god, and a green rage machine, Tony’s story is the only standalone movie that doesn't involve some sort of mutation or otherworldly powers to create a sense of superhero epicness. As the first self-made hero of the MCU, he’s drawn comparisons to DC’s Batman, minus the nihilistic, Debbie Downer outlook on the world. That's a big name to stand beside, but so far RDJ has pulled it off with his biting wit and ability to carry the world on his shoulders.
13 It Brought Lesser Known Comic Heroes Into the Mainstream
Following the near financial collapse of the comics industry after the speculator boom of the ‘90s, Marvel sold the movie rights to many of its more popular IPs to various production companies around Hollywood. While Fox made strides with the X-Men franchise, Sony banked on the success of Spider-Man to draw big box office numbers. Meanwhile, lesser known heroes were failing to get off the ground. As early as 2004, New Line Cinema worked to bring Tony Stark to the big screen, but after a deal involving director Nick Cassavetes fell through, Marvel found itself back in possession of the hero’s rights with a vision for their own cinematic universe.
Concerns surrounding the character's popularity sparked Marvel to push Stark's awareness into the mainstream to compete against the superhero movies of the time. During the developmental process, Marvel held focus groups to change the public perception of the character, whom many casual fans believed was a robot rather than a man in a suit. The advertising for the film would prove to be a big help, and Iron Man would ultimately gross nearly $600 million in box office revenues worldwide, a total which is only good enough for 7th best in the franchise.
12 It Has A Director With A Vision
Although Iron Man may not be as flashy as some other notable entries in the MCU, it’s director had a key role in the early developmental stages. When it comes to the Marvel movie universe, there are more issues than most executives would care to admit, but one of the biggest critiques of Marvel Studios so far has been its unrelentingly tight control over its directors. Favreau stepped down from his directorial duties in the Iron Man franchise after a much less stellar effort in Iron Man 2, expressing his disappointment in the messy sequel.
Since the early days of the universe, many of the names attached to Marvel’s projects have been unknowns. Bigger names such as Joss Whedon have exited after discussing the heavy burden that comes with the job, while others such as Edgar Wright have been attached to projects but left due to creative differences. Although Favreau cannot take sole credit for making Iron Man a success, he did push for RDJ in the lead role and built the callous industrialist Tony Stark into a cocky, line-delivering crimefighter. He also encouraged improvisation on set, making way for the self-aggrandizing tone that would make up the rest of the MCU.
11 It's Still Super Quotable
In 1963, the United States was still in the throes of the Cold War. If there was anything young comic book readers couldn’t stand, it was news surrounding the conflict. As a way of swimming against the stream, Stan Lee challenged himself to make a character who was inherently unlikable who would represent the quintessential capitalist profiting off others' misfortunes. Basing his character off the eccentric lifestyle of American entrepreneur Howard Hughes, Tony Stark was an egocentric nutcase plagued with a secret identity and trademark, narcissistic brand of humor.
Although Tony often gets credit for delivering the best lines in the MCU, he isn't the only one offering up memorable quotes in Iron Man. Jeff Bridges also does an admirable job with his menacing off-script improvisations. Still, who can forget Stark’s now famous “I am Iron Man” line, or perhaps the much less serious “Give me a scotch, I’m starving” bit, hinting as the character's struggles with alcoholism. RDJ would go on to have many more notable lines in the MCU, but they all had to begin somewhere, and as time has shown, the script for Iron Man still holds up favorably compared to the movies that followed.
10 A Balanced Tone
Since establishing Iron Man as the de facto leader of the Avengers, the MCU has tried to recreate his success in hopes of finding his successor. Robert Downey Jr. has been forthcoming about his plans to leave the moneymaking franchise following the end of his contract with Infinity War. As a result, Marvel has brought in a host of characters that have shared Tony’s sense of humor. The only problem is that none of them have been able to top the comedic timing in Iron Man.
The comedy imbalance in the MCU is a topic that has been reiterated over the years. Following Iron Man, Tony Stark and the rest of his superhero family have become satirical characters, often choosing comedy over substance. Now with Scott Lang, Stephen Strange, and Peter Parker all serving as potential candidates to take over Stark’s wise-cracking duties, it appears as though the trend will continue; however, the truth is that only Iron Man has maintained the ideal balance between drama and comedy. As a superhero film that knows when to take things seriously, it's a standout for the MCU that serves as a template for how to do things the right way.
