Iron Man remains a thrillingly self-contained origin story for one of the last decade’s most iconic screen heroes.
Well, this is the movie that kicked it all off, and it’s easy to see why: it’s a flat-out good movie. Producer Kevin Feige made the right call hiring director Jon Favreau, who knows how to balance drama, comedy, and action. It’s hard to remember now, but the MCU was considered a risk when it started out. And Iron Man, typically considered a B-level superhero, was not considered a strong-enough IP to build this grand experiment on.
What makes Iron Man so good? Well, it set the tone for the MCU. Iron Man made it clear that Marvel’s movies would not be as dark as Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. Audiences were allowed to laugh, heroes were allowed to smile, but not at the expense of real stakes and drama. Yes, we laugh at Tony’s one-liners and we laugh at his silly robot toys and all the ways he hurts himself while testing out the Mark armors. But we also give a damn when he needs Pepper’s help to fix his arc reactor before he dies.
Furthermore, the movie feels so different from the rest of the MCU because of how self-contained it is. Other than Coulson’s supporting role, and the stinger with Nick Fury, this is an entirely isolated adventure that only cares about telling a solid origin story. Of course, it accomplished that and then some.
It also started the MCU trend of casting their movies exceptionally well. Downey was born to play Tony Stark, we all know this. But let's not forget Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, Shaun Toub, and Samuel L. Jackson, all of whom are great in their roles. This is even more crucial when you consider that all but Bridges make multiple appearances in the MCU.
Of course, Terrence Howard didn’t get to stick around, and that’s unfortunate; he’s really good here. (Howard and Ed Norton remain the only two significant casting inconsistencies in the MCU’s otherwise rock-solid world-building.)
But the movie isn’t perfect. The flashback structure of the first act is an unnecessary flourish. And as much as this movie did to establish the MCU, it also set the template for the MCU’s villains, which hasn’t been one of the franchise’s stronger aspects.
Obadiah Stane is essentially the dark side of Tony Stark. He’s who Tony would become had he not undergone a change of heart (literally). This is something we’ve seen in nearly every MCU movie, though the franchise has started to get better with recent entries. The more formulaic aspects of the MCU are also obvious here, at least when it comes to their origin stories. However, if you're like me, this isn't always a bad thing: I've found the MCU's origin stories to be among the series' stronger movies.
But these are relatively minor issues in light of how much Iron Man gets rights. It sets up the keystone character of the last decade's most successful movie franchise while keeping the movie light on its feet, dramatic when it counts, and ultimately, just fun. Iron Man is a movie that can easily appeal to someone who's six years old and someone's who 96 -- maybe therein lies the secret to the MCU's massive success.