Why it Works: Character Agency Powers the Original "Ironman"
Updated: Jul 30
It’s still hard to believe that it’s been eleven years since the original Ironman landed in theaters, launching what would become Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Ironman was and is an absolute blast from start to finish and is still regarded as an ironclad foundation to the MCU.
To say that a LOT was riding on Ironman is an obvious understatement. If Ironman had crashed and burned, would we would even have the Marvel Cinematic Universe and twenty-three films that followed? I honestly don’t know, but I guess it's all irrelevant now because Ironman went supersonic from takeoff and set the standard for what was to come.
Today, we would undeniably call Ironman a success, but I can’t be the only one who remembers walking into theaters in May of 2008 with little to no expectations for Ironman and Robert Downey Jr.’s heralded “comeback.” And who could blame me? The pre-MCU lineup hadn’t exactly inspired confidence in the possibility of a multi-billion-dollar franchise.
If you doubt me, just look at Marvel’s run leading up to Ironman:
· Elektra (2005)
· Fantastic Four (2005)
· X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
· Ghost Rider (2007)
· Spider-Man 3 (2007)
· Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)
As the saying goes, you have to walk before you can run, and in Marvel’s case, there was a LOT of crawling and even some limping en route to Ironman and The Avengers. But let’s not be too quick to judge either. Some credit has to be given to the original X-Men (2000) and Sam Raimi Spider-Man (2002) for helping a then Marvel-Studios-in-the-making find its footing, learn its lessons, and build the muscles the MCU would later stand on.
But what makes Ironman work so well on its own, and why was this film so successful in launching one of the greatest (and most profitable) franchises in film history?
1. Ironman, like Tony Stark, never takes itself too seriously
That’s saying something given the tone set by Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, which influenced comic book movies, amongst others, for years. Most films following Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, including Man of Steel, decided to take on an unnecessarily darker tone. Ironman and the MCU thankfully did not.
Don’t get me wrong, the mood of Nolan’s trilogy works for Bruce Wayne, but unlike Batman and other heroes, Tony Stark is not a brooding billionaire with a tragic backstory. He is an arrogant, ambitious, reckless, and often self-absorbed playboy who plays by his own rules. This comes with a certain levity and element of fun many comic book movies were lacking at the time.
Yes, Tony grows a conscience, develops a heart and learns to use his tech for the good of mankind, but instead of acting like a hero, Tony Stark embraces his celebrity status and enjoys the perks of being a billionaire while occasionally doing good things.
From the moment we first meet Tony Stark, drink in hand, he tells U.S. soldiers in a military convoy to “relax” and “laugh a little.” He poses for selfies and brags about his wild escapades. With his trademark wit, nicknames, and cavalier attitude, Tony Stark really does practice what he preaches. And while he’s obviously flawed, we can’t help but like (even love) him for his ego and willingness to have a good time. Thankfully, the Marvel Cinematic Universe followed suit by allowing its characters and fans to just enjoy the ride.
2. Secret Identities are Out
It makes sense that a character who plays by his own rules wouldn’t relish hiding behind a mask or alter ego. Even Agent Colson (Clark Gregg) reminds Tony to stick to the script, to which Tony Stark famously announces to the world, “I am Ironman!”
Take that S.H.I.E.L.D and every other masked hero!
Ironman changed the game with that simple yet perfect reveal, and the rest of the MCU’s heroes would almost all follow in Ironman’s footsteps.
Tony Stark wasn’t going to hide in the shadows or allow someone else to take credit for his actions. He was going to enjoy every minute in the spotlight; and with a lingering fear of the world discovering his identity out of the way, the character got to just be himself!
3. Tony Stark’s Agency is the Arc Reactor that Powers the MCU
Yes, Robert Downey Jr. is an absolute maverick and deserves a ton of credit for giving us the Tony Stark of the MCU. However, RDJ is just one of many reasons why Ironman and the MCU landed so well.
From the beginning, the character was so dynamic and so well-written, it seemed inevitable that, coupled with RDJ’s charisma, Tony Stark would become the heart and soul of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the arc reactor that powered most big story arcs from that moment on.
With all its humor, heart, iconic performances, and incredible special effects, Ironman boasts one of the stronger character scripts of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and a premier workshop on:
No, I’m not talking about The Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (aka S.H.I.E.L.D). I’m talking about character agency, i.e., giving characters the ability to make their own choices, take action, and drive the events of their story.
Too many writers struggle in this area. They write compelling scenes and gripping action but drag their heroes from one event to another without ever allowing them to get themselves in or out of trouble.