9 The CGI Holds Up
Iron Man can appear much more restrained in the visual effects department compared to the explosive designs seen in The Avengers. Part of the reasoning behind the difference had to do with Favreau’s dislike for CGI heading into the project. Rather than using computer imagery for many of Stark’s high-flying scenes, the cast and crew had RDJ walk around in a partially constructed suit which enchanted the photo-realism of each scene, giving the more heroic action sequences a more complete look. On top of that, Favreau had real planes perform the cinematography for many of the flying scenes, giving the appearance of a cameraman following Tony through the air.
As a hero with a backstory that has a tighter grip on reality, the special effects of Tony’s world didn't require an abundance of work until the final highway fight between the hero and the Iron Monger. Those scenes would prove to be the most daunting, as Obadiah Stane and Tony took turns tossing around cars and trading shots. In the end, the right mixture of practical effects and VFX was enough for the movie to garner an Academy Award nomination for its efforts, showing sometimes less can be more, even in a superhero film.
The fact that the effects don't seem remotely dated even a decade later is just icing on the cake.
8 A Hero With Clear Motivations
Another complaint heard often about the MCU is the lack of a driving force behind the characters’ stories. Most recently, this became an issue in Civil War between Team Iron Man or Team Cap. Although it was clear that the Sokovia Accords were the reason behind the disagreement, it was never explained why both sides would go through such lengths when the Accords aimed to protect everyone from the same destruction the feud would inevitably lead to. Unlike other films of the MCU, Stark’s motivations are clear and concise in Iron Man and give him a redemptive quality.
Think about some of the more recent Marvel movie origins and you’ll notice a trend of selfishness behind each story. Stephen Strange wanted to regain his creditably as a reputable surgeon; Black Panther was so consumed with revenge that he nearly killed an innocent Bucky Barnes; Peter Parker wanted to become an Avenger so badly, he almost destroyed Queens to prove his worthiness. For Stark, the motivation was more profound. He simply wanted to undo the damage caused by his company. None of the origins that have followed have been more open about the protagonist’s flaws, making Stark a character we can all sympathize with.
7 No Franchise-Building
Separated into three phases spread out across twenty-two movies, nothing like the Marvel Cinematic Universe had ever been attempted in Hollywood before Iron Man. Still, the plan wasn't always so clear cut. Collecting its heroes into a cohesive world required enough interest from the moviegoing audience to keep the dream alive, so rather than focusing the first MCU film on the promise of a big payoff, Jon Favreau took the smarter route, decidedly giving Tony his own origin without detracting from the premise with an abundance of Easter eggs.
Although Captain America would later be claimed the First Avenger, Iron Man was the first impactful hero. Unlike Steve Rogers, Tony wasn't some war story people recounted from their past. He was the man who publicly fought the Iron Monger on a busy intersection in downtown Los Angeles. Although phase one would ultimately come together in a smash-mouth blockbuster for the ages, the quieter character study in Iron Man still stands out precisely because it isn't bogged down by the necessity to connect to the overall trajectory of the ever-expanding MCU. It's a refreshing, traditional form of storytelling that's since been lost to the universe.
6 The Best Post-Credits Scene
Since the beginning, the MCU has perfected the post-credits scene, leaving audiences in anticipation for the studio’s next installment. With Iron Man, the hype was no different. Following the wrap on principal photography, Marvel Studios hired a skeleton crew to shoot the after-credits sequence, bringing Samuel L. Jackson aboard to film a brief cameo as S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury. As soon as word broke that the actor was on set, speculation over his appearance began. To throw viewers off their scent, the studio removed the teaser from all early screenings, keeping enough people in the dark to keep the ending a surprise.
As post-credits go, the Nick Fury scene was relatively short and to the point. Initially filmed as nothing more than an afterthought, it quickly became the talk of the universe, creating enough enthusiasm to launch the basis for phase one of the franchise. If Fury’s tease for the Avengers was a way of testing the waters, the audience fell for it hook, line, and sinker. To date, no other post-credits scene has been as impactful, which is why we can say it’s still the best the MCU has to offer.
5 Tony Pays the Price for His Mistakes
Maybe it's an oversight on the MCU’s part, or maybe he's just one of the most flawed characters in history, but many of the threats of the franchise cane be traced back to Tony Stark. In Age of Ultron, he singlehandedly comes up with the A.I. which devastates an entire country. Then, in Civil War, he creates a discord between himself and Captain America when he argues with his colleague over the Sokovia Accords and goes after Bucky Barnes. By all rights, Tony is the central antagonist of the MCU. Still, there was a time when he wasn't so bad.
