RECAP: Iron Man

Iron Man (2008): Jon Favreau

The first of many, many entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Iron Man introduces film audiences to Tony Stark, the richest self-made superhero since that guy in a bat suit.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: A rich playboy, captured by enemies in Afghanistan, builds a flying armored weapon and becomes a new hero. 

Hero (8/10)

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is the world’s most famous and successful scientist, as capable with the ladies as he is with a blueprint or line of code. You might find him on the cover of Forbes, Rolling Stone, or Time in a given month.

His company, Stark Industries, founded by Tony’s father, manufactures America’s most destructive weapons. Its newest weapon, the Jericho missile system, Tony will debut to the US Army deep in enemy territory in Afghanistan. That’s where Iron Man opens, in a humble convoy on a dirt road.

I AM A GOD: not a line from Tony’s mouth, but you’d believe he would say it.

Stark sits in a back seat, sipping a dark liquor, answering questions and taking photos. One soldier asks him if it’s true that he went 12 for 12 one year with the Maxim calendar models. He missed one of the months, but December was twins, so in a way it’s true.


Out of nowhere a bomb explodes a lead humvee. Stark scrambles for cover. He finds ordnance about to explode beside him and with STARK INDUSTRIES emblazoned on its side. Oh the irony. Stark survives the attack, but he wakes in an enemy cave with a hunk of metal embedded in his chest and connected by wires to a car battery. That’s unusual.

The attack blasted shrapnel through Stark’s chest armor. A doctor, Yinsen (Shaun Toub), installed an electromagnet that repels the metal shards slowly working their way toward Stark’s heart. Luckily the local Taliban tribe had also imprisoned a heart surgeon before Stark arrived, or the CEO of Stark Industries would be dead.

Stark might be a pretty boy, and he might be an arrogant lothario, but we learn about Stark’s true genius while he’s locked in that cave. Stark and Yinsen are ordered to build a fancy new Jericho missile for the Taliban. They receive one week. Stark calls bullshit. He’s got a better plan. One week later, he blasts his way out of his prison using the first Iron Man (Mark I) suit. A new hero is born.

Cool cars, cooler tech

Robert Downey Jr. reignited his career playing Iron Man, and he hasn’t come down yet. He reportedly made $500,000 for the first movie, and he earned every penny. At the time, Downey Jr. was considered a risk. His drug and alcohol problems were well known and often ridiculed. Iron Man offered him a chance at redemption, and he smashed it out of the park.

It’s hard to imagine Downey Jr. and Tony Stark as different people. Stark speaks as fast as he thinks, and he thinks about everything. Dauntless, no challenge is too tough for Stark. He should have died in that Afghanistan cave, but instead he built a miniaturized arc reactor and a mobile armored flying suit that killed dozens of armed freedom fighters. All in a week.

Stark returns to his Malibu crash pad and declares that Stark Industires will no longer make weapons, effective immediately. The company’s stock takes a nose dive, but Stark doesn’t care; he retreats to his workshop to tinker on his new project: a better Iron Man suit.

Charming montages of designs and test flights follow. Stark’s best friends are semi-intelligent robotic arms and his self-designed AI Jarvis (Paul Bettany). And his assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). As Stark tells her, she’s all he’s got. In one scene Stark asks Pepper to switch out his arc reactor for a better model, a task she despises, but Stark had nowhere else to turn. As Yinsen says in the cave, “You’re a man who has everything, and nothing.”

Pepper literally keeps Stark’s heart beating.

Stark recovers from his trip to the cave and works out many kinks with the Iron Man suit. Not one to throttle back, Stark nearly dies on his first test flight when he tries to break the world altitude flight record and his suit freezes. Pretty soon after that his partner at Stark Industires, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) tries to kill him, again, by removing the arc reactor in Stark’s chest.

Not even removing Stark’s heart, so to speak, can stop him. This fact alone, more than the suit’s powers, more than his wealth, more than his charm, proves that Tony Stark has the mettle to be a superhero.

Villain (5/10)

Obadiah Stane cofounded Stark Industries with Howard Stark, Tony’s father. The elder Stark is dead while Stane is still kicking. A little balder and fatter perhaps, Stane hasn’t lost his competitive edge.

For much of Iron Man Stane plays Stark’s protective guardian. He runs the company while Stark recovers from his sojourn in Afghanistan. He speaks for Stark at the board meetings the young genius can’t be bothered to attend. He always brings back pizza.

