Iron Man changed the superhero genre back in 2008, but as we near Avengers: Infinity War and the end of the path Tony Stark started, it's about time we looked back and assessed the ending's unshakable influence: no, not the Nick Fury post-credits scene, rather the way "I am Iron Man" destroyed the secret identity trope.
Ten years on, it's easy to forget the impact of Iron Man. We live in a world where Tony Stark is as iconic a hero as Bruce Wayne or Peter Parker, Robert Downey, Jr. is one of the biggest names in cinema, and the Marvel formula is a term of derision. That was not the case before Iron Man: it was a movie following an at-best B-List hero (who wasn't even part of Marvel's original shared universe plans) fronted by an actor renowned for his misdemeanors (in fact, Terrence Howard as James Rhodes was the deal-sealing get, with RDJ a secondary nab) that pretty much perfected what a "Marvel movie" is.
Of course, what Iron Man is most often lauded for is starting the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The movie itself is rather standalone, with most sequel setup subtle and Shellhead focused - Howard's unfulfilled "next time, baby" and S.H.I.E.L.D. finally figuring out its inherently cool acronym name - but after it was all over Marvel laid down its own Infinity Gauntlet: a post-credits scene where Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury recruited Iron Man for the Avengers Initiative. It doesn't matter that Jackson's casting had leaked before the movie released, or that this tease doesn't really make sense in the canon (this version of the Avengers is ditched in Iron Man 2, with the eventual team emerging from those ashes), this was the kernel of the MCU, with the "bigger universe" Fury promised coming crashing down in Infinity War.
But while post-credits stingers have changed how people view movies and this style of "take-it-if-you-want-it" expansive storytelling has allowed Marvel to toe the line between solid standalone movies and greater wholes, that wasn't really Iron Man's true ace. That would be the moment just before the credits where, in just four words, Robert Downey, Jr. broke the superhero genre's one rule - and genuinely changed everything.
- This Page: Iron Man Destroyed The Secret Identity Trope
- Page 2: The Marvel Cinematic Universe Is Better Without Secret Identities
- Page 3: How The Destruction Of Secret Identities Hurt The Competition
Iron Man Destroyed The Secret Identity Trope
At the end of Iron Man, Tony Stark gives a press conference intended to distance himself from the Stark Industries mayhem caused between him and Iron Monger the night before. Except, reckless hedonist that he is, he doesn't follow the military's instructions and claim the suit is a robotic bodyguard, instead proclaiming, "I am Iron Man". It's a deep character summation, encapsulating Tony's self-involved nature (Fury even mocks it in the end-credits scene) and setting up his ten-movie redemption of truly becoming "the hero type". However, it also saw Marvel tossing away the very notion of a secret identity.
Technically this was in line with the comic - while Iron Man had originally been covered up as a robotic bodyguard of Stark's, he'd revealed the truth in the late-1990s (a fact that proved essential in subsequent comic arcs like Civil War) - but in the wider context of superhero movies it marked a seismic shift. The secret identity trope had been a part of superheroes since Superman lived as Clark Kent, and had evolved in the decades since to explain away powers - Batman's wealth - or bring the character closer to the reader - Peter Parker is more relatable because of his unassuming real life.
It thus became a key part of the movies they inspired. The Reeve Superman and Burton/Schumacher Batman films both put heavy stock in the identities, with the villain discovering the truth typically being the worst possible outcome, and the same was true of the 2000s resurgence; in the likes of Spider-Man 2, the entire plot pivots on who knows Peter's secret and when. Identity was at the core of Iron Man's fellow 2008 release The Dark Knight too, with Batman's internal dichotomy mirrored in the past-neutral Joker. Even as comic book movies were starting to branch off in new directions and genres, secret identities were a constant.
Then Iron Man thew it away. And he wasn't the only one; across the MCU's Phase 1, we saw identities slowly eroded. Thor completely ditched the Donald Blake human side (although did give it a cheeky wink) and The First Avenger so blurred the lines between Steve Rogers and Captain America that they're interchangeable. Even Bruce Banner is widely known as the Hulk, with him having to pull out extra secret identities when on the run. The core Avengers most needing alter egos are spec-ops Black Widow and Hawkeye, but they're so off-the-grid they barely have an everyday identity. Later additions have maintained this: Falcon, War Machine, and The Winter Soldier have their grandiose names, but can easily be called Sam, James and Bucky without confusing anybody.
Things have extended now that characters where the identity is the point have been successfully "MCU-ified": in Spider-Man: Homecoming, the villain, best friend, and in the final moments Aunt May all learn Peter Parker is really the webslinger; Black Panther's first appearance in Captain America: Civil War ends with him unmasking as T'Challa, befitting the public-facing side of the mantle.
What Marvel's done over the past ten years isn't just create a shared universe, but created a shared universe where the idea of an alter ego is a dated concept. This does mirror the source, especially when taking into account the Ultimate Marvel Universe, but it's a major step for the big screen. In Avengers: Infinity War, Spider-Man introduces himself as "Peter", only correcting to his "made-up name" when Doctor Strange does so. When everyone's Super, no one will need a Super name. And that's been the key to Marvel's success.
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