From the opening scene of Iron Man, Tony pays for his misdeeds. While in Afghanistan testing the Jericho missile, his convoy is intercepted by the Ten Rings terrorist group and he finds himself permanently confined to a cave, forced to make weapons for the enemy while a supremely flawed version of the arc reactor keeps him alive. Although Tony has tried to make amends throughout his time in the MCU, the bad has started to outweigh the good, making it increasingly more difficult to defend him past his actions in the first movie.
4 It Engineered the Marvel Formula
By now the topic has been beaten to death, but it bears repeating. The Marvel universe is stuck in a creative rut. Somewhere along the way, the MCU lost its need to reinvent the superhero world and became obsessed with recycling its formula for success. Whether you buy into the Marvel template or not, there's no denying that it's worked so far, but the the ideas behind it weren't always so contrived.
When Iron Man’s production first got underway, the plan was to introduce the moviegoing audience to a new kind of hero, one that didn't take himself too seriously or fall under the pre-conceived ideas of what a hero should be. The cocky one-liners were a unique part of Tony's persona, and his origin story was a necessary step that would ease the audience into the hero’s high-tech world. Little did we know that his sense of humor and struggles to become a hero would be reiterated in every MCU movie that followed. Still, whether you like it or hate it, Iron Man was the first to establish the formula, which means everyone else followed suit - and not the other way around.
3 We Get To See Tony Suit Up For the First Time
There's a number of reasons to sit down and throw on any of the three Iron Man movies made so far. For some, it’s the signature hero versus villain formula. For others, it’s the promise of high-intensity action sequences. For us, however, it's undeniably the suits. Unlike the other Avengers, Tony has a pizzazz that only comes with his signature armor. Appearing as dapper as an A-list celebrity strutting down the red carpet in a tuxedo, Tony’s suits are a fashion statement that pack a wallop and make for some flashy, explosive moments throughout the franchise.
Although the Mark I armor isn't quite as high-grade as some of Tony’s later suits, it gets top billing in the first Iron Man film thanks to its significance in the hero’s journey to stardom. Locked in a cave with high-security surveillance and forced to build an improved version of the Jericho missile for the Ten Rings terrorist organization, Tony uses his limited supplies to one-up his captors and bust his way out. Although the suit is bulkier than Stark’s other incarnations, it’s still an overpowered machine that can fly around and shoot a Unibeam at any opposing threat, making the Jericho missile look wimpy by comparison.
2 It Eliminates the Superhero/Secret Identity Trope
Whether it’s a young, prepubescent-voiced Peter Parker swinging through the boroughs of New York or a spectacle-wearing Clark Kent passing as an everyday journalist at the Daily Planet, superheroes have always hidden in plain sight. The problem is that there's only so many times a person can dodge questions about their secret identity before the general public catches on. With Tony Stark, the only multi-billionaire weapons expert in the world with the wherewithal to build an impenetrable body of armor, it was only a matter of time before the media started pointing fingers.
Delivering one of the best lines of the MCU so far, Tony confessed to being the high-flying pilot behind the suit. The rest of the Marvel world took note, following suit with the other Avengers. Now with each of the MCU’s heroes permanently on record in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s database and the media covering every superhero related topic on the national news, the MCU doesn't have to worry about explaining how each character managed to cover their tracks. It’s an improvement on the modern day hero origin story that can be credited to Stark and his endless need to show off.
1 The MCU’s Best Performance
In a year which saw the most iconic comic book movie performance of all time with Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn as the Joker, another revelation was transforming the perception of comic book personas on the big screen. Robert Downey Jr.’s irreverent, wise-cracking characteristics are such a fit for Tony Stark that they seem to echo sentiments about the actor’s personal life as much as they do about Iron Man himself. Whereas iconic superheroes of the past spoke with formal prose, the Tony Stark persona embraced the Avenger’s narcissism, showing off the fun that went into making the movie.
During an interview in which he addressed the production of Iron Man, Jeff Bridges likened the filming process to a student film, recalling the unusual amount of improvisation that went into many scenes. It’s through spontaneity that RDJ made his home, taking over the set with a smirk and a quip. Of course, underneath the veil of jokes, there's also a nuance to his performance. Every time he picks up a drink or talks about his father, Stark’s own inner demons can be seen just below the surface. It's a thin line that RDJ manages to walk on, but it's one that few actors could have pulled off.
Where does Iron Man rank amongst the other MCU films in your mind? Let us know in the comments.