The terrorists who attacked and kidnapped Stark weren’t randomly targeting an American convoy. They were ordered to kidnap the VIP target traveling that day. Ordered by Stane. Ordered to kill Stark. Whether Stane believes Stark is a liability for the company or he wants all the power is never clear. Stane doesn’t seem jealous, just greedy.


Whatever his reasons for wanting to kill Stark, they change when he learns about the arc reactor and the Iron Man suit. “When I ordered the hit on you,” he says after removing the reactor from his chest, “I was worried that I was killing the golden goose.” Stark chokes on these words, or it could be the cardiac arrest. Either way, he looks bad. “You really think that just because you have an idea, it belongs to you? Your father, he helped give us the atomic bomb. Now what kind of world would it be today if he was as selfish as you?”

Fair question. I hardly see why Stane felt compelled to murder Stark for it. “For thirty years, I’ve been holding you up,” he says to Stark. “I built this company up from nothing! Nothing’s gonna stand in my way.” That must be the reason. Stark wants the company to no longer make weapons; Stane does.

Bridges brings chumminess to a world-beating CEO and budding megalomaniac. I find it impossible to divorce The Dude from Bridges roles, but Iron Man does a fair job by making its villain bald. When he dons the massive armored suit to try to kill Stark, you can feel his joy building.

Action/Effects (4/10)

Stark has one week to build a Jericho missile in a dusty cave. He doesn’t. Instead he builds a small arc reactor to prevent shrapnel from turning his heart into a pin cushion, and he builds the most sophisticated armored weapon suit in the history of mankind. All while being hungover for a day or two and having the threat of death hanging over him.

In short, Tony Stark’s week in an Afghanistan cave was one of the most successful inventive periods in the history the human race. Perhaps all geniuses should be locked in dark rooms and forced to labor around the clock.

Stark builds the first Iron Man suit, but he has to survive the trek outside before he can use the idea to change the world. He hides the important work from the cameras watching his every move. Fortunately, most of the bad guys are too dumb to realize what he’s doing.

Raza (Faran Tahir), though, the chief terrorist, he knows something is up. He gives Stark a final day to finish or he’ll shove hot coals down the doctor’s throat. Later that day Stark’s ready to go. He puts on the suit. The bad guys approach the large iron door. It’s boobytrapped, and when they touch it, it explodes. Go time.

Yinsen uploads a program, but it’s taking too much time. Some guys are coming. Guys with guns. Yinsen runs off with a gun to scare the guys away. To his credit, he sticks to his Hippocratic credo and does no harm.

Well, program uploads, and it zaps the energy from the lights in the cave. This was a cool trick. Proto Iron Man steps through the cave system like an ancient demon reborn to light. The lighting in the scene excels, shining on a bad guy’s face before a dark metallic hand swats it ten yards back. Gunfire illuminates the darkness, strobing Stark’s suit as he bashes flesh bags into rock walls, sending their souls to Allah.

Iron Man clomps in the darkness, taking hundreds of rounds. Without guns, Iron Man kills his enemies with motor-assisted punches and clotheslines. The metallic and whirring sounds make you wince with each punch.

Some frightened bad guys run from Iron Man and try sealing him in a corridor with iron doors. We watch their frightened faces as Iron Man bangs and clangs three times, the doors bursting on the third strike, one door crushing an enemy. Iron Man marches on.

After punching another guy, Iron Man’s arm is stuck in the rock wall. A bad guy creeps behind, points his pistol at Iron Man’s head, and shoots. The bullet ricochets back into the bad guy. Iron Man barely notices.

A bloody Yinsen is around the corner. Stark yells for him. “Watch out!” the doctor chokes out. Raza is there, looking bored, shooting a grenade at Iron Man. Miss. Stark arms a rocket on his left arm and shoots it, also missing, though the flames will scar Raza.

Yinsen is near death. “I want this,” he repeats. He will see his family soon. “Thank you for saving me,” Stark mumbles, in his only spot of humility. “Don’t waste it,” Yinsen says, and dies.

There’s still a lot of guys who need to die. They stand at the cave’s mouth, guns pointed, ready but nervous. The cave’s mouth is dark, the only sound is the deep rumble of Iron Man’s trotting as he emerges from the cave.

Iron Man stands still as hundreds of rounds strike him. The men stop firing. “My turn,” Stark says. Iron Man’s arms eject two streaks of flame that engulf the men and the crates of weapons they protect. Iron Man walks through the depot burning everything like a vengeful god.

His turn

On the hill is a .50 caliber machine gun. That’s the first weapon to slow Iron Man, who drops to a knee after a bullet breaks a tread working the leg gears. More explosions and bursts of flame.

