“Iron Man” Fifteen Years Later: The Tech Superhero We Didn’t Know we Wanted

Recently I was on Tik Tok, and I came across a comic book content creator who was under fire from commenters who took issue with his claim that before he became a big screen hero, Iron Man was not at all popular. It’s quite the comical turn of events because if you were a fan of comic books in the late eighties throughout the nineties, Iron Man was not popular. Out of all the superheroes running during that time, Iron Man was at best a third tier superhero.

While The Punisher, Spider-Man, and X-Men were selling huge for Marvel Comics, Iron Man was low on the totem pole in terms of status and popularity. His series was constantly cancelled, rebooted, and restarted, while his alternate War Machine became the more celebrated of the pair. While he was respected as one of the Avengers’ founders, he just wasn’t a popular or even appealing character.

It seems hard to believe but he was the character you bought when there was nothing else at the newsstand. For god sake his only big turn of popularity before 2008 was a 3D video game shared with obscure Valiant Comics superhero X-O Manowar. Don’t even get me started on “Guardians of the Galaxy.” But then came 2008 where the Jon Favreau gave us “Iron Man.” And he ended up being the big screen tech superhero that we didn’t know we wanted. “Iron Man” came primarily out of convenience as by then Marvel Studios had sold all of their biggest properties like “X-Men,” and “Spider-Man” to other studios. So instead they turned to their older superheroes and injected life in to them, and by god it worked. “Iron Man” came during an interesting time in pop culture.

It was at a time where superhero movies in general were lulling, and Marvel had yet to really prove how exciting their roster could be. Their hiring of Jon Favreau as director to bring forth Iron Man to the big screen seemed like a humongous gamble. But since 2008, Marvel has since made a ritual of gambling on their lesser known heroes, and most of time has come out winners. “Iron Man” set off what would become a game changing, influential chain reaction not just in the cinematic world but in the comic book movie genre. With Favreau and the late, great Stan Winston handling effects, everything fell right in to place. The topper on the cake was the casting of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark aka IronMan.

For those unaware, Downey Jr. was a big eighties movie star whose career tanked in the late nineties due to his substance abuse problems. Despite some meaty supporting roles in TV series like “Ally McBeal,” his only really notable role at the time was as Lois Griffin’s fatphobic, serial killer brother in “Family Guy.” Ironically, “Iron Man” not only injected new life in to Marvel, and their IP Iron Man, but it revived Robert Downey Jr.’s career without a doubt. Downey Jr.’s casting as the smug, often self deprecating Tony Stark was a masterstroke of movie casting as Downey Jr. just was an absolute natural in the role.

Downey Jr. isn’t just epitome of brilliant casting but his performance is absolutely dynamite. He gives such an enthusiastic turn as Tony Stark that not even the live action metal suit can steal the attention away from him. Adding folks like Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard, and Jon Favreau (as Stark’s hapless assistant Happy Hogan), and “Iron Man” is something of a mini-masterpiece. While since then there’s been a lot of debate about whether or not the Marvel movies can be appreciated as a stand alone, “Iron Man” most certainly can.

This is because at the time the idea of a cinematic universe seemed more like wishful thinking than a bonafide blue print set in stone. While cinematic universes were not a new concept in the film medium, the whole concept of a cinematic universe of superhero films was far-fetched in 2008.

However, “Iron Man” while working as a wonderful stand alone adventure of the “bucket head,” also gave us (what was then considered) an Easter egg in the closing credits, as Nick Fury in the flesh approaches Tony about “The Avengers Initiative.” It’s such a bit of nostalgia to see Marvel’s first big gamble. If “Iron Man” flopped then fine, it was a fun Easter egg to debate online. But “Iron Man” was a big hit and history was made. “Iron Man” on its own still holds up to this day as a raucous and fun iteration of Iron Man.

It’s filled with excellent dialogue, some top notch performances, and iconic moments including Iron Man’s battle with a tank, and his race with Fighter Jets. “Iron Man” wasn’t just a great adaptation and a great superhero movie, but it also gave us a peek in to the awe inspiring Marvel universe. “Iron Man” thankfully got the surge in popularity that he deserved for years, going from a running joke to a big moneymaking IP that garnered a new legion of fans, many of whom had never picked up a comic before 2008.

The rest was cinematic history. From that point on, “Iron Man” became the linchpin that held together what would become known as the MCU for many years. He ended up becoming the superhero we didn’t know we wanted.