For our Marvel Monday column for the next two months, we will be reviewing all of the Marvel canon movies to prepare for our big review of The Avengers: Age of Ultron on May 1. This week, Leah will be reviewing Iron Man 1, 2, and 3. Today, we question who the real hero of Marvel’s Phase one debut is with Leah’s review of Iron Man (2008).
Welcome to another edition of Marvel Monday! This week is all about Iron Man, as I attempt to play catch-up for the reviews I missed last month. Today, we dive right in with the first installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
About a year ago, I decided to go back and watch all of the Iron Man films in succession. To be honest, I’m not even sure I watched them in the right order the first time I saw them, so watching the full trilogy was quite an experience as I got the full progression of Tony’s character arc. But this week, I’ll be taking a little time to step back from the trilogy and evaluate the films individually.
Iron Man is an odd place to build the foundation for a superhero series, which may seem like a bit of a strange statement. Even non-comic fans are familiar enough with the tropes underlying Iron Man’s story: eccentric genius with ample time and more-than-ample funds decides to step up for the sake of justice. Seems like the perfect place to enter the superhero-verse, right? The fascinating thing about Tony Stark, however, is that he doesn’t step up just for the sake of injustice — he steps up to face injustice that he caused. We’re entering the Marvel universe at the ground-level, not with a hero who acts on moral principle without personal connection, but with a hero who is selfish, ignorant of the consequences of his actions, and has to be exposed violently to the “real world” to come out a better man. In a way, however, this makes Tony the ideal candidate for the entry into a vaster universe — he is so fundamentally human that we cannot help but identify with him. His is a story that is not about heroism so much as about redemption.
Iron Man is essentially an exercise letting Tony Stark atone for his neglectful behavior. His “billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” shtick has gotten the better of him, and after an eye-opening kidnapping, he realizes that he has played a large — if somewhat unintentional — destructive role in hundreds, maybe thousands of lives. Consequently, the rest of the film is spent trying — and sometimes failing — to account for these oversights. It’s not just a feat of unexpected brilliance that leads Tony to create the Iron Man suit. It’s the realization that his neglect has had a very real impact for people, and that the lives lost ought not to be passed off as just “collateral damage.” Tony must work past selfish tendencies to understand that his neglect has costs. He has to defeat the enemy he has essentially created — the embodiment of his own company in Obadiah Stane — to fix the wrongs of his past.
Which leads me to my second realization in rewatching this movie. Tony Stark is a very specific kind of hero, because his path to heroism is essentially composed of backing down the path he’s already created by his extravagance and idleness and trying to clean up the mess. So then the question becomes: if Tony is the reactive hero, who is the proactive hero of this film? That distinction, I believe, belongs to Pepper Potts.
One thing that quickly became apparent as I was watching was how critical Pepper is to the plot. Aside from her general duties of essentially running Tony’s life, she is the proactive force that identifies the heart of the problem. She takes the information about the weapons project from Obadiah Stane at great risk to herself. She brings SHIELD into the fray. She’s also the one who actually acts to destroy the arc reactor, stopping Stane in the process of killing Tony. Pepper is also, most notably, the one who preserves Tony’s original mini-arc reactor. Tony is more than ready to throw it out, but Pepper instead decides to have it preserved for him — a joking gesture at first, but one that proves to be a Chekhov’s gun. Without her foresight, Tony would have been dead long before his climactic battle. While Tony is certainly crucial to Stane’s end, that end is only facilitated by the diligent groundwork laid by Pepper. Expect me to come back to this moment when we discuss Iron Man 3 on Friday — a film in which Pepper is undisguisedly the heroine.
So is it true that no hero exists in a vacuum, as I argued last week about Cap? Or is there something more that I’m missing that definitively makes Tony the hero of his own tale? We’ll discuss further with Iron Man 2 on Thursday!