Time to hit the eject button. Iron Man activates the foot rockets, and just in time, because all the munitions in the area explode in a gargantuan, earth-shaking eruption of fire. Iron Man streaks out of the conflagration long enough to reach an altitude where his rockets choke and send him crashing into the sand. Sand is soft, but it ain’t that soft.

Iron Man’s cave birth lacks the style, polish, and choreography of later Iron Man action sequences, but it’s my favorite. Brute force, dirty mechanics, scary imagery and symbology, and actual fear and humility from Stark make it the most visceral and grounding action bit.

Sidekicks (5/8)

Pepper: You get the feeling that Pepper Potts could be a superhero in her own rights. Fierce loyalty and determination, unwavering respect for a boss who doesn’t respect himself, willingness to sacrifice all personal goals for a higher cause (Tony Stark), and moving well in high heels, Pepper can do anything she sets her mind to. Put her on new Rosie Riveter posters.

Few actors have perfected the amiable blonde aesthetic like Gwyneth Paltrow. Her skills shine in Iron Man. As Stark’s personal assistant, she’s never not on duty. She doesn’t live in Stark’s mansion, but why not? She can’t afford to live within 10 miles of his house, so the commute must be killer, and you know Tony has called her at least once in every hour of the day. Life never stops for Tony Stark; why should it for his assistant?

Pepper takes out the trash, too.

The Tony/Pepper relationship develops slowly until a charity function throws all the wrenches into it. Stark, feeling needy, dances with Pepper. “Am I making you uncomfortable?” he asks. “Oh, no,” Pepper says, “I always forget to wear deodorant and dance with my boss in a room full of people I work with in a dress with no back.” Stark jokes that he could fire her to make he feel better about it. In 2017, it’s easy to imagine Stark being slapped with a sexual harassment suit.

Later, working with S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, one of them tries to open a locked door, placing a device on it. “Oh wow,” Pepper says. “what’s that? It’s like a thing that’s going to pick the lock?” So cute, so innocent. Pepper is too good for this world.

Early on, Pepper states that she does anything and everything Mr. Stark requires. Later, he requires her to break into Stane’s office and download all the secret files he has, which include proof that Stane ordered Stark’s capture and murder. Is she more loyal than gutsy? Hard to say, but Pepper’s got plenty of both traits.

Rhodes: Col. James Rhodes might call himself Stark’s friend. How a lothario industrialist became friends with an Air Force officer is a story left untold. They are buds, the proof is in the cell phone. Stark is “The Starkster” in Rhodes’s phone.

Rhodes on the left, director Jon Favreau in the middle.

Rhodes doesn’t have much to do beyond preventing the Air Force from shooting down Iron Man as the latter violates a no-fly zone above Afghanistan. Stark asks him to keep the skies clear for the climactic battle with Stane, and he does.

Yinsen: The doctor plays a perfect early mentor role. He’s wise, confident, and a moral compass for the wayward not-yet-hero. Yinsen creates the device that saves Stark’s life after the Humvee attack. He helps Stark build the first Iron Man suit, and, most importantly, he gives his life so Stark might live. Yinsen, dying in the cave, beckons Stark to let him die. “You’re going to go see your family,” Stark says. Yinsen’s family is already dead. “This was always the plan,” the doctor says.

Dr. Yinsen

Jarvis: As English as voices get, Jarvis is Stark’s personal digital assistant. Somehow it got a snooty sense of humor to go with Eaton debonair attitude (Jarvis probably went to Eaton. Oh, right, it’s a computer program. How silly of me.) After Stark completes the second Iron Man suit, he wants it painted. Gold should do, but, seeing a classic car in his collection, he asks Jarvis to add a little hotrod red. “Yes, that should help you keep a low profile,” Jarvis says, the definition of sarcastic.

Henchmen (3/8)

A grim-faced terrorist leader, Raza runs the cave that imprisons Stark. While his underlings seem to enjoy their work, Raza is all business. He orders Stark to build him a Jericho missile, and he’s prepared to jam a hot coal down Yinsen’s throat to get it.

Ordered to capture and execute Stark, Raza fails. He doesn’t stop when Stark escapes the cave. He combs the desert for the exploded remnants of the first suit, piecing it together to give to Stane as a way to say he’s sorry he didn’t kill the most famous CEO in the world. That’s not enough to save his life. Stane kills him anyway. Tough guy, tough death.

