Marvel Superheroes
Marvel Superheroes

Iron Man’s Box Office Invincibility

Why Shellhead was, is, and will remain Marvel's Chosen One.

Iron Man’s Box Office Invincibility

With the mystic entry of Marvel’s hot n’ fresh cinema star Doctor Strange, it’s time for a peek back at who fired the MCU’s boosters in the first place.

SHARP ZOOM IN on: Iron Man!

Zooming in on the (Iron) Man!

CUE MUSIC: “Iron Man, Iron Man, does whatever an Iron can…” Wait, I’m mixed up. That was the old Spider-Man song! And a spectacular theme at that.

I realize some of you consider Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” to be the Iron Man theme, but it ain’t. A man can dream though. But Iron Man’s real theme is, er, forgettable in comparison to Spidey’s jingle, or that retro bass beat nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh/nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh BAT-MAN!!, or the iconic sweep of John Williams’ lilting Superman theme.

It’s Hip to Be Square...If Your Name is Tony Stark

Mind if I mix genres for a sec? We can step into this handy TARDIS and set the Space-Time Coordinates for April 30th, 2008, Hollywood, California (Earth).

Oh, look! Iron Man’s premiering at the Mann’s Grauman Chinese Theater, the film which officially launched the MCU (despite the existence of such other Marvel flicks like Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk, or the 2004 Punisher, or 2007’s Nic Cage take on Ghost Rider, or even 2008’s Punisher: War Zone…you have all those in your video library, right?).

There, next to the shiny cast, is Kevin Feige, dashing producer and president of Marvel Studios.

Boy, he’s taking a gamble, isn’t he?

Or...is he?

Historically, Iron Man was never one of Marvel Comics’ top-selling properties, but since Feige and Marvel Studios didn’t own the rights to Spider-Man or the X-Men, they opted to launch their interconnected series of movies with the Golden Avenger himself (even though Captain America was clearly labeled “The First Avenger,” it made more sense to start with the modern day era and work back to Cap and his World War II exploits later).

But Tony Stark’s a businessman, an enormous capitalist! Is that exciting? Not usually.

Quick, name the CEO of Northop Grumann (that’s an actual defense contractor, if you were scratching your head…and the CEO is Wesley Bush who, like Stark Industries’ Tony Stark, graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Do you think that CEO would make an interesting, or even believable, superhero? My gut says no.

Doesn’t seem like a natural backstory for an Avenger…and yet, as comic god Stan Leeknew, and directorJon Favreau also gathered, if done right it is the PERFECT backstory.

All you needed was the PERFECT actor in the armor.

Someone who could twist a seemingly mundane figure into an un-not-watchable magnet, a spoilt, ballsy gunrunner with brains to match his billfold. You needed a good-looking, unblinking, real life egomaniac with, like Stark, a bit of a sex, booze, and party problem…

Tony Star, aka Robert Downey, Jr., aka Iron Man

Yes, that’s it.

That’s RDJ, the rollercoaster party boy-turned-world’s highest paid actor—thanks to Marvel (and, of course, us fans!). Downey brought to the table exactly what Marvel Studios needed to reach escape velocity—raw energy and a volcanic mountain of talent, the ability to infuse the role with not only sparks and passion but subtle rumbling passion.

Hey, anyone can be a brash loudmouth, but Stark is only smiling when he’s at the roulette wheel or mugging for the crowd. Otherwise he’s apt to turn stoic, even withdrawn, a punk Spartan toiling alone for days on end in a gearhead’s garage with J.A.R.V.I.S.—the multi-tasking A.I. assistant—and a bunch of bumbling droid arms. How can you turn such an extrovert into a recluse, toggling back and forth at will?

Well, you have to be RDJ to do it.

Downey’s Stark is damaged, carrying on his father’s legacy of weapons manufacturing—and clearly bored with it all—until that transformative sunny afternoon event which caused him to bring his life’s work into question.

Not such a boring backstory after all…but only because of Downey’s capacity to play it.

A Hero in Gold (With a Splash of Fire Engine Red)

Iron Man wasn’t only a box office smash, it reaped a basket of awards plus two Oscar noms, too. For a comic book movie, that’s rarer than a Pokémon GO Niantic!

But let’s talk the character. Stark—guy’s gotten everything he ever wanted for most of his life. That’s who he is—that schmuck that achieves whatever he sets his mind to. Oh, sure, the money and fame were earned, I guess…despite a Hulk-sized helping hand by way of his wealthy inventor-father, Howard Stark (a sort of comic adaptation of Howard Hughes, the eccentric aviator billionaire).

But at the pinnacle of Stark’s success as a weapons manufacturer, something goes awry. Shortly after a wild Jericho Missile weapons test in the mountains of Afghanistan, he’s nicked by the Ten Rings terrorists and ordered to build them their own version of the superweapon.

Stark tricks ‘em. The idiots believe he’s working on the project; he’s really building the clunky, flame-throwing Iron Man Mark I suit, an extraordinarily badass metal beast which pays homage to the first comic featuring the character—Tales of Suspense #39 (from March 1963).

