First up, let’s throw it back all the way to 2008 – eight years ago! – for Iron Man, the place it all began.
- This movie holds up. I’m not one to only watch these movies once, so I’ve probably seen Iron Man the most of all twelve – and not just by virtue of it being the oldest. But even though I find myself doing most of the dialogue right along with the film, it doesn’t feel stale. Indeed, it feels as if it’d work just as well if it came out today. It sets a wonderful bar for the MCU, builds a world almost immediately, and initiates a delightful brand of humor that never transgresses into Batman and Robin territory.
- Robert Downey, Jr., is perfectly cast. Look, Iron Man doesn’t work without RDJ, and it’s safe to say that the entire MCU is built on the shoulders of this film. So it’s a good thing that RDJ is pitch-perfect as the swaggeringly confident Stark; the improvisational quality of the film gives it a fast pace that requires a gifted performer to keep up, and RDJ manages to navigate the fast-talking attitude along the character’s evolution into a comparatively more responsible hero. And it’s not a coincidence that the Tony Stark who appears in post-2008 Marvel Comics is essentially a printed version of RDJ – that’s character redefinition, the likes of which we hadn’t seen since “Heart of Ice.”
- The chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow is underrated. It’s easy to forget that there’s anyone else in this film besides RDJ, but I want to give a special shout-out to Gwyneth Paltrow’s turn as Pepper Potts, Tony Stark’s doting assistant, walking conscience, and life support system. It’s somewhat criminal that Pepper won’t be in Civil War (at least, so far as we know), because it’s hard to imagine Tony having a crisis of conscience without Pepper’s presence. Aside from Paltrow’s wonderful presence as the counterpoint to RDJ’s frenetic energy, the romantic tension between the two doesn’t feel compulsory; instead, you feel from the opening that these two genuinely care for each other, and their endpoint – somewhere between playful banter and tender affection – feels earned by the film.
- That world-building, son. Iron Man does this wonderful thing where it’s perfectly fine as a standalone film. Director Jon Favreau quickly builds a universe for the characters to inhabit, and if we never had an MCU to follow we certainly wouldn’t have known this was a prelude to a much larger franchise. There’s that opening sequence in the back of the Humvee (or, as Tony calls it, “the Funvee”), memorable for its deft introduction of tone while also establishing the climax of the first act. But at the same time, Iron Man lays all kinds of seeds for the MCU to come, and we can go all the way to the very end of the film and its iconic post-credits sequence (you are now free to imagine Samuel L. Jackson turning up at the end of any movie saying, “You think you’re the only [insert profession here] in the world?”).
- Phil! You know, I’d almost forgotten that Iron Man marks the debut of Agent Phil Coulson, ostensibly the most important original character imported into the comics since Harley Quinn appeared in Batman: The Animated Series. Clark Gregg just kills it with a strikingly nuanced performance (or maybe those are retrospective lenses I’m wearing) that suggests at first a timid pencil pusher before revealing himself to be something of a badass. Again, Coulson’s a great example of how the film carves out its own turf without feeling like it’s in deference to a larger narrative. Coulson would go on to headline his own show, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but we always remember him as the guy who never got to debrief Tony Stark because (headcanon alert) he was too busy becoming Pepper’s bestie and stealing all our hearts in the process.