“I am Iron Man.”
That last line spoken by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) back in May 2008. It has since appeared in most of Marvel’s “look-back” compilations, dozens of books about the franchise and countless analyses.
And it appears here because, for all of Iron Man‘s action-movie direction and legendary performances, that line alone captures what set it apart from its competition at the time and why it remains relevant today. Not because it unceremoniously does away with the “secret identity” trope, but because it gives the character a last-second decision that casts a shadow on all of his character development up to that point.
Stark takes on the public mantle of Iron Man because he fears the insecurities created by his traumatic experiences (physical and mental), refuses to acknowledge them, and seeks an easy fix in his narcissism. It’s a decidedly un-heroic gesture at the end of his heroic origin story. It is the great Moment of Weakness that defines Stark for several movies to come and elevates Iron Man in a such a way that it remains among the franchise’s best films.
Stark’s big moment is the essence of what makes the heroes of the Marvel pantheon so everlasting: Despite all their powers, all the colorful villains with evil plans they face and all their soap opera in-fighting, their worst enemies are inevitably born out of their deepest personal insecurities and flaws.
Seeing the skyline of New York City and watching them deal with real-world responses to their acts of destructive heroism add to the Marvel style — decidedly different from the DC fantasy realms of Gotham or Metropolis — but it’s in their perpetual brokenness that the Marvel heroes find their real meaning.
Much MCU criticism points to the weakness of villains on a plot level. Perhaps a reason why that tends to be the case is that there isn’t much room for them when their heroes are always self-handicapping. Looking back at the other big superhero film of 2008, The Dark Knight, we see a movie end with the hero’s inhuman dedication and self-sacrifice deified. Iron Man never lets that happen. Instead, it ends with a sign that Stark learned the wrong lessons from his experience.
Serialized fiction is, by nature, a perpetual second act. Stan Lee (and most other comic writers) has never been quiet about the fact that his stories are more about the illusion of change than characters actually growing. Balancing that illusion is harder in movies, when every a two-hour story every two or three years must feel satisfying and complete while also setting up the next story.
Marvel hasn’t always succeeded but Iron Man does, and not just because of that Nick Fury post-credits stinger. It gives us a traditional heroic arc and then sets us up for the next stage in Stark’s development. Instead of setting up a long-term story like the Infinity Stones, Iron Man instead creates a character whose internal world is so broken that one story can’t possibly “fix” him, and those little victories and setbacks on his path to self-actualization are built into the franchise structure.
Iron Man is a pure distillation of Marvel’s grasp on character and how internal character growth is a franchise’s most interesting long-term story. Stark is a character who seeks external solutions to internal problems and that is his most fatal flaw; Iron Man is a movie conveying that more dramatically than we had seen before in a superhero movie, even going so far as to let him fail because of it.
At this point, that story is mythology: Tony Stark, American arms dealer, is captured in (insert timely theatre of war here – in the movie, the Middle East) and forced to reckon with the results of his irresponsible lack of disregard for human life. He ends up with shrapnel in his chest that requires the installation of an electromagnetic device to stop its slow, painful journey into his heart. In this instance, his device also allows him almost infinite power, which he uses to build a suit of armor that will let him right the wrongs of his past.
Stark’s primary character conflict in Iron Man is that he’s a malignant narcissist who can’t square away his internal tumult, seeking external solutions to all of his problems regardless of who else may be in the room. He’s responsive to external stimuli – money, alcohol, women – because internally he’s out of control. In fact, he doesn’t know how to be in control.
He doesn’t trust anyone — not Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his secretary and love interest; not Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Terrence Howard), his best friend; not even Happy Hogan (Favreau), his driver and body man. Like most famous superheroes, Stark is trapped in an elongated adolescence marked by the relatively early loss of his parents. He has a surrogate father figure in the form of Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), who often works around him to achieve selfish ends. Stark’s story is about taking responsibility, with the cruel narrative irony that by the end of the movie he still doesn’t know how.
Throughout the movie, Stark slowly comes to trust Pepper, Rhodey, even Happy. He even trusts Stane. He remains acerbic and witty, even sometimes a little mean. The movie never lets him “end up with” Pepper in a romantic way because Stark isn’t yet ready for that.
Action sequences in superhero films are sometimes superfluous, overlong or under-thought. I’ve heard the complaint that most of the MCU films have too many action sequences, when the character dynamics are more fun to watch and basically carry the movie anyway. To some extent, I agree. Iron Man ends in such a sequence that doesn’t really allow Stark to take responsibility for himself and his actions outside of attempted self-sacrifice.
Structurally, the climactic Iron Monger fight sequence is dull, but the drama of Stark facing down the reality of who he used to be in the form of Stane piloting a heavily weaponized Iron Man suit with the intent of selling it to terrorists is interesting on its face. It seems to allow the movie to have its cake and eat it, too; in defeating this demon, Stark (and the audience) achieves action-movie catharsis, but everything inside of his character is still busted. That’s why, moments later, he walks onto a stage and declares “I am Iron Man.”
It’s an applause line, a period on the end of the action beats directly preceding it, but also a shockingly downbeat moment. Maybe it’s more to Downey Jr.’s credit that we see this version of Stark as someone with a wailing void in his soul to match the massive hole in his chest. But he is nonetheless so, and when Stark stands up on the stage and declares his new identity, it plays like a cry for help.
When I first saw Iron Man on opening night back in 2008, I was already a deeply steeped comic-book aficionado (nerd), and when Nick Fury stepped on screen I admit to cheering. I loved Ultimates, loved classic issues of Iron Man and Brian Michael Bendis’ New Avengers. I loved the character in general, and at the time, his devil-may-care attitude thrown onto the screen was all I cared to see.
I’ve often forgiven flaws in the lesser entries of MCU because they almost always captures the characters perfectly. Re-watching Iron Man, it’s still amazing how well Stark’s first adventure holds up after all this time, having endlessly picked it apart in my mind. It’s telling, I think, that the under-appreciated masterpiece Iron Man 3 recognized the darkness in the phrase “I am Iron Man” and fully unpacked it.
“I am Iron Man.” It remains the most consequential, maybe definitive idea at the heart of the MCU. Its characters may be heroic, but it is not necessarily their physical acts of derring-do that dazzle. Their flaws and how they overcome them, not in a scene but across several years, will always define them and keep us coming back to the franchise for decades to come.
Midwest Film Journal will post new, weekly entries of “The Marvel Decade” until the release of Avengers: Infinity War on April 27, 2018. Each entry is written by a different writer — some familiar to readers of the site and some fresh faces handpicked by members of the group. Each writer chose a Marvel movie that inspires insights or personal connections that they will highlight in their piece.
The MCU is a franchise that’s popular largely because of what it means to so many people, and that’s something we aim to capture with “The Marvel Decade.”
Join us next week, when Nick Rogers dives into 2008’s comparatively unloved The Incredible Hulk.