Just forget the words and sing along

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Fishing in the Discount Bin - Iron Man

Here we go again on Fishing in the Discount Bin.  I watch a movie I own then blog about it.  Easy as pie.  I figured it was time to revisit the origins of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so let's kick it off with Iron Man.  This is in my notes at January 14, 2018.

How did we get here?  How did the Marvel Cinematic Universe come along and become one of the more dominant film franchises in Hollywood?

In the late 1990s, Marvel Comics was starting to get tired of selling off the movie rights to their character, and getting no movie to show for it.  To combat this, they formed a new division called Marvel Entertainment.  Marvel Entertainment would essentially take care of the entire pre-production process for the studio.  They'd hire a director, pen a script, and then when they sold the rights to the studio, you'd get an entire ready-to-film package.  It's what finally got Spider-Man and X-Men off the ground. 

But, after doing all the work on the pre-production and learning more about the mechanics of movie studios, it didn't take long for Marvel to start thinking that they could just make the movies themselves.  So, they raised the investment capital, and opened up Marvel Studios.  One catch, though.  They'd already sold the movie rights to some of their most popular characters.  As Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige recently summed it up on a podcast:  "True, we didn't have our heavy hitters anymore, like Spider-Man and X-Men, but we still had Marvel's 800 other characters.  Could they all sustain their own film franchise?  No.  But a lot of them could...."  

Marvel Studios unveiled themselves to the world at the San Diego Comic Con in 2006, and announced their first three films:  Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and Ant-Man.  The Hollywood elites rolled their eyes.  "Marvel Brings Out the B-Team," was the headline in the Hollywood Reporter.  But they all changed their tune when Iron Man hit theatres in May of 2008, and quickly went on to dominate the box office.  The Incredible Hulk was a pretty strong follow-up.  And the most elite of the Hollywood elites -- The Walt Disney Company -- took enough notice that they snatched up Marvel in 2009. 

And as the whole enterprise celebrates 10 years of movie making this year, the rest of Hollywood has been playing catch-up by trying to create their own cinematic universes.  Again, as Feigie explained when they re-introduced the concept of a cinematic universe, "All we were trying to do was replicate what you get in the comics...when the Hulk might smash his way into Iron Man's latest adventure, for instance."

(I say "re-introduced the concept of a cinematic universe" because most film historians will tell you that cinematic universes started when Frankenstein met the Wolf Man in the 1940s, and the Universal Classic Monsters started chumming around.  But I digress.) 

With that 10th anniversary upon us, I figured it would be a good time to go back to the beginning and check out Phase I.  Never really got to do Phase I here on the blog, as I started when Phase II was up and running.  I'm pretty sure the first MCU film I did for this was The Avengers.  Plus, as I was dusting off my library, I noticed that Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk were the only ones I didn't own on Blu-Ray.  Luckily for me, they were newly re-released this past Christmas at nice affordable prices...no doubt to help promote Thor Ragnarok and kick off the 10th anniversary party.  So I upgraded Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk while out Christmas shopping, and it's time to revisit Phase I.

And it all starts with Iron Man

I do remember there was mild controversy when Iron Man was in development.  When word got out that they were updating Tony Stark's origin to demonstrating a new weapons system on the front lines in Afghanistan and being capture by terrorists, Marvel was accused of exploiting the war for their own profit.  But hey, in the original comics in the 1960s, Tony Stark was demonstrating a new weapons system on the front lines of Vietnam when he was capture by the Viet Cong, so to me, it seemed like a pretty reasonable update. 

But the most controversial move seemed to be casting Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark/Iron Man.  For those who don't know Downey's history.  He was one of the rising starts of Hollywood in the late-1980s/early-1990s.  The world seemed to be his for the taking.  But, his career was soon derailed thanks to numerous problems with drugs and alcohol.  He kinda laid low for the late-1990s to clean himself up and get his life straight, and started making his return in the early-2000s with smaller support roles, and slowly working his way up through the ranks.  Iron Man was really his gigantic, triumphant return to leading man status. 

Sadly, though, it wasn't his history that made him a controversial casting choice, it was his age.  Having just entered his 40s, many wondered if he was too old for one of these superhero films.  Even Marvel Studios was lobbying for some twentysomething heartthrob.  But director Jon Favreau fought for Downey, and we fans were even left muttering, "Dude, that is perfect."  Granted, the prevailing logic was that you needed an unknown to play a superhero, so they'd bring no baggage to the role.  But, we fans agreed, Downey's baggage was actually an asset.  After all, in the comics, Tony Stark, much like Downey, led a similar hedonistic lifestyle before battling with alcoholism.  It was just too perfect.