Stunts (1/6)

At a charity gala, Stark learns that Raza and his cronies have raided an Afghanistan village called Galmira and attacked it with stolen Jericho missiles. Iron Man mad now. Stark leaves the gala, returns to his house, and suits up for the first mission of his long career as Iron Man. He flies to Galmira.

Raza’s number two man leads the attack on the village. He and the men round up screaming villagers, separating the adult males from their families. The bad guy calls the locals “dogs.” One is about to get shot, when all the bad guys stop to look up in the sky at the rocket screeching their way.

Except, hey, isn’t that a person? It sure is. It’s Iron Man. Wordlessly Iron Man lands in front of a bad guy and punches him into a ruined wall 20 yards away and 10 feet high. He uses his hands to shoot energy bursts at three shooters, sending one body crashing through a concrete wall.

These villains are not amateur killers. Five of the quickly turn their guns on the villagers, using them as human shields, shouting at Iron Man. Iron Man lowers his hands and uses Jarvis to target the enemies, separating them from the civilians. Shoulder-mounted rockets pop up and shoot the baddies like darts, dropping them at once.

Iron Man walks to find the chief culprit here, throwing him to the surviving villagers. “He’s all yours,” Iron Man says. Treat people like dogs, and those dogs will turn on you.

Iron Man flies away, searching for the stolen Jericho missiles. He finds them, when all of a sudden he’s shot from the sky by the best tank gunner in the Eastern Hemisphere.

With a grunt and a thud Iron Man hits the Earth. The suit is fine. Another shell streaks past him as he stands. Iron Man pops off a tiny rocket that attaches to the tank. Iron Man walks away as the tank explodes.

Iron Man rises, targets the missiles, and hits them with a high blast of hand energy, detonating the missiles and killing several bad guys in their wake.

Hey, Iron Man is a good guy!

A terrific dogfighting sequence follows. Iron Man shows off supersonic speed, flares, flaps, and cell phone comms while taking fire from an F-22. Iron Man streaks and twirls through the skies as fast as a fighter jet. This is a solid action scene but the stunts are light, thus the lower score.

Climax (3/6)

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. descend on Stark Industries to arrest Stane for murder or sabatoge or something. Stark, upon hearing this, says that they won’t be enough.

The agents search the basement lab beneath the giant arc reactor. Water-refracted light shimmers on the walls. Chains dangle and clink together. They appear cocky.

Pepper is first to spot Stane in the upgraded original Iron Man suit (Iron Monger), whose eyes light up in the dark. She screams and runs as the agents open fire. The camera pulls away down a corridor as Pepper runs in heels to escape. Iron Monger kills a couple agents, chases Pepper, and is stopped by a thick wall.

Meanwhile, Iron Man suits up in his garage. Rhodes looks on. “That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” he says. And it is. It is very cool. Iron Man blasts out of a hole he made earlier in his home.

Stark gets on the horn with Pepper, who’s outside the arc reactor building. “Obadiah, he’s gone insane,” she says while Stane is breaking through the parking lot like a robotic zombie. He points a rotating machine gun at Pepper and politely releases her from her employment with Stark Industries. At that moment Iron Man streaks in and clobbers Iron Monger through a wall, onto the highway, and through a truck trailer.

Iron Monger lifts an SUV with a family inside. “I love this suit,” he says. Won’t somebody please think of the children. Iron Man uses his chest to beam energy at his opponent and catches the SUV while he’s at it.

Iron Monger nearly beheads a motorcyclist, uses the bike as a club, and smashes Iron Man into a bus in the opposite lanes. “I built this company from nothing,” Iron Monger yells while he’s pummeling his younger partner in the firm. Thirty years he’s been holding Stark up. So this was all about pride? Imagine that.

Iron Monger shoots a missile into the bus that clearly states it to be HYDROGEN POWERED. The bus explodes. Hydrogen explodes. Did you flunk out of high school, Obadiah?

Iron Man, below 20% power, takes off. He’s got an idea, and he won’t let Jarvis’s prattling about declining power stop him. “I’ve made some upgrades of my own,” Iron Monger says, taking off like a Saturn V. The larger suit is slower but has more thrust, so it will catch Iron Man.

Iron Man flies to maximum altitude. His opponent catches him. The bad guy is about to win. Stark says, “How’d you solve the icing problem?” Iron Monger is like huh? The suit ices. Iron Man bops him on the head, and the broken machine falls to Earth.

Movie over.

Psych! Stark lands on the roof of his namesake company and removes some of his armor. Iron Monger appears from nowhere, somehow still alive, and they fight.

