What Is This, Who Are You, What’s Going On, and How Did I Get Here
The Marvel Cinematic Universe consists, so far, of eleven movies1, three television shows2, and five “one-shot” short films3. Already announced are another eleven movies4 and four television shows5, all planning to be released by 2019. Since 2008, the MCU films have made approximately $8.3 billion in worldwide box office revenue, more than any other film franchise so far.
People have strong reactions to the MCU. Twelve seconds of searching will show you people decrying it as the end of modern cinema alongside others exalting it as the apotheosis of “nerd culture.” Some comic book fans hate the changes the movies make to the traditional canon, while others exalt the MCU for bringing new readers to comic store shelves. But whatever your feelings are about the MCU, it is important if you want to understand modern American (and beyond, too) culture. And, perhaps more to the point, it’s not going away any time soon.
So for the next eleven days, art historian/game scholar Erin McNeil and her husband, Ontological Geek Editor Emeritus Bill Coberly, are going to watch every extant movie6 in the MCU and respond to each in turn. Both of us have already seen all of these movies at least once before, which should allow us some critical distance. After we’ve written our responses (which we write without talking to each other, and which may vary in length), we’ll have a little conversation about the movie. Also, because this is still a blog, after all, we will each rank the movies we’ve seen thus far.
We’re going to assume that you’ve seen the movies, and will thus be pretty free with spoilers and will not spend a lot of time rehashing what happens in each movie. We may discuss the TV shows occasionally, but will try to keep any associated spoilers to a minimum. We start today with the very first MCU movie: 2008’s Iron Man, directed by Jon Favreau, and starring Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard, Shaun Toub, Faran Tahir, Leslie Bibb and Clark Gregg.
But first, because everyone approaches these movies a little differently, some context from the two of us.
At some point, I’m not sure when, I became invested in these movies. I’m also not sure why this happened: many of them aren’t particularly good. But somewhere around Thor 2, I realized I was going to attend every single one of these movies within about a week of their openings. It’s not because I’m a huge comic book person. I read them occasionally, and I am more fluent in the goings-on of the Marvel comics than the average person, but I don’t “follow” any particular comics. I’m also not sure that I would call myself a “fan” of the MCU. I don’t like to think of myself as a “fan” of anything, though this is probably just self-deception. But I am fascinated by adaptation and franchise-management. I always want to know what they are going to do next. Which random references that they make in each movie will later be utilized, and which won’t? And overhanging the whole project is one huge question: how long can Marvel keep all these plates spinning before they all come crashing down?
I’m excited about this marathon partly because I like most of these movies, but also because I want to see how the project evolved as time went by. What did the MCU think it was about in 2008, 2012, and 2015, and how has that perception changed over time?
Of all the things my husband has made me do, continuing to allow the Marvel Cinematic Universe to suckle at the teat of our discretionary income is not the absolute worst. These movies are a feat of planning, marketing, and don’t get me started about how many animators (hopefully SCAD grads) they have helped employ. Not being one to revel in comic books in general, I come to these movies with a rather clean slate. I really do love Science Fiction and Fantasy (from Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones, to Dune and Ender’s Game), so there is much in the MCU that should appeal to me. I tend to take it as my mission to be contrary to my husband’s wishes, but in this case I think that there are many other much sillier projects and universes we could have become invested in.
I know, I am so supportive. But part of my job is to remain objective, to not allow Bill’s bombast and monogamist cheerleading to cloud my reading. I find that in general it is quite easy to allow one’s significant other’s opinions free rein, particularly if your partner is as convincing as Bill. Thus, in most of my encounters with the MCU I have been justifiably apprehensive. I am hoping that this refresher marathon will help me to sort out the pieces and to come to some opinion of my own that is not simply the antithesis of my husband’s.
Iron Man (2008)
Erin’s Response: Tony Stark is His Own Big Bad
Watching Iron Man for the second time (almost 8 years later!), I was struck by how young Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow look, and how relatively little obvious CG there was in the whole movie. The first Iron Man suit moves like a real model, and it is so unbelievably cool. The first suit showcases both Tony’s genius and his regrettable change in fortunes. With the first suit we are able to see how brilliant Tony actually is; and throughout the movie, whenever we see him express his genius, there is work attached to it.
