15 Years Ago, The Cockiest Superhero Created The Biggest Movie Franchise Ever
How did the MCU begin? With one phrase – “I am Iron Man!” It's been 15 years since the armored Avenger first landed in American theaters on May 2, 2008, followed by a dizzying who’s who of superhero movies that spawned after its success. On June 19, Iron Man became the first film of the year to cross the $300 million box office threshold, en route to being one of the most profitable and critically acclaimed comic book movies of that period. It set the gold standard for how a Marvel movie should be, staying true to the character while utilizing a great cast and crew to make it a reality. This winning formula, along with stunning visual effects and an awesome super suit, sped Marvel into a new era of relevance and prosperity.
Despite being one of the earliest characters in the Marvel pantheon dating back to 1963, Iron Man had never been adapted as a live-action anything. It was fitting his movie debut was also the first film Marvel Studios had tangible control over. Producers Avi Arad and Kevin Feige were involved in the previous Marvel movies, but Iron Man was their baby to birth.
The deck was stacked against them in an era when caped crusader flicks were waning, and the rights for Marvel’s properties were scattered across different owners. Arad and Feige bet the house on their first foray into filmmaking, using the rights to their characters as collateral. It turned out they had a winning hand, in part thanks to the names behind the film.
Much like how the Spider-Man franchise took a risk on Sam Raimi, Marvel gave the reins of Iron Man to Jon Favreau, a director who understood the assignment. But at the end of the day, the movie rose to the top thanks to the man behind the disconnected mustache, Robert Downey Jr.
Tony Stark’s motivation has frequently been redemption, and RDJ was at a similar point in his life. Downey had been finding his way in Hollywood prior to this, playing a wide berth of roles that ranged from a Brat-Pack adjacent pick-up artist swooning over Molly Ringwald, to a masterful performance as Charlie Chaplin. His chops were undeniable, but Downey’s public war with drugs significantly damaged his rising star.
One of the most famous Iron Man stories was the “Demon in A Bottle” arc, where Tony battled his severe alcoholism to regain control over his life and business. The coincidence wasn’t lost on anyone when it was announced RDJ would suit up in the signature red and yellow armor for Iron Man, his journey mirroring the character he was playing.
Downey struggled with substance abuse through the late 90’s and early 2000’s. His addiction earned him multiple arrests and jailtime, compounded by a revolving door of roles which inevitably fired him in response to those incidents. Insurance companies refused to bond Downey, fearful of the possibilities of what he could do to himself, or others around him. Downey eventually had a successful rehab and overcame those insurance hurdles to set his career back on track.
Tony begins Iron Man as an unlikeable playboy, vain heir to a throne made from high-end weapon sales with an intellect similar to his bank account- both seemingly never-ending. An attempt on his life by a terrorist group forces him to create an artificial heart to stay alive, simultaneously powering up his first mech suit which he uses to escape. This literal change of heart, along with the affection of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, guides Stark to new frontiers with his business, while also using his tech to do good as the Iron Man.
The stage was set for Tony to become the centerpiece of the franchise. Kids and parents fell in love with this relatable trillionaire. Tony is flawed and doesn’t always make the right decision, but he learns from those errors and changes, earning his place as the heart of the Avengers and the entire MCU.
Iron Man rebooted Downey’s career and made him the hottest name to come out of the MCU. This was the Downey of old, his swagger and confidence married seamlessly to his onscreen counterpart. This was a healed Robert, and better version than we had seen before. His own journey translated into the humanity Tony Stark needed to exude to become this iconic character.
It’s difficult to tell where Downey begins and Stark ends, but that’s probably the way he likes it. For years, Downey slipped into character to surprise children at Comic Con costume parties, sick patients in hospitals, and even gave an amputee a prosthetic limb. That’s what a true superhero does!
While Hulk and Spidey arrived on the scene earlier, Iron Man kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe proper, including the first post-credits scene in the history of the franchises. Samuel L. Jackson debuted as Nick Fury, another case of perfect casting, as the Ultimate version of Fury drawn a few years earlier in comics was based on the Pulp Fiction star. With one phrase, Jackson permanently changed the landscape of the super hero genre.
“The Avengers Initiative” tantalized audience-goers, hinting at a grander plan beyond a single superhero movie. When Downey showed up a month later as a surprise in “The Incredible Hulk” (Marvel Studios’ 2nd film), the plot truly thickened! A massive chunk of the Marvel library was at their disposal, and imaginations ran wild with the possibilities of who would show up as the series progressed.
31 films comprise the MCU currently, excluding any Disney Plus series and upcoming movies. If not for Iron Man, shared universes with interconnected stories would have remained in comics and not on the big screen. Iron Man was the riskiest mainstream superhero movie at the time, but continues to pay dividends 15 years later. A gamechanger in so many ways, and we can attribute it all to one beloved & conceited entrepreneur turned kindhearted ironclad hero named Tony Stark.