In fact it isn’t only the armor but the basic origin story which is taken from those old issues, the Ten Rings being a modern Middle Eastern iteration of the original Vietnamese “Wong-Chu.”

Well, suffice it to say, Stark defeats his captors (but for those who’ve been paying attention, the Ten Rings are still very much alive and kicking…).

It's only $3,999.99!

All very nice. But Stark’s business partner Obadiah Stane (as played by one evil bearded and not-very-Dude-ish Jeff Bridges) gets his dirty hands on the blueprints of the Mark I and from it creates Iron Monger, Tony’s first supervillain nemesis (in the best of comic traditions, Iron Monger is just a meaner version of the hero himself—a syndrome we see with Captain America and Red Skull, who is also a super soldier; Thor and Loki; Hulk and Abomination; Superman and Bizarro; Flash and Reverse Flash; Spider-Man and Venom; Ant-Man and Yellowjacket; etc…).

Monger gets his, but in the end Stark is still left relying on the mini arc reactor embedded in his chest, powering an electromagnet which keeps shrapnel out of his heart.

Stark holds a conference, informing the planet, “I am Iron Man.”

ROLL CREDITS…

Back for the Attack

Now, schooch back into the TARDIS, we’re only jumping forward a couple years here because Marvel wasted no time making a follow-up. There we are… BAM! Iron Man 2 time, baby! RDJ’s back and he’s brought War Machine (and AC/DC) with him!

Despite the close relationship between the two businessmen of Iron Man, the oft-maligned 2010 sequel featured arguably Stark’s most personal villainWhiplash!

Award-winning meathead Mickey Rourke played Russian physicist Ivan Vanko, a pure Commie vengeance incarnate, bitterly bitter about the Stark family stealing all the thunder for the arc reactor invention from Vanko’s dad.

World's Most Bad Ass Physicist.

So Ivan chews through a pack of toothpicks and creates his own reactor after his father dies in his arms (lamenting, as he does so, how it should be his boy, not Tony Stark, running a billion dollar global enterprise).

“My son, if only you hadn’t spent 15 years in prison for selling plutonium on the black marke…uughhht.” Dead.

CUE ULTRA-DRAMATIC GUTTURAL RAGE NOISES FROM ROURKE

Like Stark, Whiplash’s first suit isn’t built in a fancy lab, but under impoverished conditions. Also like Stark, Vanko’s an obsessed genius with a lack of solid relationships or clearly-defined abdominal muscles. The gold-toothed, tatted up plutonium peddler uses his homemade reactor to power his dual “energy” whiplashes (I’m sure there’s a more scientific-sounding term for you to Google up).

By this point, Iron Man has emerged as the self-appointed savior of the world, a one-man army patrolling the globe, fighting international goons without oversight (are we already eyeballing Civil War here?).

His ego bubble is maxed to the max when Vanko stumbles into town (town being Monaco, Italy) to demonstrate before the cameras at the Grand Prix that Iron Man isn’t all he’s cracked up to be.

CUT TO: Stark busting our bad guy up via the Mark V “transforming suitcase” suit of armor…

Still, the ploy to discredit Iron Man’s invincibility works its magic. Jealous rivalJustin Hammer, in cahoots with a crooked Senator, busts Vanko out of the pokey to build an army of bargain basement Iron Man-ish drones.

ENTER: War Machine and badass-ery

EXIT: Vanko and Hammer

Iron Man 2 went on to haul $623.9 million, ensuring RDJ’s hero would have a long shelf life over the years to come. It handed the Stark Industries keys to the kingdom to Ms. Pepper Potts, so Stark could focus on 24/7 do-gooding.

Scarlett Johansson debuted as Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow, and Don Cheadle took over Terrence Howard’s character of Colonel Rhodes realized in full.

The stage was being really being set now…

Assembling the Team

Following 2011’s double whammy of Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger(starring Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark!), we finally got to our destination—the culmination of years of planning dubbedPhase I.

Marvel's step into the realm of gods, monsters, and rainbow bridges! A mighty introduction of the Odenson, Thor of Asgard!

Yep, I’m talking 2012, Yep, I’m talking 2012, Joss Whedon, Marvel's The Avengers.

Marvel’s gamble with Iron Man had paid off in spades, and Stark got stuck out front, to turn the Avengers Initiative into reality, along with S.H.I.E.L.D’s sassy Director Nick Fury. Why not? Who better than a billionaire businessman/genius to get things done?

Thor? Naw, too mystical. Hulk? Too smashy. Black Widow? Too under cover. Hawkeye? Actually, that could’ve been an interesting choice, with Jeremy Renner’s talent. But didn’t happen. And not Cap, Cap had to be thawed out first. And the others (Falcon, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, Vision, Ant-Man, etc.) weren’t introduced yet.

So Samuel L. Jacksonused the ol' Jedi mind trick on our goateed billionaire playboy to cajole the rest. And interestingly enough, like Stark, the other Avengers’ identities are generally known to the public…which sort of makes Stark’s decision to go public seem less startling. But I digress…

Stark’s the lynchpin and pocketbook if not the leader and he knows it.