Iron Man’s best defense is a classic move known to all younger, smaller siblings: hop on their back and grab at stuff. “This looks important,” Iron Man says, pulling a cable or two. Turns out it was the targeting system. That comes into play when Tony, unmasked, stands on the glass ceiling above the giant arc reactor and gets shot at by a missile.

Stark has a reason for standing on a glass roof. He wants Pepper to blow the giant arc reactor at the proper moment. Pepper, understandably, hesitates. “You’re going to do it!” Stark screams.

“I’m deeply enjoying the suit,” Stane says. He’s opened his armor because many of the weapons systems are damaged. He crushes Iron Man’s helmet and tosses the metal husk at Stark.

It’s wire-pulling time!

“How ironic, Tony! Trying to rid the world of weapons, you gave it its best one ever! And now, I’m going to kill you with it!” That’s as comic book-y as a villain’s dialogue gets. Stane shoots the glass roof with machine gun bullets, Stark blocking the rounds with his armored wrist.

Down below, the palladium gas is ready. The reactor only needs Pepper to push a red button. “Just do it” Stark shouts. “You’ll die!” Pepper screams. To her credit, she follows her boss’s order.

The blue blast shoots skyward. It knocks Stark, who was directly in its path, to the side. Stane, who remains in his suit, is shocked and killed. I didn’t understand that, either.

A huge explosion destroys Stark Industries. Stark lies on the roof, his arc reactor flickering.

At a press conference held the next day, Stark fields questions from a combative press member. She tries to link Stark to Iron Man. Stark, perhaps suffering from PTSD, several bouts of PTSD layered atop each other, stumbles through an alibi. Finally, fed up with scripts, he gives the press what it wants.

“I am Iron Man.”

Now the movie is over.

Jokes (3/4)

Here’re some choice Stark lines: “If you douse me again, and I’m not on fire, I’m donating you to a city college.”; “Good God, you’re a woman! I honestly, I couldn’t have called that. I mean, I would apologize, but isn’t that what we’re going for here? I thought of you as a soldier first.”; Is it true that you went twelve-for-twelve with the Maxim Girls last year? “Yes and no. March and I had a scheduling conflict but fortunately the Christmas cover was twins.”

Stark’s machine-gun speech makes you laugh. Lonely, he treats his AI like friends. Downey Jr. keeps Stark at a measured tone. When Pepper electrocutes him changing his reactor core and when he’s flying above Afghanistan, Stark sounds as if both affect him equally.

Setting (2/4)

On the Malibu cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean sits Tony Stark’s $117 million pad. How do I know it costs that much? Some guy did the calculations.

Stark’s house

Stark spends most of his time in the basement, and by basement I mean a 1,000-square-foot garage/shop. It’s got the fastest cars and strongest data processors money can buy, and in the case of the processors, money can’t buy, because only Stark owns it.

Deep inside an Afghanistan cavern lies a group of warriors, determined to throw off the shackles of American colonial…ah, who cares? Tony Stark in the house!

The unnamed group of fighters has created a cave system and a vast store of weapons. Most of the time we spend with Stark and the doctor in their prison/workshop, a huge room that hints at larger spaces under the mountain.

Building the first Iron Man suit in a cave.

Once Raza orders Stark to build a rocket, Stark is locked in the workshop. It’s a damp, dark space, as far from his Malibu pad as could be. That’s the point. The cave strips Stark’s technological advantages, leaving only his mind, scraps of metal, and some soldering tools.

Stark busts out of the cave, setting many parts of it on fire. The system is broken into rooms, lights bolted to the walls, a true test of Stark’s internal powers that he aces.

Commentary (1/2)

Stark has a come-to-Jesus moment when he sees terrorists stockpiling and using his weapons. He never realized that democracy doesn’t have a monopoly on the better weapons. After spending a week in a cave he decides that his company will no longer sell weapons. Hey, if only all companies thought that way.

Stane makes a point that Tony’s father helped invent the atomic bomb. He was not so selfish as Tony to hold onto important weapons technology. Stane believes that an idea cannot be owned by a person. He probably supports a company owning a patent, nearly the same thing, but such a thought wouldn’t occur to Stane.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

Stark is a cad to say the least, and he outright disrespects the only reporter with any lines, Leslie Bibb as Christine Everhart before she falls for his bluster and sleeps with him. It’s a bit lame, but everyone seems to love Stark.


  • I see you, Audi, putting your cars in Iron Man.

Summary (35/68): 51%

Marvel staked A LOT on its cinematic universe, and much of its success rode on the first film in the series, