Iron Man 3 opened last week in UK cinemas to the collective sounds of ringing tills, rustling popcorn buckets and whoops of delight. It’s one of those rare occasions where multiplex audience approval meshes with universal critical praise. Boasting bags of wit and energy, together with a sympathetic storyline, it’s certainly as good as the first film and possibly the best of the entire Marvel universe to date (though The Avengers remains this writer’s personal favourite). It also wraps up a satisfying trilogy in rousing style (dig those funky closing credits!), leaving the door open to future instalments but providing some degree of closure too.
Looking back, it’s difficult to remember now that the Iron Man franchise was never a sure thing; the character had nothing like the public recognition factor of, say, Spider-Man or the Incredible Hulk. Yet today it is notable for serving as the launchpad for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an ambitious attempt to replicate the world of comic-books on the big screen by having various characters star in their own film series, while also allowing them to crossover into other titles/films as part of a larger shared story. Facing bankruptcy in the 1990s, Marvel sold the film rights to their characters left, right and centre, making the idea of a shared universe all but impossible; Hollywood studios being famously protective of their properties. As the rights slowly reverted back to them, the idea of a cinematic universe gradually turned from pipe dream to realistic possibility, though questions remained as to whether it was financially feasible, let alone practicable. Would audiences be willing to stay (and pay) for the long haul? What if one of them tanked at the box office?
It was an audacious gamble, but Marvel Studios – the movie producing arm of Marvel Comics, itself now a subsidiary of Disney – pulled it off with a degree of success nobody expected. With Iron Man, Captain America and Thor tentpole franchises all up and running (part of what is now called Phase One), further Hulk and Avengers adventures planned (Phase Two), plus new characters waiting in the wings with their own movies (including Edgar Wright’s take on Ant-Man), Marvel’s competitors over at DC must be drooling with envy. Batman has always brought home the box-office bacon, but success elsewhere hasn’t been forthcoming, though this year’s Superman reboot Man of Steel looks to be a significant first step in building up a serious response.
How have they achieved this success? True, there is an insatiable thirst for superheroes at the movies these days, but it’s not only that (just ask DC). It comes down to three things: wooing the existing fanbase with the use of popular storylines, faithful portrayals of key personnel and a smattering of ‘easter eggs’ for long-time readers; updating their origins and surroundings to make it easy for non-fans to climb aboard; and attracting filmmakers with pedigree and appropriate skill sets to make it work. Marvel have emphatically proven that it’s possible to make their films work for just about anyone, whether young or old, nerds or newbies.
Case in point: Iron Man.
Beyond its blockbuster ambitions, one of the most remarkable achievements of the Iron Man franchise has been its ability to blend real world politics and dangers with the soaring adventure and escapism of comic books. They might not have the inflated heavyweight drama of Christopher Nolan’s lauded Dark Knight trilogy, which similarly layered political elements into its narrative, but then they had no need to. Marvel and DC have always been very different kettles of fish, treating their superhero subjects in their own distinctive ways. Where the Batman films bent over backwards to make its characters and storylines as credible as possible within its shadowy world of corruption and personal sacrifice, Iron Man has been refreshingly carefree in its approach, happy to let the fun rise to the top with a quip and a smirk, though not at the expense of emotion or its contemporary context.
That real-world milieu drives themes that run through much of the trilogy’s storylines; among them terrorism, the global arms trade, global stock markets, backdoor political dealings, and of course super hi-tech advanced technology (which, in the age of Google Glasses, seems less futuristic with each passing day). The third film goes one step further, using bioengineered suicide bombers as the chief weapon in The Mandarin’s arsenal – extrapolating and exploring a real world problem through the medium of a superhero adventure. It’s a neat trick to pull off without making it seem cheap and tasteless.
But the main thrust of the plot in IM3 sees the past return to bite Tony on the ass once again. The arrogance of his former life and his ability to create weapons of enormous power combine to put his life, as well as that of his precious Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and his countrymen too, in danger. It’s a recipe that’s been used in all three films to various extents, and many other comic-book adaptations besides, but hey – if it works, it works. After travelling his road to Damascus, life’s been far from easy for him – so he’s earned our sympathy.
What’s more surprising is that, in these financially austere times, so many people have taken a self-declared “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist” to heart. He’s almost an updated version of one of those dapper, debonair, gentleman heroes from the 1930s, like The Saint or The Falcon: handsome, resourceful, unflappable, ready with a wisecrack no matter how desperate the situation, and all too aware of how swoony he is. You need just the right sort of actor for that sort of role, which brings us neatly to Robert Downey Jr; the undisputed heart and soul of the franchise, and the man born to play Stark. Audiences adore him, especially those normally averse to superhero silliness. His electric performances have not only raised the profile of a character previously considered to be in Marvel’s second tier, but have also infused a spirit of wit and spontaneity into a massive Hollywood money-making machine – no mean feat.
The actor has spoken in the past about how dialogue was often improvised on the set of the original film as a way of circumventing a problematic script, and that impulsive, almost impudent tone has seemingly carried on through the sequels. Has there ever been a franchise based on a previously existing character so conspicuously steered by and built around its star? For now Downey Jr IS Tony Stark – it’s nigh on impossible to imagine anyone else playing the character. That’s not to say the role won’t be recast at some point – of course it will – but whoever fills those shoes better have damn big feet. Marvel would be wise to keep him onboard for as long as they possibly can.
With Downey Jr currently out of contract, Iron Man may no longer be the supporting pillar of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s done its job. As Phase Two begins, can this venture continue to grow without him? That remains to be seen; if there are wobbles along the way, don’t be too surprised if Tony drops by to check up on things. Let’s hope so – we’ll miss him if he’s gone for too long. Swoon.