This is it. This is the movie. This is the actor. This is the moment. Before the recent meteoric rise of Matthew McConaughey and before comic book movies became the most unstoppable form of genre films in Hollywood, there was Robert Downey Jr. and Marvel’s Iron Man. It is ground zero for Marvel’s entire cinematic universe and also the vehicle that gave one of Hollywood’s most talented, charismatic, entertaining actors a much needed career REBIRTH.
It’s hard to imagine now, but Iron Man was a completely fringe comic book character six years ago. And that was with comic book fans. Sure, the character has been around since the 60s. Sure, he had some famous and groundbreaking storylines. But I’m not going out on a limb by saying that no one gave a good goddamn about Iron Man in 2008. And now I almost feel silly explaining to you the plot of his first film. (A playboy industrialist who is mortally wounded and abducted by terrorist builds a suit of armor to save/liberate himself, then keeps building more advanced armors until he becomes a bonafide superhero.) The fledgling Marvel Studios was taking a risk pushing out a summer blockbuster about Howard Hughes in a robot suit. However, with most of their surefire properties like Spider-Man, The X-Men, and The Fantastic Four belonging to other studios, Marvel was kind of without options. So, who would they get to helm this tricky endeavor? Nick Cassavetes. Yeah, you read me right. The director of The Notebook was set to direct a summer action blockbuster comic book film. Before him was Joss Whedon at New Line. (Whoops!) Before him was Quentin Tarantino. (Interesting.) Before all of them was Stuart “Re-Animator” Gordon. (Wuh?) Finally, Marvel settled on hiring an up and coming actor turned director to right the ship. A guy named Jon Favreau.
Jon Favreau, and all of the other people considered to direct Iron Man, gave me my first clue of how Marvel Studios were going to run things from now on. Where everyone’s mind at the time would go to hiring a traditional action director like a McTiernan or a Cameron or a Bay, Marvel was picking guys who ultimately understood characters. Guys who would bring something tangible and real to these characters in the capes and suits of armor. (Take a gander at the directors of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Ant-Man and Guardians Of The Galaxy to see my point.) Favreau was lucky because he had a pretty clean slate when it came to the character of Tony Stark. Other than the basic information that I brought up before, the character could have portrayed in any way. That is why casting him was going to make or break the film and the studio’s future. Cast an actor who can create something original, entertaining, believable, and iconic, you cement him into the lexicon of film characters forever and truly put your studio on the map. Cast an actor who is unable to grab the public and give them something they hadn’t seen before, your film becomes a marginally successful yet forgotten outing along the lines of a Daredevil and Ghost Rider. Marvel sought out everyone from Tom Cruise, to Clive Owen, to Justin Timberlake for Tony Stark. To Favreau’s credit, credit I personally think he does not get enough of by the way, he knew the actor who could reinvent this character. An actor who was in need of a reinvention himself.
Robert Downey Jr. is part of a long list of immensely talented actors who became detoured in their personal and professional lives by substance abuse. Heath Ledger and the recent tragic death of Philip Seymour Hoffman shows us the commonality of Hollywood’s best and brightest skirting the edge of self-induced oblivion. I chose Robert Downey Jr. as the actor I simply love the most because, like Ledger and Hoffman, Downey Jr. has always captivated me while equally entertaining the hell out of me despite his personal weaknesses. He has gone through the rabbit hole of self destruction and used his experiences to not only make himself a better actor, but a better person as well. Thankfully, Jon Favreau saw some of the same things in Downey Jr.. But how the hell do you pitch a felonious, drug abusing, career burnout as the title character in Marvel’s first big cinematic shot? You explain that Robert Downey Jr. eerily IS Tony Stark. And that is exactly what Favreau did. Stark is a genius at his craft, a celebrity by his birthright, and substance abuser by his own hand who suffers a horrific experience which motivates him to change his life. Though, breaking in and passing out in a stranger’s bedroom isn’t exactly synonymous with taking a chest full of shrapnel, you can still appreciate the similarities. Favreau put his foot down for Robert Downey Jr., Marvel reluctantly agreed, and Tony Stark became a household name.
Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as Tony Stark is completely magnetic. I had an experience with an audience during the scene below that I hadn’t felt in some time. Watching Downey Jr. humorously ramble and strut in the Afghan desert was like watching Indiana Jones trying to switch a bag of sand with a golden idol, or Detective John McClane cracking wise on a walkie talkie in Nakatomi Tower. Tony Stark was introducing himself to the cinematic world, and we could not get enough of it. We still can’t. Spider-Man uses humor as a guise for his darker nature. However, Peter Parker can only get so dark. That is because Peter Parker is a genuinely good person. Tony Stark does the same thing. But his darker nature can really be dark. I mean really dark. Watch the scene where Tony starts angrily blasting up his lab after watching the news and tell me you can’t see the blackier parts of his conflicted soul bleeding through. Downey Jr. brought that with him. That isn’t on the page. Mainly because there weren’t a lot of pages actually finished on this script when the film was being shot. The way you hide that problem is by making sure your characters are strong and by making sure the actors playing them are equally so.
That is another forgotten thing about the first Iron Man. The casting, from top to bottom, is practically perfect. Want proof? Clark Gregg’s Agent Phil Coulson made his first appearance as a throwaway character here. And now he is practically the MCU’s mascot. Favreau cast actors who knew how to hold their own with Robert Downey Jr.’s constantly adapting approach to the material. The best example of that casting was with Gwyneth Paltrow as Tony’s Assistant/Counselor/Love Interest Pepper Potts. I always hear how Marvel films don’t have strong female characters. Short of Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster in Thor, I think Marvel has some of the most underratedly badass, strong willed, well rounded female characters in this genre. From Peggy Carter, to Black Widow, to even Maria Hill. Paltrow’s Pepper Potts is easily the best one of them all. Every 95 mile per hour argument or flirtation Paltrow and Downey Jr. have is an automatic injection of life into a scene. It is the truest illustration of onscreen chemistry I can think of. One cannot exist without the other, which is why Downey Jr. persuaded Joss Whedon to put Paltrow in Avengers. There is only one “feel good” couple for me when it comes to comic book films, and maybe films in general. It’s not Bruce and Selina, or Clark and Lois, or Peter and MJ. It’s Tony and Pepper.
The casting of Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane was also a stroke of genius. Putting an actor up against Robert Downey Jr. who is just as fearless and creative and charming as him really makes for some great moments. Watching these two practically create a scene out of thin air is a sight to behold. So, behold it! Tony Stark’s biggest flaw as a hero has always been his lacking list of enemies. However, even I have to admit that the actors who have been cast as his adversaries are always top notch. Bridges, to date, has been the best of them.
Embarrassing confession, but the first Iron Man also has the best depiction of Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes for me. Now, I love Don Cheadle. I like his version of Rhodey a lot. However, I am a bit skeptical of his depiction because I’m so used to how playfully charming Cheadle is as an actor. Rhodey is the other half of Tony Stark’s grounding force in his life. But where Pepper is the spirited verbal sparrer of Tony, Rhodey is typically the more stern and stubborn big brother figure. I believe Terrence Howard nailed that tone of the character more in Iron Man. Whatever fallout he and Downey Jr. and Marvel had has always been a tough set of circumstances for me to take.
If the 900 pound gorilla that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe was an actual living thing, Iron Man and Robert Downey Jr. would be its heart. With Downey Jr.’s days playing the genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist numbered, let’s hope Marvel Studios can find a suitable transplant before he’s gone for good. Suit up…Watch it…then tell me I’m wrong. Why? Because that’s how Dad did it, that’s how America does it, and it’s worked out pretty well so far. To Peace.