For the last decade, this has been Marvel’s world. The rest of Hollywood is just living in it. Since its debut in 2008, the entity known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe has grossed nearly $6 billion at the American box office. That’s more in non-inflation adjusted dollars than even the Star Wars franchise that has been around four times as long. The MCU has essentially changed the way the motion picture industry works…or at least it’s changed the way everyone in the business thinks it works.
But despite any George Lucas-like claims to the contrary, nobody knew or expected this was going to happen. No one thought when it began that bringing the four-color characters created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and the rest of the Marvel Bullpen to the big screen would dominate our fractured pop culture like perhaps nothing else we’ve ever seen. And right now, there are plans for another 13 MCU movies to come out by 2022.
So this edition of KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown is going to take a look at where it all began and where it’s all wound up. It’s “Iron Man” (2008) vs. “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018) to see how it’s all gone so right and if there are any signs it may be starting to go a little wrong.
Basically a metaphor for Downey's career and personal life up to this point.
If you wanted to start a Hollywood franchise, you couldn’t ask for a better beginning than “Iron Man.” Not only is it a damn near masterpiece of the genre that creates a template for all that follow but it was created without any hot young stars that would have to be placated and babysat for the rest of the endeavor. While every cinema fan was happy the amazingly talented Robert Downey Jr. seemed to have finally gotten his life together by 2008, it sure looked like he was settling into a middle age career of supporting roles in films where somebody else was the star. To be able to build the MCU on one of the best actors of his era and get him at a point in his life when he can truly appreciate success and not take it for granted? I’m willing to bet the lack of diva-like behavior associated with MCU performers owes a lot to Downey’s example.
“Iron Man” is the story of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), a genius weapons manufacturer who is a combination of Howard Hughes and Hugh Hefner. He’s the smartest and most important man in any room he’s in who knows he’s the smartest and most important man in the room and isn’t shy about letting everybody else know it too. He’s basically what every 16-year-old boy wishes he could grow up and be without having to actually do any of that “growing up” business.
You know Hemsworth and Evans are jealous that this is the last time Downey had to get in any kind of shape for these movies.
On a trip to Afghanistan, Stark is kidnapped by a terrorist group known as “The Ten Rings” and ordered to build them a weapons system or die. With the help of an imprisoned doctor named Yinsen (Shaun Toub), Stark instead builds himself a suit of armor and blasts his way to freedom. But seeing the real world impact of his destructive, irresponsible intellect up close causes Stark to reevaluate his entire life. He orders his company to stop making weapons while he focuses on improving the armor he designed in a cave. And when he realizes the power of that new armor, Stark seizes the chance to fix the problems he’s created and redeem his wasteful existence.
There have been 18 MCU films since “Iron Man” and while the ones that immediately followed weren’t all that great, the franchise has managed to produce not only a box office bonanza but critical acclaim. There have probably been only two or three MCU movies that honestly qualify as bad and two or three times as many that honestly qualify as very good to great. Yet one can still make the argument the film which started it all remains the best one they’ve ever done. Oh, it may not have the spectacle of “The Avengers” (2012), the political aspirations of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014), or embody the zeitgeist like “Black Panther” (2018), but I’m not sure any of them combine intelligence, humor, action, drama, and pure moviegoing joy as well as “Iron Man.”
You wouldn't think the success of multi-milion dollar blockbusters would come down to getting these kind of scenes right, but they usually do.
Marvel Comics reimagined the super-hero as a relatably flawed yet still heroically fun figure and Downey and “Iron Man” brings that concept to life better than anyone else. Even after his epiphany, Tony Stark remains a real human being given to arrogance, impulsiveness, self-centeredness, and obsession. The script is very smart, not only leading viewers to think the plot is going one way before turning in another but takes care to ensure sure the little details make sense. For example, if Tony Stark decides he needs to stop making weapons…why would he immediately turn around and create an armored suit full of them? The screenplay very cleverly gets around that paradox by having the first and most prominent Iron Man weapon start out as a stabilizer necessary so the armor can fly. That level of thought goes into shockingly few big budget flicks nowadays and setting that standard for the rest of the MCU has no doubt helped the franchise maintain a consistent level of quality.
“Iron Man” also established the importance of comedy and making sure the larger-than-life super-hero antics take place within the confines of something that resembles the world outside your window. The lack of those two things is what has made so many DC comic book movies so disappointing and, if you look, it is their presence in “Wonder Woman” (2017) which made it such a pleasant experience.