So does Marvel Studios! Stark creates most of their tech; even Cap’s shield was originally a Stark design. Avengers Tower was none other than the former Stark Tower. Seems like they don’t draw much funding from the government at all…

Wow, Cap was in danger of NOT behaving like a gentleman.

But not Stark’s best moment, either. In fact it is part of his growth arc, an arc which covers the entire MCU. It’s also the seeding of the Civil War conflict to come.

At least for the rest of this film, the two are able to reconcile their differences after the false death of S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson (oh, Nick Fury, you wily son of a gun!), but the conflict simmers and spills over into future Phase II films…

Ready for More, More, MORE!

Fans were ready for more, and Marvel didn't disappoint, launching their Phase II with Iron Man 3, in 2013, followed by Thor 2: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers 2: Age of Ultron, and Ant-Man.

So there, once again, was Tony Star leading the pack...

Told ya those Ten Rings goons would be back! Okay, I wouldn't normally do a spoiler alert for a movie that's been out for this long, but SPOILER ALERT just in case, because this film did feature a pretty bizarre plot twist.

So Shane Black and the scriptwriters decided to really throw the audience for a loop (as well as Iron Man), by building up the supposed antagonist, the Mandarin, only to reveal it was all an act. Master thespian Ben Kingsley blows out mind in the middle of the flick, as we discover his menacing Mandarin is actually a bumbling, drug-addled actor putting on a show for the whole world to watch. He doesn't seem to realize that, though he may be an act, the terrorism is real!

Iron Man 3 does play one traditional card--it strips the hero of his most valuable weapon, in this case the armor, of course. Most of the movie, Stark is running around without it, or it is defective and failing him constantly. Like his life, his suit keeps falling apart, and so he must rely on his wits and mechanical know-how to rig up the means to infiltrate the true Mandarin's compound and discover the truth!

While the fans weren't all on-board with the Mandarin stunt, nonetheless it was a very bold move on Marvel's part and it did lighten up the heavy mood. Even when Marvel goes "dark," it is never nearly as dark as the DC films...which, for me, is a good thing.

Here we go, Joss Whedon's next Avenger's offering, and as always, Iron Man is front and center. At the end of Iron Man 3, Tony blew up all his armor suits to show his dedication to Pepper Potts. Luckily for us, he went back to work right away, creating the Iron Legion, a small army of clones designed as a peace-keeping force.

But the Legion isn't enough. Stark is worried (rightfully) that the enemies awaiting Earth up in space are still there, still plotting...and Earth's Mightiest just aren't up to the task. With Loki’s staff (or the Chitauri Scepter for you die-hards) in his possession, Stark sweet-talks Bruce Banner to help him design the ultimate in Artificial Intelligence--ULTRON!

The point was to create an A.I. shield for the world, but as always, Stark's hubris provides a stumbling block. Pressing forward on the project, he fails to consult his peers...and as Ultron comes online, they discover how seriously flawed and narcissistic it is--just like it's creator! Ultron does have a plan to save the world, but it involves first cleansing it of its human infestation.

The ever-creepy James Spader provides the motion capture and sardonic vocal performance for a genuinely charismatic CGI bad guy. Though the end result got mixed reviews, the best moments of the film are arguably those between Stark and Ultron, or Downey Jr. and Spader, both veteran actors and two good friends who cut their acting teeth playing in Less Than Zero (based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis).

At last the festering feud between Captain American and Iron Man comes to a head. The nations of the world want the Avengers to be accountable. Captain America wants to retain their independence. But he doesn't expect his co-founder, Tony Stark, to side with the government...and he certainly doesn't think Stark will go along when Avengers start getting rounded up and incarcerated by retired General Thunderbolt Ross (of Hulk notoriety).

Well...Cap was wrong. But meanwhile the wild card Winter Soldier has returned to make matters even more complex...especially when Iron Man learns ol' brainwashed Bucky may've had a part to play in several close-to-home assassinations. Like the Avengers film, Civil War grossed over a billion at the box office, in no small part due to the presence of Iron Man (who is even on the poster, squared off with Cap, in Cap's own movie!).

Iron Man's End Game

Word on the street is Iron Man will feature in the new Spider-Man: Homecoming!

And we know he's signed on for 2018's Avengers 3...but then what? There does not seem to be an Iron Man 4 in works. So other than potentially a couple more cameos, will Avengers 3: Infinity War, be Iron Man's end game? Will he really come back for Avengers 4, as the rumor goes? We know the studios give out false intel sometimes, in order to maintain the secrecy around their big reveals. Iron Man 3 featured its big reveal with the Mandarin...is it possible Star will die during Infinity War, paving the way for a new actor to step into the suit?

Even if Downey Jr. signed a contract to star in Avengers 4, the appearance could be as a flashback, or even a dream sequence a la Idris Elba's Heimdall cameo in Age of Ultron.

Only time will tell what fate awaits Tony Stark...but we know he'll go out the way he entered the MCU--with one of the biggest bangs in modern film history!

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Matt Cates
Matt Cates
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Matt Cates

Retired Air Force Vet; former admin at Oregon State University; author of Haveck: The First Transhuman; GI Jobs contributor and creator of www.MoneyForVets.com 

See all posts by Matt Cates