I saw Iron Man in theaters on opening day back on May 2, 2008. Though the film industry had long since been propped up by tentpole blockbusters, at the time I never could have predicted what the future held over the next decade and beyond. Even back then, as I was finishing up my sophomore year of college, I was complaining that too many Hollywood movies were based on pre-existing properties. Little did I know Iron Man would be the beginning of what is essentially the equivalent of baseball’s steroids era. Studios have always liked movies that are “pre-sold,” so to speak, but high-profile franchises were, prior to Iron Man, siloed off from one another.
And at first, there wasn’t any indication that Iron Man would be any different, though now that I have long since been trained to watch for mid-credits and post-credits scenes, I did notice this time around that Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) does in fact show up to inform Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) about the Avengers after Iron Man‘s credits come to a close. What Marvel has done with its Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has changed the game in a big way. By introducing characters one at a time through origin story movies and then weaving them together via Avengers movies and subsequent sequels, Marvel has more or less guaranteed they will strike gold at the box office every single time.
For the millions of people that are really into this, the latest MCU movie is like the latest episode of their favorite TV show, only they have to go to the theater to watch it. The rest of Hollywood has rushed to shift to this new model, with varying degrees of success. For example, Warner Bros. has its DC Extended Universe (DCEU) and Wizarding World (i.e., Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts) movies. Franchises are now being presented in a much less linear fashion — look no further than the fact that not only is Disney focused on making Star Wars 7-9, but that Episode 8 director Rian Johnson is making a Star Wars trilogy and Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are making a Star Wars trilogy as well. For fans, there’s no end to getting pretty much exactly what they want. (Unless it’s the Han Solo movie, which was a mess and didn’t do well.)
For better or worse, this escalation in universe building began just over a decade ago with Iron Man. I am reviewing the movie now as part of a larger effort to review all of the MCU movies now that each of the first 23 — yes, there are 23 as of this writing, with many more to come — will be made available on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray by the end of 2019. Not only will I be watching each of the films in 4K for the first time, but I also will be viewing many of the films for the first time period. You see, I eventually grew so tired of the glut of comic book movies that I stopped watching shortly after the first Avengers movie was released in 2012. (I still to this day have not seen Iron Man 3, which will be corrected soon enough.)
So it will be fun to go back through the canon and watch all of the movies in order, especially knowing that it all builds to something big with Avengers: Endgame (which I saw in theaters and liked). Now that the MCU is pretty much always going to be a movie industry landmark, I’d like to know how I would order the entire canon in terms of quality. Anyway, let’s go back to the beginning, shall we? Iron Man, lest we forget, was a pretty nice breath of fresh air at the time. What Christopher Nolan had done with Batman Begins in 2005 was cast great actors (even in supporting roles) and do a comic book movie that was actually played pretty straight and grounded in something much closer to reality than was usual for a superhero film.
It was a popcorn movie that had heft and weight, exploring psychological themes related to crime, guilt and identity in a way that was very unusual for a blockbuster. It’s not hard to see that Marvel used Batman Begins as a template for its approach to Iron Man three years later. First, let’s talk about the actors. At the time of release, four of Iron Man‘s top-billed stars had been nominated for Best Actor or Best Actress. Gwyneth Paltrow had won in 1998 for Shakespeare in Love; Jeff Bridges was nominated in 1984 for Sherman (and finally won in 2009 for Crazy Heart); Robert Downey, Jr. was nominated in 1992 for Chaplin; and Terrence Howard was nominated in 2005 for Hustle & Flow.
That’s a pretty amazing wealth of talent to work with in a comic book movie. At the time, it just wasn’t the norm to use really talented dramatic actors in action movie roles. Which also means that the actors, particularly Downey, carry Iron Man. Unlike the aforementioned Batman Begins, which is the clear vision of Christopher Nolan, Iron Man isn’t nearly as overtly director-driven. It’s impossible to imagine Batman Begins being directed by anyone else. None of these MCU movies are the work of auteurs, which I suppose must be by design — they’re supposed to all be of a piece, so one shouldn’t be radically different from another in terms of look and feel.
One of the reasons I didn’t elect to see Iron Man 3 when it was released in 2013 was due to Jon Favreau not directing it. Since he directed Iron Man and Iron Man 2, wasn’t the Iron Man franchise his? That’s what I thought at the time. Of course, given how things have played out, this is a pretty ridiculous opinion to have had. Iron Man has appeared in like ten of the MCU movies, so it’s clear that the character doesn’t even belong to just the Iron Man movies, let alone the original director of said movies. And in watching Iron Man again just now for the first time in more than ten years, there’s nothing about the way Favreau directs the movie that really would indicate ownership of any of this. Certainly, nothing here points to the mind-blowing work he would later do with The Jungle Book in 2016.