Whatever fears we all had were laid to rest when we saw that first teaser in the holiday season of 2007.

Hell, I remember an article on the Onion at the time:  "The trailer has proven to be so popular, that Hollywood has decided to expand it into a feature-length film!" 

Our hero's origin story:  Tony Stark, billionaire playboy genius philanthropist.  Generally regarded as the smartest man in the world.  Equally legendary for his business acumen and his partying.  And then, he takes a business trip to Afghanistan that changes his life.  Coming back from demonstrating his new weapons systems on the front lines, his convoy is ambushed and he's captured by the terrorist organization the Ten Rings.  Stark is placed in captivity alongside another brilliant engineer named Yin Sen, and they're ordered to start making weapons for the terrorists. 

Stark, though, ran into a problem.  During the attack, some shrapnel landed very close to his heart.  Yin Sen was able to implant an electromagnet to keep the shrapnel at bay.  Stark soon whips up a miniaturized nuclear reactor to implant in his chest and power the electromagnet, rather than always lug around a car battery to run it.  Now that he has a nuclear reactor, Stark comes up with a ridiculously simple escape plan:  whip up an armoured suit, powered by the nuclear reactor, and just walk out the front door.  Yin Sen winds up giving his life so Stark can escape, Stark uses his suit to lay waste to the terrorist camp, and make his way back to civilization. 

Needless to say, this literal 40 days and 40 nights in the desert has left Stark a changed man.  After seeing the weapons his company made in the hands of the terrorists and used to murder civilians, Stark immediately shuts down his weapons division.  He also begins refining and enhancing his suit of armour, seeking to finish what he started when he laid waste to that terrorist encampment.  And thus, Iron Man is born!

But of course, there's doin's a transpirin', as Stark soon learns of villainy in his own company, and his #1 guy, Obidiah Stane, has been selling weapons to the terrorists under the table.  Needless to say, the stage is soon set for a showdown between Stane and Stark, as Stane soon whips up his own power suit.  Stane is played by Jeff Bridges, and it's interesting seeing him in that role, because I think, in his long career, this was his first time playing a villain.  And by shaving his head and growing the beard, he really does transform himself for the role. 

In fact, everyone's good in this.  I always kind of remembered Terrance Howard as being half-asleep as the original Jim "Rhody" Rhodes, Stark's best friend, but watching it again tonight, I'm like, "Wow, he's actually really good." 

And let's not forget our scene-stealing Clark Gregg, in his debut as Agent Phil Coulson.  It is quite a small role, and he's doing a very good "Men in Black" kind of vibe.  And of course, the running gag of always introducing himself as being from the "Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division," the payoff, of course, at the end when he says, "Just call us SHIELD."  When i first saw the film, I picked up on it pretty early on, but my Marvel zombie friend says that, when Coulson said, "Just call us SHIELD," that we the biggest geek-out moment for him. 

It's become a trope now that when you're building a cinematic universe you need a shadowy organization to bring everything together, and that all started with, "Just call us SHIELD."  I remember on the DVD bonus features, one of the writer said, "It just made sense to include SHIELD.  When you read those original SHIELD comics, Tony Stark is always there as a supporting character, giving SHIELD their newest gadgets.  It wouldn't surprise me if, in some forgotten corner of continuity, Stark Industries built the helicarrier." 

And the biggest payoff to SHIELD is the first post-credits stinger, where Samuel L. Jackson shows up as Nick Fury to discuss "the Avengers Initiative."  Favreau always says he stuck that in because it would be a fun Easter egg.  Feige says that they were setting up their cinematic universe from the very beginning.  I don't know who to believe.  All I remember is the gasp of astonishment from around the theatre.  Remember, post-credit stingers hadn't caught on yet, so there were only about five of us in the theatre who stuck around for that when I saw it in 2008. 

And I also wonder if they just weren't teasing the Marvel Cinematic Universe but the Disney buyout of Marvel, as there is a scene set at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. 

Iron Man laid the foundations for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and after the outcast angst of Spider-Man and X-Men brought a sense of fun back to superhero films.  It`s still a very good movie.

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