But perhaps the most interesting thing about Iron Man in the context of the MCU as a whole is how small Obadiah Stane is as a villain. This is a tad incongruous—after all, Stark Industries under the leadership of Stane has become a world-wide menace—but compared to Ultron or Loki, Stane feels like small potatoes. His only goal is good, old-fashioned profit sharing. He is the heavily capitalist Iron Monger. Jeff Bridges chews scenery with relish, but he never feels scary or insurmountable. He doesn’t feel big, even when his suit is substantially larger than Tony’s. While Stane is the professed antagonist of Iron Man, Stark’s greatest opponent is actually Tony Stark. Tony must try to tame his alcoholism (a problem the other movies, if I am remembering properly, don’t really deal with), his impetuousness, and his lone-wolf tendencies to make it through this movie alive.
This is a feeling that I found very absent from many of the other MCU movies, which by and large seem to be about punching bigger things harder. Iron Man must work and be smarter, oftentimes outwitting a past version of himself. I think in this way, Iron Man actually manages to capture the creative process, and I don’t think I was so keenly aware of this the first time I watched it.
Favorite Moment: All of the clearly improvised dialogue, particularly between Tony and Pepper. Just all of it.
Least Favorite Moment: I found it hard to believe that one brush with death made Tony realize bad people were using his weapons. He’s no shrinking violet or ostrich with his head in the sand – certainly he had an idea what was going on before he was kidnapped!
Moment I Thought Was My Favorite Until Watching It Again: Pepper Potts’ delivery of “at least three olives” was hysterical in theaters, but unfortunately didn’t land as well the second time.
Runner Up: “Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave.….….….….….….….….….….….….….….….….….……[approximately forever].….….….….….….….….….….…..with a box of scraps!” I know it’s such a memetic line, but I couldn’t help but feel that Bridges just forgot what he was supposed to say.
Bill’s Response: “A Bigger Universe.”
“Mr. Stark, you’ve become part of a bigger universe. You just don’t know it yet.” — Nick Fury
A lot of what makes the MCU interesting to me is the threefold tension you can see in most of its movies. First, you have the concerns of whatever director is trying to make this movie into a halfway-decent movie on its own. Second, you have the broader concerns of the franchise, as that director is told he (hopefully, someday he or she) has to make a series of oblique references to other movies, past and future, to create the impression of one massive-yet-coherent continuity. Third is the Marvel executives, the businessmen, the suits, desperately counting pennies and terrified that at any moment the floor is going to drop out from under them.
Iron Man is one of only two movies in the entire franchise that could possibly have stood on its own without the broader MCU. The Incredible Hulk, tomorrow’s movie, is the other one. The MCU wasn’t a thing yet: it was the beginning of an idea, an attempt to make a series of big-budget movies that modeled the format of comic books, all interconnected yet each ostensibly standing on its own, with the goal, let’s not kid ourselves, of making All of the Money In the World. But in order for that to happen, Iron Man needed to work.
And it does work. I suspect, at the end of this project, that Iron Man will be toward the top of both of our lists. But you can see it hedging its bets the whole time. There are a few references here and there that might refer to other Marvel properties: they establish that Tony’s father, Howard, was a “Nazi-killer,” already setting him up to have worked with Captain America. They introduce S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Coulson says this isn’t his first rodeo, and Nick Fury implies that Iron Man is not the only superhero in the world. But otherwise, it could easily have stood on its own, or maybe have introduced a series of forgettable Iron Man movies, much like the mid-2000s Fantastic Four series. It is part of a bigger universe, but it doesn’t know it yet.
What I’m saying is that Iron Man is kind of a weird movie to watch, seven years and 10 movies later. It’s still a good movie. Downey and Paltrow have the best chemistry we’ve yet seen in the franchise, and Downey throws himself into the role with everything he’s got. He’s good in the later movies, but I don’t know as he’s ever as good as he is in this one. He’s snarky, irresponsible, and a huge jackass, but he’s got a childlike excitement in his eyes whenever his toys start to work for the first time, and we also start to see the beginnings of the manic obsession that caused so much trouble in Iron Man 3 and Ultron.
