Iron Man

If you visit the Library of Congress’ Film Registry page, as of the time of this writing, you’ll be met by a picture of Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man getting ready to fire a rocket into a tank. It was taken from one of the most important sequences not just of the 2008 movie that carries the name of the iconic superhero, but of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe: the debut of the Mark I Iron Man suit. People who saw the 1978 Superman movie believed a man could fly. Audiences who saw Iron Man on the big screen, in his red and yellow armor, believed a new age of moviemaking had begun. The Age of the MCU.

The National Film Registry’s annual selection of culturally and aesthetically important films deserving of preservation has finally inducted an MCU movie into the list with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (2008). A total of 25 movies are inducted each year with the intention of showcasing the range and diversity of America’s film heritage, all for the purpose of raising awareness and ensuring survival.

Iron Man joins only two other superhero films previously selected for preservation, Richard Donner’s Superman and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). Other movies inducted into the registry this year include Carrie (1976), Super Fly (1972), The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez (1982), House Party (1990), and The Little Mermaid (1989).

Iron Man holds an interesting place in superhero movie history. It’s considered the origin story for an entire cinematic universe without actually being the first superhero movie ever, not by a long shot. Characters like Blade, the X-Men, and Spider-Man had already developed their own story worlds with recurring characters and branching storylines (2005’s Elektra, for instance, comes out of 2003’s Daredevil movie and Wolverine got his own line of movies that spiraled out of the X-Men films).

Before Iron Man, though, these franchises stuck to their own worlds rather than being brought together within a shared universe. We could expect sequels from each specific set of characters, but their worlds didn’t intersect, at least not directly.

Iron Man has to be credited with being one of the first movies to grow a comprehensive cinematic universe with characters crossing over freely and organically from movie to movie with a clearly defined line of continuity. That, in itself, is a crucial contribution to American cinema. By acting as a jumping-on point for new fans that didn’t necessarily need to have read the comics the character’s based on beforehand, Iron Man also became the origin story for an entirely new group of fans that would go on to ensure the success of new Marvel movies and the then highly anticipated assembling of the Avengers (which would happen in 2012).

Throughout the years, some have compared the MCU to the classic Universal Monsters movie universe. While there are some similarities, the Universal Monster-verse didn’t have a multiyear plan set up that would culminate in a team-up between Dracula, the Mummy, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Wolf Man. In fact, when these characters met it was usually presented in a fight-style format, not unlike a boxing match between two titans for the title of scariest monster. There wasn’t even much of a shared continuity to follow. These monsters would usually learn about the existence of the other in every new movie.

Director Favreau and producer’s Kevin Feige and Avi Arad (who’s credited with founding and running Marvel Studios until 2006, when he departed to create his own production company) took it a step further by making sure their movie had enough connective tissue to build a foundation on with subsequent Marvel movies. Feige would eventually emerge as the architect of the MCU, thus creating a standard that would follow other attempts at shared universes.

From then on, movie universes needed a leading creative engineer that would keep every project on the path towards a common goal. Kathleen Kennedy would fulfill that role for Star Wars (which started emulating the MCU with new movies and series that picked up on past events), Zack Snyder would attempt it with the DC Universe until his controversial departure (with James Gunn and Peter Safran taking over), and it can even be argued that Henry Cavill is now set to be that person for the Warhammer universe.

In a sense, Iron Man proved to be the first successful shot at the massive undertaking of building a whole universe of story, a risk that paid off and reshaped the blockbuster movie landscape in the image of the MCU. I don’t credit Star Wars or Lord of the Rings with this because they kept to a trilogy structure that had more self-contained goals in mind. After the MCU made its mark, both franchises have borrowed heavily from it.

Of course, a lot is owed to the way the Iron Man was put together as a story, along with the other expectations it put in place for future superhero movies. Among them, big name movie stars for hero and villain roles invested in accessible approaches to character development that were in it for the long run and that would have to represent the brand on multiple levels. In other words, superhero movie ambassadors.

Robert Downey Jr. made sure this part of the formula worked to perfection, putting on a performance that would immediately turn Tony Stark into the heart and soul of the upcoming Avengers movie. For fans, Downey Jr. was Tony Stark, the character in the flesh complete with his comic counterpart’s distinct personality and power metaphors. More so, he was the source code for the following Marvel movies. His film cameos and his ad campaign presence were all orchestrated to further the Marvel Studios mission.

To be fair, previous superhero movies were already aware of this, that iconic comic book characters required a special kind of casting. They demanded actors that could embody the power fantasy and spectacle that came with every aspect of their characters. Think of Michael Keaton’s Batman, Ian McKellen’s Magneto, or Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man. Recognizable actors that could shoulder the weight of portraying a popular fictional character that fans expected a lot from.

Downey Jr. delivered on this with an energy unmatched, becoming a cinematic entrepreneur both on and off the screen in the process. The actors I previously mentioned weren’t necessarily put in a position to do this with their films. Their stories were of a singular vision, focused on franchise-building. As was evidenced by the presence of Samuel Jackson’s Nick Fury in Iron Man‘s after-credits scene (the first of what would become a rule in Marvel films), becoming the core of a new cinematic ecosystem was very much a part of the design since the very beginning.

In fact, Fury drives the point home by saying: “You think you’re the only superhero in the world? Mr. Stark, you’ve become part of a bigger universe…I’m here to talk to you about the Avenger Initiative.” In the process he presents himself as the director of SHIELD and the rest is history. American cinema had just witnessed the beginning of an entire cultural shift.

From Iron Man onward, actors cast as superheroes would essentially have to accept that they were expected to stay in character in both the movie world and the real world, at least to a certain extent. If that weren’t hard enough, Downey Jr. set the bar ridiculously high. He’s still the example to follow.

Few movies in American film history, or any other film history for that matter, have had so much riding on their success as Iron Man did. This wasn’t an attempt at an epic trilogy or saga. It was an attempt at breathing life into a whole new galaxy of films. Iron Man was a new Big Bang for superhero movies when it released, an expansion of the comic book film cosmos. It was a movie that held the fate of so many other movies in its hands that it had no other choice than to succeed. There aren’t a lot of films that can lay claim to this. It’s reason enough to warrant the kind of recognition the National Film Registry affords, especially for a movie that contains an entire universe within it.


  1. Ambitious commercially perhaps, but definitely not artistically. Anyone who thinks Iron Man is an ambitious movie probably needs to watch a lot more non-genre filmmaking. It’s fine but formulaic to the bone, and even on those terms it’s really no groundbreaker. Certainly not on par with Star Wars , Fellowship of the Ring, or Raider of the Lost Ark, to name just a few National Film Registry-honored genre works.

    You’re making the typical blindered fan error of crediting a single film with everything that came after, as if the decade-plus of Marvel branded films to follow were somehow contained within that single film. That is not the case by any stretch of the imagination. And to credit the film itself with the marketing savvy and muscle that led to wider success of the Marvel film universe seems disingenuous at best, deliberately wrongheaded at worst.

    Even among superhero films I’d argue it’s less ambitious than Superman, because it was very much following a pre-existing template established by that earlier film, if followed up on less successfully in the years following. (I’d also argue The Matrix is essentially a superhero film, but that’s neither here nor there.)

    What Iron Man really represents is the vanguard of the corporate IP-driven model of film development that has consumed the past decade, many would argue to the detriment of the form itself. And its enshrinement seems less a recognition of some inherent quality of the film. than the financially successful franchise that it represents only one small part of.

Comments are closed.