Marvel Comics’ history with movies is really complicated. There were a handful of made-for TV movies released in the 1970’s. There’s a Doctor Strange movie from 1978 that they hoped would turn into a TV show. Even if you’re 100% sober all the time, that movie’s special effects will make you feel like you’re on drugs, and while it could pass for a G-rating, something about the acting makes it feel like you’re watching a softcore porn. In the same vein, there were two Captain America movies, starring Reb Brown. To sum it up, Reb Brown has the acting range of a blow horn. The dreadfully slow first movie featured exactly one fight scene, and the second … somehow featured Christopher Lee as the main villain. What?
The early 2000’s were easily the most complicated times for Marvel’s cinematic properties. They sold movie rights front, right and center, with Fantastic Four and X-Men going to Fox (along with other properties), while Spider-Man went to Sony. Fox flooded the market with mediocre to bad superhero movies, from the decent but forgettable Daredevil to 2015’s dreadfully dull Fantastic Four. I’ve already talked about their X-Men movies in a previous blogathon, so let’s not talk about them here. Sony did ok with Spider-Man for a while, but they always overstuffed at least one of their sequels with too many villains and subplots.
Oh yeah, and there was a Man-Thing movie released in 2005. And there’s a Nick Fury: Agent of Shield movie starring David Hasselhoff. Having not seen the movie, that actually sounds kind of awesome. I haven’t heard anything good though. And how could one forget the 1980’s Howard The Duck movie with George Lucas’s involvement. The less said about that one, the better.
14 years ago, Marvel decided to stop selling off their properties and begin a cinematic universe of their own with the characters they still owned rights to. Marvel Studios was originally founded as far back as 1993, then known as Marvel Films. At the time, Marvel Films mostly focused on 90’s animated TV shows like X-Men, The Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man. The often forgotten but really good Silver Surfer TV series is also in there somewhere. Marvel Studios was at first involved with all the movies made by other companies. They planned on releasing a couple animated movies in theaters, including one based on Namor, and a Captain America animated series. However, due to bankruptcy problems at the time, they cancelled all of those projects.
As much as licensing out all of their other properties lost them the ability to make X-Men movies themselves, at least until the recent acquisition of Fox by Disney’s hands, the licensing did get the studio enough money to start working on their own movies. Meanwhile, during the mid-2000’s, they released a number of straight to DVD animated movies, including the likes of Hulk Vs, a Black Panther animated movie, and Planet Hulk. I would actually recommend the Planet Hulk animated movie by the way.
Between 2005 and 2006, Marvel got back a number of character rights. New Line Cinema allowed their rights to Iron Man expire, and Universal’s rights to the Hulk expired shortly after. However, Marvel did give Universal distribution rights to Hulk movies, rights that Universal still holds. Lions Gate Entertainment soon dropped their Black Widow rights back to Marvel, after their Black Widow movie had been in limbo for years.
In 2008, Marvel Studios released their first live action movie, Iron Man. The movie had been in development since 1990, with multiple companies involved at various times. As soon as they regained the rights for Iron Man in 2005, they pushed it forward to be their first self-financed film, with Paramount Pictures acting as their distributer. They scrapped all of the previous studio ideas and developed it from scratch. They approached 30 different writers who all passed on the project, saying they were uninterested in writing a relatively obscure character. Some writers even refused to rewrite the script that Marvel’s internal staff came up with. To help bring more awareness to the character, Marvel released three animated shorts.
John Favreau was hired as the director in early 2006, and he celebrated getting the job by going on a diet and losing 70 pounds. Good for him. It’s worth noting that Favreau previously appeared in the Fox released Daredevil movie as Foggy Nelson. They originally planned on hiring newcomers to the role of Tony Stark, but eventually chose Robert Downey Jr. instead. They felt that Downey’s very public mistakes, including multiple drug related arrests, made him a good fit for the character. This ended up being the perfect casting choice. He’s got the perfect inner balance to portray a bit of a mad genius who’s also a recovering addict on a search for redemption. He’s entertaining and he’s got a lot of range. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.