I had definitely misremembered how the holograms worked in this movie. In later movies they look a lot more magical, all blue and green and flung around the room at the flick of a wrist. He still controls them with touches and gestures in Iron Man, but they’re much more consigned to the holotable, much more obviously technological in nature, with more imaginable limitations. In later movies, Stark and friends reconstruct crime scenes and invent new elements and explore the human brain in these mystical, glowing rooms that look more like Final Fantasy VII than anything you could imagine Apple putting out at any time soon. Iron Man, supersonic suits of armor aside, is much more grounded in technological reality.
With the exception of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Iron Man franchise is more politically grounded, too, with references to terrorism and the military-industrial complex forming the backbone of all three movies. The narrative tension in all three is very similar: the terrorists are bad people, but the American weapons companies might be happy they exist, since they drive their profit margins. I’ll be curious to explore this theme more once we’ve seen Iron Man 3 again.
On that note, I don’t have anything super insightful to say about Obadiah Stane, but, man, Jeff Bridges is a god amongst men, a national treasure. Some day, hopefully many years hence, Jeff Bridges will die, and on that day, I will spontaneously lose my ability to appreciate art and fine whiskey7. Stane is simultaneously Jeff Bridges’ most and least Jeff Bridgingest role. If you had asked me to cast a hyper-capitalist sharky Wall Street executive, Jeff Bridges would have been at the bottom of my cast list. He was Kevin Flynn! He was the Dude! Yet he plays Stane, clad in those godawful shirts with the blue torsos and the white collars8, with the right mix of unabashed greed and sad attempts to be hip. Stane is what you would get if Jack Donaghy drunkenly watched The Big Lebowski and decided that that must be how cool people talk. Stane is Jeff Bridges playing an old, greedy man doing his best Jeff Bridges impression. Thus, Obadiah Stane, despite his sometimes murky motivations and occasionally goofy dialogue (“Do you really think that just because you have an idea, it belongs to you?” he says to a paralyzed Stark, apropos of nothing) may well be my favorite MCU villain.
Favorite Moment: I mean, it’s got to be the tank thing, right? When Tony gets shot out of the sky by the tank and then dodges another shell, and then he shoots the tank with a little tiny rocket and it blows up as he walks away? That’s got to be it.
Least Favorite Moment: I’m gonna go ahead and say the moment when Terrence Howard looks at the silver prototype armor and says “Next time, baby.” Partly because it’s a pretty weak moment that exists only to yank your chain, and partly because Terrence Howard isn’t Don Cheadle in this movie. This isn’t really his fault. Most of us aren’t Don Cheadle. But Don Cheadle’s Rhodey > Terrence Howard’s Rhodey, and that moment just reminds me of that.
And Now, A Conversation
Erin: While I can totally believe that Stane is your favorite villain, don’t you think he comes off as more than a bit stilted and murky?
Bill: No, he totally does. He’s probably not the “best” villain in the franchise. And, to be clear here, if he’s my favorite, it’s probably mostly because he’s JEFF BRIDGES. But one of the reasons I like him is specifically because of that “smallness” you mentioned. Stane and the terrorists are jerks, but none of them is a world-ending threat.
Erin: But in some ways that is the problem, and one of the things I get so tired about with superhero movies. They disguise real world problems and invent new ones. But did you see the JERICHO? Shit, son.
Bill: That’s a next-level missile, man. I’ve got to imagine the US military saw that scene and immediately called Jon Favreau to ask how they can get some of those. Anyway, people talk a lot about how superhero movies and comics can deal with real-world issues, but I think it’s often a little bit silly. We’ll talk about it more when we get there, but for all that I liked Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the people that say it was a “smart political thriller” probably shouldn’t be allowed to vote.
Erin: OFF TOPIC
Bill: In that case, I guess I’d ask what you thought about Iron Man’s approach to the dynamic between the terrorists and the military-industrial complex? We’re gonna come back to it in Iron Man 2 and particularly 3, so what did you think about it here?
