The Marvel Cinematic Universe began in 2008 with Iron Man. The twenty-two movie cycle ended in 2019 with Avengers: Endgame. It is a great moment to review the entire series, starting at the beginning.
(Mild spoilers ahead)
Iron Man is directed by Jon Favreau who was relatively unknown director at the time. Having only directed three movies of which only one had financial success, the freshly created Marvel Studios took a big risk. Robert Downey Jr. was then cast as Iron Man. Although critically acclaimed, Downey Jr. had never gotten a lead role in a big blockbuster type movie. 2008 turned out to be his year after the success of both Iron Man and Tropic Thunder, a satirical comedy in which he portrays a black actor named Kirk Lazarus.
RDJ turned out to be a natural. His portrayal of Iron Man is flawless. Imagining Nicholas Cage or Tom Cruise as Iron Man (which they did consider at certain points in time) sounds ridiculous. Downey Jr. is supported by the always lovely Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Tony Stark’s assistant, although she occasionally takes out the ‘trash’, Stark’s many one time flings, including the reporter Christine Everhart (Leslie Bibb). While Tony spends much of his time ‘working’, his father’s friend and Tony’s mentor Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), runs the company.
Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Terence Howard) is Stark’s friend in the Air Force. Leading the experimental weapons division, he works closely with Stark Industries. They travel together to Afghanistan for a weapons demonstration. Stark is there to introduce the latest weapon in his “Freedom line”, the Jericho missile. While leaving after finishing the demonstration, Rhodes is left out of the ‘FunVee’ by Stark. This is where things start going wrong. The convoy gets attacked and Tony is abducted.
Starting a (Cinematic) Universe
Marvel Studios intended to start a cinematic universe all along, but they never lost focus: Make a good movie first, focus on the universe second. That is exactly what they did with Iron Man. They delivered a good movie.
Tony Stark, although a bit narcissistic, is a very likable protagonist. The choices he makes and the path he takes make sense. The abduction serves as a catalyst and changes his personality noticeably. He is confronted with the consequences of his own actions. This is a theme that stays consistent throughout the MCU: Consequences matter. Many movies and television series build suspense for the sake of it, only for the hero to prevail at the final second, no matter the odds. Marvel builds suspense and although the hero prevails (most of the time), he is changed. Heroes in the MCU are made human unlike other heroes. Only few others have succeeded in doing this, most notably Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.
The set-up for the MCU only takes place after the actual movie has finished. In the end credits scene Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) hints at something more and we are left hungry for more. Good movie first, universe building second.
I am Iron Man.