The rest of the casting occurred over the next few months, with Terrence Howard portraying Jim Rhodes, Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, and Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane (originally in an undisclosed role). Filming began in March of 2007. With an incomplete script due to so many writers passing on the project, a lot of the dialogue was improvised. Downey often took multiple takes with all of his scenes, trying different lines each time. For example, it was Downey’s idea to have Stark hold a news conference while sitting on the floor, a particularly memorable scene.
Bridges described this approach as a “$200 million student film”, and said it caused stress for the Marvel executives. He also noted that he and Downey sometimes swapped characters for rehearsals to hear how the lines sounded. Even Nick Fury’s scene featured lines improvised on-set, with comic writer Brian Michael Bendis coming up with three pages of dialogue, and the filmmakers choosing which ones sounded best. That scene was filmed with a skeleton crew in hopes to keep it a secret, but rumors appeared on the internet days later anyway. Because of that, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige removed the scene from all preview prints to help maintain the surprise.
Marvel Studios hired on Industrial Light & Magic to create the bulk of the movie’s special effects. To help with animating the Iron Man suit, they filmed skydivers in vertical wind tunnels with motion capture suits. Composer Ramin Djawadi, a long-time fan of Iron Man, was hired on as the composer. He focused the soundtrack on rock/metal music to match Tony Stark’s personality. Hans Zimmer provided additional cues, and Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello, who also made a cameo in the film, contributed guitar performances to the score. The soundtrack also features arrangements based on the 1966 Iron Man cartoon.
A lot was riding on the success of Iron Man. As Marvel Studio’s first film, and one based on a relatively obscure character at the time, you could call it a risky move. Yet it certainly paid off. Iron Man ended up both a critical and a commercial success, earning $585 million on a $140 million budget. It was the third highest-grossing opening weekend of 2008, only behind Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and The Dark Knight. It became the year’s first movie to pass the $300 million mark. It received a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with an average score of 7.7/10. Roger Ebert gave it a perfect 4 out of 4 stars, praising Downey’s performance above all else. The New York Times review stated “it’s an unusually good superhero picture.” Other critics praised the movie’s entertaining story along with its sprinkles of anti-war and redemption themes.
Iron Man received several Academy Award nominations, including Special Effects and Best Sound Editing. It also won two Taurus World Stunt Awards for Hardest Hit and Best Fire Stunt, Saturn Awards for Best Science Fiction Film, Best Actor (Downey) and Best Director. Ebert named it among his favourite films of 2008, and the American Film Institute ranked it among their best 10 films of the year.
As for myself, I had little interest in Iron Man before I borrowed my brother’s DVD copy. What I found was a genuinely entertaining movie with a brilliantly told story of redemption. There’s a touch of a corporate thriller in the story with Obadiah’s betrayal. As a fan of rock music myself, I appreciate the style of the soundtrack.
That said, Iron Man isn’t without its flaws. The final action scene is a bit anti-climactic, a problem common with most of the phase one Marvel films. While the improvised script is entertaining and at times, quite emotional, sometimes it feels like certain aspects of the story aren’t explained in enough detail. But these are relatively minor flaws for a great character focused story that felt very fresh at the time. Instead of a story about a nice person becoming a superhero, or an anti-hero walking the line between hero and psychopath, you’ve got a flawed character on a quest for redemption, and becoming a superhero in the process.
Without Iron Man’s success, we wouldn’t have movies like the Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier or Guardians of the Galaxy. Even if you’re not a fan of Iron Man as a character or the movie, you’ve at least got to give it that. Iron Man kicked off what is by far the most financially lucrative film franchise of all-time. For context, the 20 movies released so far have earned over $17.5 billion. Any way you look at it, that’s incredible. That title used to belong to Harry Potter, and James Bond and Star Wars each held the title in the past, those three franchises holding the top 4. Come to think of it, I haven’t done a Harry Potter blogathon despite reading through the books for this blog. Perhaps that’s an idea for the future.
Next up is the MCU movie most people tend to forget about, and it’s hard to blame them. Incredible Hulk features a bunch of actors that have never returned to the MCU, save for William Hurt as General Ross. After that, it’s Iron Man 2, followed by Thor. I’m probably going to aim for one or two of these posts a week, usually on the weekends. I’m too busy at the time being to do much more than that.