Erin: I think that it has a hard line to walk. On the one hand, it is a comic book movie (and funny, and fun) but on the other, it has to do what all fantasy/sci-fi must do: change a few variables and see how the humans react.
Bill: Yeah, I’m not sure this movie has anything TO SAY beyond “hey it’s not great when weapons manufacturers get super greedy” which, like, yeah. sure. way to take a stand. In fairness, I don’t remember people talking about this movie as having much in the way of a political message.
Erin: It would have been better if Tony wasn’t completely oblivious, but rather started to feel like he was becoming too dark. That would have been more interesting. And I am not surprised that no one talked about its politics at the time, but think of all the strange things we have had happen since then: Syria and poisoning civilians, staying even longer in Iraq/Afghanistan, the expansion of drones by the US military, and so on. We are a very different populace now.
Bill: That’s probably true. I don’t really think of 2008 as really being all that long ago, but of course it was a very different political climate. That said, can we talk a little sass about Man of Steel for a second?
Erin: If you must.
Bill: Do you remember that bit at the end of Man of Steel when Superman punches a drone out of the air and you can just imagine Zack Snyder being all “YEAH MAN POLITICAL COMMENTARY” as he shotguns a Bud Light™? At least this movie never does anything like that.
Erin: HA! No, it does not. And in fact, our military comes out looking really, really good. Exceptionally good.
Bill: That’s true. The movie goes out of its way to do that: Rhodey and the other soldiers are always sympathetic, and they even make sure to state that the military hasn’t gone into Gulmira (when Tony does his first real IRON MAN action) because “they were using human shields,” showing that they wanted to avoid civilian casualties. I wonder if the movie would be more or less sympathetic to the military if it were made today?
Erin: I think that we are more skeptical of both capitalists and the military now, so probably not as well.
Bill: So, now that we’ve started this epic journey, what are you most interested to see in the MCU as a whole, or the Iron Man series in particular?
Erin: I am always interested in how they portray women. Pepper was pretty fun in this movie, and I think that charting her growth in the next few will be fun! I remember thinking their chemistry wasn’t as good in the other Iron Men, but maybe watching them closer together will make them more interesting. I definitely think that most TV series benefit from binge watching, and I wonder if that will be the case here, or if they will start to feel all the same. How about you?
Bill: Yeah, that’s a very legitimate point: at some point, will all the punching and explosions blur together, or do they really feel different? A part of me is also interested in charting how Iron Man’s portrayal varies in the 5 movies (6 if you count his cameo in Hulk) he appears in. He started this whole mess, and he appears in the most movies as a main-stage character. He’s not my favorite Avenger, but he’s arguably the most important one if you want to understand the franchise as a whole. I’ll also be curious to revisit the movies I didn’t like very much (Iron Man 2, Hulk, Thor 2, Guardians of the Galaxy) and see if they make more or less sense in the broader context.
That’s it for Iron Man! Come back about this time tomorrow for our response to The Incredible Hulk, and feel free to comment below if you have any thoughts you’d like to share!
- Iron Man 1–3, Captain America 1–2, Thor 1–2, The Incredible Hulk, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Avengers 1–2 [↩]
- Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter, and Daredevil [↩]
- The Consultant, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor’s Hammer, Item 47, Agent Carter (which was later spun off into the TV show mentioned above), and All Hail the King. These are usually included with Blu-rays of the mainline movies. [↩]
- Ant-Man, Captain America 3, Dr. Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, a yet-untitled Spider-Man movie, Thor 3, a two-part Avengers movie, Captain Marvel, Black Panther, and Inhumans [↩]
- AKA Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and The Defenders [↩]
- Yes, just the movies. They form the backbone of this whole operation. Also, how much time do you think we have? [↩]
- Okay, so remember up above when I said that I don’t like to think of myself as a “fan” of anything? I’m definitely a fan of Jeff Bridges. [↩]
- I’m sure there’s a name for that style, but I refuse, as a matter of principle, to look it up. It’s an affront to common decency, and I’m fairly sure the 2008 financial collapse was Wall Street’s punishment for allowing it to continue. We are all sinners in the hands of a Sartorialist God. [↩]