At the end of the day, the first Iron Man is a pretty good movie, but it’s nothing extraordinary. In terms of genre, I would actually argue that it skews much more heavily toward sci-fi action than superhero film — generally speaking, the population isn’t really at risk throughout the movie and isn’t ever in immediate need of saving, and Tony Stark’s powers are entirely technology based, including the palladium reactor that keeps his heart beating. Also, not everything story-wise makes complete sense to me. How is Tony Stark able to build that initial suit in the cave while in captivity, all while supposedly closely monitored by guards via video camera? And why are the guards watching via video camera instead of in person? It’s almost like something out of Austin Powers.
And as Rhodes, Terrence Howard seems like he’s almost in an entirely different movie most of the time he’s on screen, so maybe the script could have used some tightening there. But hey, the movie does indeed work as is: Downey and Paltrow have terrific chemistry, Bridges is a pretty good villain, and there’s even some pretty legitimate questioning of the practice of defense contractors (in this case Stark Industries) selling weapons to the highest bidder with little regard to where these weapons actually end up. The music, however, does not impress, even though it’s by none other than Game of Thrones and Westworld composer Ramin Djawadi. While those scores are iconic and are filled with numerous themes that are quite memorable, his work here on the first Iron Man frankly leaves a lot to be desired.
Also worth noting for the purposes of context is that at the time Iron Man was a pretty big risk on Marvel’s part. Though Marvel movies like X-Men and Spider-Man had been made before, the production process was very different prior to Iron Man. Before, studios would buy the film rights to each of the properties and develop, produce and distribute the movies themselves. Iron Man was developed and produced by the newly created Marvel Studios, with Paramount handling distribution. Basically, Marvel made the movie themselves and then sold the distribution rights to the highest bidder. This meant substantially more risk — Iron Man had a production budget of $140 million and I’m assuming Marvel had to put up all of it — but also much more reward should the movie do well (which it did). Well, nearly 16 months after Iron Man hit theaters, Marvel was purchased by Disney for over $4 billion and the rest is history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe is now the highest-grossing franchise of all time at the worldwide box office.
Do any of the MCU movies rank among my all-time favorites? No. There’s pretty much a zero percent chance any of these MCU movies will end up on my eventual 100 favorite movies of all time list when I put that together at some point in the future. In terms of actually rating these movies on a scale of 0 to 10, I can’t imagine I will score any of them above a 9. If all-time classics like The Godfather or Saving Private Ryan are necessarily a 10, then certainly even the best MCU movies aren’t on that level. Frankly, they aren’t even on the same level as Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, The Dark Knight or The Dark Knight Rises, which are the best movies of their kind. (And all three do rank among my favorite movies.) As for the MCU movies like Iron Man, Black Panther and Captain Marvel that dip a toe into science fiction too, certainly none of them are as good as the best sci-fi action movies like Terminator 2, The Matrix, Inception or The Empire Strikes Back. So while Iron Man is liked pretty universally and most would probably rate it higher than an 8, to me an 8 is a pretty high score. It’s a solid effort that still holds up well.
For a review of how Iron Man looks and sounds on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, check out the review over at Blu-ray.com. Keep in mind that even though Iron Man was shot on 35mm film using Super 35 film stock, it was finished on a 2K digital intermediate (or DI). Therefore it is impossible to go back to the original camera negative (OCN) and create a true 4K scan of Iron Man. (Well, you could, but it would mean having to create all of the visual effects again from scratch, which isn’t going to happen.) Finishing a movie digitally like that means that the completed movie is forever locked at the resolution in which it is completed — in this case, 2K. So while movies finished on a 2K DI will look better in 4K than they do in 2K (1080p Blu-ray), the 4K image will just be an upscale of that original 2K image rather than a native 4K image. One of the reasons why I firmly believe 4K is a home video standard that will last quite a long time is because we will see diminishing returns by making the leap to 8K or 16K on all of these movies that have been finished at 2K rather than on film or on a 4K DI.
Quick timeline: the first movie finished on a 2K DI was O Brother, Where Art Thou? in 2000 — prior to that, movies were finished on film without exception. The first movie to be finished on a 4K DI was Spider-Man 2 in 2004, though apparently the visual effects were still created at 2K and then were just upscaled to 4K in the DI. A behind the scenes observation you may find interesting (and somewhat troubling): Of the 23 MCU movies made so far, 22 have all been finished on a 2K DI, likely because they are so dominated by visual effects created at 2K resolution. (The outlier, for some reason, is Black Panther, which was shot digitally at 3.4K and finished on a 4K DI.) So if you start to watch a lot of 4K content and wonder why some movies don’t truly wow you in 4K, chances are this is the primary reason: you’re just watching an upscaled image that can’t take full advantage of the 4K format. The movies that receive top scores for 4K video quality on Blu-ray.com are ones that were either finished on film like Glory, The Matrix and E.T. or were finished on a 4K DI like The Revenant and Blade Runner 2049.