How many times do we see a hero protected from anything bad ever happening to them? How many characters are given an easy way out or delivered from sticky situations by coincidence or chance? How many characters arrive at an ending that feels forced or unearned? (Cough cough. Game of Thrones Season 8)
This is the writer denying their characters the chance to grow, earn their escapes, and work through the obstacles before them.
There is an old saying that you can use coincidence to get a character into trouble but never to get them out of it.
Characters should muster the resolve and use their resources to get themselves out of the situations they’ve got themselves in. If not, the writer may be doing the hard work for them.
Sometimes a hero needs allies to bail them out. That's different. But actions, both good and bad, have consequences, positive and negative. Set ups require payoffs and actions deserves an aftermath.
I won't spoil anything for those who haven't seen Endgame (shame on you by the way), but when you look at the entire Infinity Saga of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, "Inevitable" is probably the best word to describe the events of Endgame; and the groundwork was already being laid eleven years before with Ironman.
At its core, Ironman succeeds in making sure everything that happens in Tony Stark’s story a result of his actions and mistakes. In fact, a good chunk of the MCU’s major plot points and character origins emerge from Tony Stark’s legacy, both good and bad.
Tony’s arrogance and weapons falling into the wrong hands are what initially get him into the cave in the first Ironman. His resourcefulness and resolve are what get him out.
Make no mistake, Tony Stark is brilliant before he is ever taken captive. He has the resourcefulness and talent to build just about anything, including the Ironman suit. In captivity, however, he’s stripped of everything he normally relies on. Here we get to see what Tony is really made of, and so does he.
A good story will take a character who’s on top of the world and knock them down a bit. In getting knocked down, a character will show their true colors.
Are they willing to get back up? If so, the next question is: how will they do it and who will they become in doing so?
When Tony enters the cave, Yinsig (Shaun Toub) asks him, “is this your legacy and last act of defiance from the great Tony Stark, or are you going to do something about it?”
This is the question upon which the entire Tony Stark character arc is built.
Every time Tony gets out of trouble, a new challenge emerges that puts him right back in it. Here, the question gets repeated, “are you going to do something about it?”
Tony Stark can be impetuous, and his actions often get himself and others in trouble, but we will always admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
Like any good Hero’s Journey, what Tony gains in his literal “inner cave” in Ironman is perspective. He has always had the mind and the talent to do great things. What he lacks is the heart to do good things. In the cave, his eyes are opened.
Tony Stark enters the cave. Ironman emerges.
As Yinsig says to Tony with his dying words, “don’t waste your life, Stark.”
What will he do with the time and technology he’s created? Tony decides to make his life count, and in the end, the arc reactor, a product of Tony’s ingenuity, resourcefulness, and transformation, becomes the perfect metaphor for Ironman’s legacy.
The Arc Reactor is proof that Tony Stark has a heart
and even more proof that he was willing to use it
Tony Stark is not the kind of guy who enjoys being tied down. Look at his relationships. Look at the way he treats his tech. He holds very little attachments. If it's not working, toss it out, start over, and move on.
This could be a defense mechanism. It probably is. Tony flippantly avoids attachments or anything that could hold him back. But notice the moments when Tony is physically tied down or his agency is threatened. I count two major instances in Ironman where this happens.
In the cave, Yinsig has to attach a car battery to the electromagnetic in Tony's chest to keep him alive. What does Tony do? He invents the arc reactor to sever that connection so he can be more mobile... a LOT more mobile.
And at the end of act two, Obadiah Stane incapacitates Tony with a sonic paralyzer before stealing his arc reactor. This might be the biggest threat Tony has ever faced.
His mobility, tech, and agency are all gone.
But Tony's life changed forever when someone else (Yinsig) saves his life. And now he cannot move without help... again. Enter Pepper Potts, who is WAY more important to this character's story arc than we often realize.
So while Tony Stark is incredibly efficient and assertive, moments in Ironman remind him and others that he can't do it all on his own. In his mission to protect and defend the world, he's going to need help, and it's about come. The MCU just needed a few more years to assemble those heroes...
For those, check back to Perspectives off the Page for the next chapters of my MCU Revisited series and Why it Works.
If you liked this post, show it clicking on the heart below. If you loved it, the next best thing to do is subscribe for updates and new content dropping every week. And, of course, I'd love to hear your thoughts. Is Ironman one of the best superhero films ever made and where does it rank amongst the rest of the MCU? You be the judge.
Until Today, Storytellers