In 2008, Marvel started an incredibly ambitious journey that would ultimately change blockbuster filmmaking and the entire notion of studio franchises as we know it. Eight years and twelve movies later, Marvel remains one of the most recognizable brands in cinema. So far, their business model, which other studios have attempted to repeat to varying degrees of success, has brought Marvel upwards of $9 billion, and they show no signs of slowing down any time soon.
With the Russo brothers’ Captain America: Civil War just over a week away, this critic has decided to look back on the films that led us to this point. We will focus purely on the MCU films, covering one to two films a day before wrapping everything up with a review of Civil War.
Of all the weapons in its arsenal, Marvel’s focus on fleshing out its characters is without a doubt its strongest and most essential ingredient. As the studio was aiming for an audience beyond fans of the comics, choosing which storylines to draw from, set up, or slyly allude to came second to the people populating said stories. That dedication to fleshing out its characters was present from the inception of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so much so that it resulted in one of the very best things that Marvel has ever made.
It’s virtually impossible to think of a Marvel Universe without Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, and for good reason. His performance as the quick-witted narcissist with a moral center was instantly iconic in a way that pleased both longstanding fans of the character and recruited thousands of new fans. Through a seemingly effortless performance, Downey turned a character that could have easily gone wrong into one of the most iconic characters in recent years.
Origin stories are a dime a dozen, particularly in the superhero genre, but what makes Iron Man so special is that it doesn’t feel like a setup at all. Director Jon Favreau takes his time setting up Tony and his journey to redemption. The pitch-perfect pacing and assured storytelling join forces to create one of the great redemption stories of cinema. Additionally, Iron Man is the rare superhero movie where we actually understand why the hero wants to fight the bad guys. It’s more than just the fact that it’s what the script requires him to do. We believe the once apathetic Tony is now angry and wants to make things right, and there is more to invest in because of it.
Tony’s success as a protagonist is exponentially stronger because of the supporting characters Favreau and his four writers surround him with. Gwyneth Paltrow shine brightly, injecting the movie with a nice dose of humor when they spar with Tony. Jeff Bridges is fun to watch as he hams it up as a larger than life entity, but the supporting star who doesn’t get nearly enough credit is Shaun Toub’s Yinsen.
The movie does start to sputter a bit in the film’s final act, but only because its a semi-strong third act that follows two perfect acts. Obadiah Stone’s plan doesn’t really add up, and the big bad showdown is bereft of the emotion and catharsis present in the rest of the film. Still, Favreau is incredibly competent in the way he stages his action sequences, and the film never becomes dull.
The best comic book movies feature characters and stakes that feel real, feature great cinematic moments and never prioritize teasing future outings over the material at hand. Basically, they’re just as great as any other movie regardless of genre. Yes, Iron Man is a great superhero movie, but it’s also a great movie, period. It has an involving and cathartic journey for its protagonist, just the right balance of humor, drama and action, and is littered from its in medias res opening to its post-credit scene with great cinematic moments. Unlike some later Marvel installments, Iron Man can be enjoyed outside of its relation to the larger MCU universe as a whole. It’s terrific entertainment of the highest caliber.