Marvel Comics has always had a wide range of superheroes. From the patriotic Captain America to the anti-hero Hulk to the Spectacular and Amazing Spider-Man to the outcast X-Men, each hero was more than just the costume, just the hero fighting crime. Iron Man, first appearing in Tales of Suspense in 1963, is no different in that respect. Unlike the heroes mentioned, though, Tony Stark has no innate super powers*. His origin story, first seen in the above mentioned comic, showed how the Iron Man suit developed.** Over time, Tony takes charge of his company, develops more Iron Man suit variants, becomes a playboy, and develops alcoholism. Many of Iron Man’s foes reflect his origins, either being technical (such as AIM and Hydra), Communist (Titanium Man, the Unicorn), or corporate (Iron Monger, Roxxon Oil, Justin Hammer).
Fast forward to 2008. Marvel’s luck with movies based on their properties had a rough go with 1986’s Howard the Duck, 1989’s The Punisher, and 1994’s The Fantastic Four***. Things started to turn around with 1998’s Blade, but the character wasn’t one of Marvel’s A-listers. X-Men in 2000 marks the turning point for Marvel’s big names, though, at this point, the company had different lines licensed to a number of studios. The successful Spider-Man movie in 2002 further marked the turnaround of Marvel’s cinematic foibles, though not completely. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Ghost Rider, both from 2007, underperformed. However, waiting in the wings, was Iron Man.
There are times when casting directors find just the perfect person for a role. Iron Man‘s trumped all others when Robert Downey Jr. was cast as Tony Stark. Downey had gone through a rough patch between 1996 and 2001, getting arrested for various drug charges. His appearance as Stark capped a career revival. Downey brought forth all of Tony Stark, from his larger than life public persona to the uncertain man wanting to right what he messed up in private. Even when he was in the Iron Man suit, Stark was still himself, still the showboat who was trying to make up for past mistakes.
The movie itself could be divided into two parts. The first part was Iron Man’s origin,** updated for the modern era. Gone was the Viet Nam War and the Communists. This time around, Stark visited the troops in Afghanistan when he ran into the trap. The second part of the film showed Tony improving beyond the original grey suit to the gleaming red and gold and returning to Afghanistan to help free his fellow prisoner. Also linking the two parts of the movie was the villain. With the update to the modern era, elements from the Cold War, including the Vietnam War, were lost; Stark was at most old enough to have seen news reports of the Vietnam War as a young child. That left the main foe to be either technical or corporate. Obadiah Stane fell into both. His machinations behind the scenes while still acting as Stark’s mentor provided a chilling look into executive backstabbing, with the addition of taking Tony’s prototype and updating it for his own ends.
The movie, simply put, was a huge success, allowing Marvel to continue the Avengers Initiative with follow ups Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger, capped with The Avengers. However, financial success isn’t always an indication of a successful adaptation. First, I’ll begin with the changes made. The big one was keeping the story in the now. Most superhero comics are set Today, that is, when the reader reads it.**** However, 2008 was not 1963. The world has changed greatly in those forty-three years. The Vietnam War ended. The Cold War ended. The Soviet Union ended. Iron Man’s origin needed to be updated to reflect the march of history but, at the same time, remain true to the source. Thus, the trap in Viet Nam became a trap in Afghanistan. However, the Stark-Stane rivalry comes straight from the comics, as does SHIELD. The update in the origins doesn’t affect the characters. The other major change is the identity of Iron Man himself. In the comics, Iron Man is Stark’s bodyguard. In the movie, Stark comes out and admits it. However, the movie Tony would have problems allowing someone else, even if that someone is a complete fabrication, to take credit for Stark’s own work. The change made sense in character.
Summary, the movie is a very good adaptation of one of Marvel’s lesser-known A-list heroes. The combination of casting, directing, script, and acting pull together to make Iron Man enjoyable and accessible. As a major plus, Iron Man is one of the few superhero movies where the villain doesn’t upstage the hero. Although it helps that Stark is larger than life, the main reason is that Iron Man is not just the hero, but the protagonist, the character trying to change the status quo.***** Stane is trying to keep things as they are, without Tony making wide-sweeping changes to Stark International.
Next week, still with superheroes.
* His intelligence might qualify, but his background includes being a teen genius, which is possible, but rare.
** Quick version – after getting caught in a trap in Viet Nam and being taken prisoner, Stark and another prisoner build a device to keep shrapnel from reaching Tony’s heart. Tony then works on a prototype suit of powered armour using the power source of the device to break out of the prison.
*** Involving Roger Corman, known for low-budget films.
**** Exceptions being specific days, usually holidays, but even those are implied to be the one most recently past.
***** In the vast majority of superhero movies, the villain is trying to inflict change with the hero trying to prevent it.