Iron Man doesn’t even feel quite like a true Marvel film as much as an independent, crowdfunded movie made by two Iron Man enthusiasts who just so happened to have bumped into Robert Downey Jr. and Jeff Bridges at a cocktail party once and wooed them with their pitch of making a true, adult comic book movie. The movie was also made in 2008, just one year before Disney would acquire Marvel, and its easy to see that this film is significantly more risqué than later entries: Case in point, when Tony Stark woos a Vanity Fair journalist, sleeps with her, and we get a few brief moments the next morning with her, scantily clad with only a sheet in bed. That would NEVER happen in a Marvel movie now.
This is all pretty strange, since we have come to know MCU movies as a particular style of film. Sure, Guardians of the Galaxy is a space opera, Captain America: The Winter Soldier an Espionage thriller and Ant-Man as the world’s greatest small-scale heist movie. But they all feel like they are still cut from the same high quality, family-friendly dough, where nothing too offensive or too obscene ever happens. The Incredible Hulk is the only other MCU film that escaped the Disney-fication, and still wasn’t that outstanding.
Iron Man is both unique and outstanding. It has that gritty feel to it, which was all the rage back in 2008, but it still feels playful. You could watch this movie with a group of adult friends or one of your own teenage children. The visual aesthetic is like that of a Hot Rod poster you might find on a college kids dorm room, overly polished and coated in wax. But it hits on all the necessary storytelling beats. We get true motivation for every one of Tony Stark’s choices. We get true inspiration for Obadiah Stane to usurp Tony as the head of Stark Industries. Most importantly, we see Rhodey actually act as an equal to Stark, not necessarily the side kick who sucks up to him all the time. Don Cheadle is arguably a better Rhoadie than Terrence Howard, but he’s only better in the sense that he’s better for the particular sidekick version of Rhoadie. Only Howard could pull off this Rhoadie who isn’t afraid to tell Tony to go fuck himself when necessary.
We also see Tony not necessarily at the center of the universe, the coolest guy ever to have existed in the MCU like we see in later films. Here he is certainly cool, but he still has to prove his worth, his gumption and gusto will only go so far. In this sense, Iron Man is a total anomaly in the MCU. It sparked the whole thing to begin with, but it would never be released as it currently exists. It took a chance, both on Robert Downey Jr., on Jon Favreu, and really on a second-tier, unlikable Marvel hero and hoped for the best. And modern movie blockbusters are all the better for it.