It is hard to believe this year marks the 10th anniversary of Iron Man. To be honest, it has felt much longer. I guess that is to be expected considering the sea of superhero content we have been drowning in since the film’s release.
Since 2008, Marvel Studios have given us 16 feature films, with three more (the highly-anticipated Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War Part 1, and Ant-Man and the Wasp) to be unveiled this year alone, and 10 televisions series all set within the expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Regardless of how many films Marvel produces, they rarely stray from the formula established in Iron Man.
As Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark states in the film, “that’s how Dad did it, that’s how America does it, and it’s worked out pretty well so far.” Boy has it ever.
Amassing over $5 billion domestically, Marvel Studios’ films have proven to be one of the few non-Star Wars blockbusters that consistently turn a profit at the box office despite overall decline. Garnering over $318 million domestically, second that year only to The Dark Knight, and over $585 million worldwide, Iron Man’s success made studios quick to greenlight numerous comic book inspired adaptations.
Much like the titular character himself, Iron Man’s success was both a gift and a curse in hindsight. While the film paved the way for the MCU, a path that was solidified by the massive success of The Avengers, it also reinforced the narrow-minded views by studio executives that only white teenage males enjoyed superhero films.
It would take an entire decade before superheroes like Wonder Woman and Black Panther were allowed to take a small step in the name of equality — a striking fact when one considers Marvel Studios’ first financial hit under the branding moniker was Blade; a film quietly celebrating its 20th anniversary this year as well.
Blade (day)walked so Black Panther could run. pic.twitter.com/zfQYhjADGb
— No Relation, Esq. (@TheCosby) January 30, 2018
To put things in context, Wonder Woman, now the third-highest grossing DC film of all-time, was considered “too risky” by DC and Warner Brother executives for years. This is code for “we don’t think teenage boys will go see a film with a female lead”. So she had to sit on the sidelines and watch second string players like Green Lantern and Suicide Squad, not to mention problematic stars like Superman, continually drop the ball when given their shot.
Marvel may have found the magic elixir for success, but it has also come at the expense of diversity. For a company that is cashing in on the year-long Black Panther hype, their films have been notorious for marginalizing those in the minority into sidekick roles. This often meant love interest and comic relief. Similar to James Rhodes in Iron Man, all men and women of color, as well as white women, can do is look longingly at the superhero uniform and say to themselves “maybe next time.”
While there is no denying Iron Man is an entertaining film (it ranks in my personal top five of MCU films), it is becoming more apparent that the film plants the seed for why Tony Stark is one of the MCU’s most complicated and dangerous heroes.
Tony Stark’s cinematic existence has been one marked by corporate greed, poor decisions based on his own self-righteousness, and plain short-sightedness. Many of these elements can be found in Favreau’s 2008 film. When we first see Stark, he is drinking champagne and cracking jokes while traveling in a military vehicle in the war-torn Middle East. He carries the aroma of extravagance and self-importance that is bottled specifically for the top tier of society.
The ultimate playboy, capable of turning even serious female journalist into another notch on his well-worn bedpost, Stark’s ego is the source of his downfall. He is one of the smartest minds in the MCU, yet he is consumed by his need for adoration.
If Captain America represents the ideals the country should strive for, then Iron Man embodies the flawed reality of America; a country where the road to good intention is frequently undermined by the potholes made by arrogant and wealthy men.
He gleefully brags about making weapons so powerful they only need to be used once. One can imagine him on Twitter today comparing whose “button” is bigger with world leaders. Stark is so consumed by his own celebrity, he fails to notice his company, Stark Industries, is selling tools of mass destruction to the enemy. Furthermore, it is not enough to save the world from corrupt businessman Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), he must get national credit for it by revealing his secret identity to the media at the end of the film — blissfully ignoring the potential consequences that could arise.
In the words of musician Kevin Drew “narcissism has lost its responsibility.”
We live in an era where fear is big business and the quest for popularity is eroding our lives. This is true for Tony Stark as well. The bulk of decisions within the MCU are often knee-jerk reactions to his trauma related anxiety.
In Iron Man he immediately declares, after being held captive for three months by terrorists, Stark Industries will no longer be in the weapons business. However, he neglects to verify whether his company will comply with his wishes. Furthermore, it is his impulsive but heroic decision to interfere with an international conflict, in his new Iron Man suit, that ultimately leads Stane to construct an Iron Man suit of his own. A product for good is immediately corrupted by big business.
In fact, Stark’s compulsion to build (e.g. multiple Iron Man suit, ground-breaking tech, etc.) as a coping mechanism, especially when confronting the trauma of his near-death experience in The Avengers, negatively impacts more than just Iron Man sequels.
As we witness in subsequent Marvel Studio films, Stark’s anxiety based decisions causes even more problems for the world when his dabbling in artificial intelligence results in both the creation of the villainous Ultron and the Sokovia Accord. The latter of which — a controversial piece of legislation that gives government oversight on how and when superheroes can be deployed in times of crisis — was constructed based on the ramifications of his own recklessness impulses.
Stark longs to make the world a better place by the end of Iron Man, but his egotistical “I alone can save the world” mentality is what frequently brings the MCU closer to the brink of destruction.
By: Courtney Small
About the Author: Courtney Small has been writing about film online since 2006. He has contributed to several online publications including Cinema Axis, In the Seats, Black Girl Nerds, and Comix Asylum. He can also be heard talking about film as a regularly on the radio program Frameline on Radio Regent, and frequently celebrates diversity in cinema as one of the co-hosts of the Changing Reels podcast. Courtney is also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Follow him on twitter: @SmallMind