Downey has never been shy about showing off his third nipple.
While there have been a few stumbles along the way, the MCU has now largely perfected the “Iron Man” template to churn out a slew of motion pictures that never feel like they’ve been churned out. It’s gotten to the point where one of the fundamental criticisms of the franchise is that it is so reliably satisfying that it’s kind of boring. Well, “Avengers: Infinity War” is definitely not boring. It’s the biggest change to the MCU template since “Iron Man” but that’s less a bold creative choice and more because the studio is pulling a fast one on us.
Remember when they announced it was originally going to be an “Infinity War Part I” and an “Infinity War Part II?” But in the wake of Harry Potter and Hunger Games splitting their finales into two films, people starting raising a stink about buying a ticket just to see the first half of a movie? And then the Marvel people dropped the “Part I” and it just became “Avengers: Infinity War” to be followed by an untitled fourth Avengers flick? Yeah, they lied to us. This is “Avengers: Infinity War Part I” and whatever they call it, “Part II” is coming out in 2019.
How does his hair stay like that under his mask?
And trying to avoid any spoilers because “Infinity War” is a pretty good movie that needs to be experienced with as little foreknowledge of the plot as possible, this film can be summed up with a couple of references from “The Simpsons.” This is the MCU movie most like an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon. There’s a bad guy named Thanos (Josh Brolin) who wants these things called the Infinity Stones so he can kill half the universe. Every Marvel hero except Hawkeye and Ant-Man assemble to stop him. They fight, fight, fight. The end…except it’s not.
The plot is a simple and repetitive as you can get. The movie literally does the same “hero needs to let one person die to save trillions of lives but can’t because they’re a hero” scene three times. And a big chunk of the film is spent making Thanos the “Big Poochie” of the MCU. If the reference is a little too old, then let’s say Thanos is the “Negan” of the MCU. The movie wallows for quite a while on what an awesome and complex badass Thanos is when I think most of the audience would rather be focused on the heroes they paid money to see. With a little plot restructuring and a lot less “Big Poochie: MCU Division,” I think we could have avoided needing an “Infinity War Part II.”
"Wait...they closed the shawarma place?"
I don’t want to be excessively negative because “Avengers: Infinity War” is a good time right up until you realize you’re going to have to wait a year for the genuine conclusion. Some of the fight scenes indulge in that shaky-cam nonsense that makes it hard to see what’s happening but the special effects are mostly superb. The script does a remarkable job of managing an enormous cast of characters and giving each one their own little moments to shine. The performances are all compelling, though it is a little jarring to see “Serious Thor” back after the mostly comedic “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017). This is a movie you need to see if you are and MCU fan, though you don’t need me to tell you that, and you won’t be disappointed because it sucks. “Avengers: Infinity War” does not suck in the least.
It does raise an interesting point. I don’t think it is possible to get any bigger or more universe-threatening than “Infinity War” and any attempt to do so is likely going to enter the realm of self-parody. So if the MCU has spent the last 10 years building up to this, the next 10 years is going to have to go in a different direction.
This Throwdown goes to “Iron Man” because I think a story about an imperfect but inspiring man struggling to become a hero is better than a story about a super-strong, super-smart, super-emotionally complex villain struggling to commit cosmic genocide. Your mileage may vary.
"You know that helmet and gold armor I wore in all the other movies? They had to cut the CGI budget somewhere. Yes, I know DC spent all that money on Superman's upper lip but it wasn't my call."
Iron Man (2008)
Written by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Carcum, and Matt Holloway. This thing is definitely in the running for the award “Best Movie Ever Written By Four People.”
Directed by Jon Favreau.
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Terrance Howard, Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, Leslie Bibb, Shaun Toub, Faran Tahir, Clark Gregg, Sayed Badreya, Paul Bettany, and Jon Favreau.
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely.
Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo.
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Zoe Saldana, Karen Gillan, Tom HIddleston, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olson, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Idris Elba, Danai Gurira, Peter Dinklage, Bendict Wong, Pom Klementieff, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Benecio De Toro, Josh Brolin, Chris Pratt, William Hurt, Letitia Wright, Terry Notary, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Carrio Coon, Michael James Shaw, Winston Duke, and a partridge in a pear tree.
Who would have guessed the fate of all existence would come down to a game of Patty Cake?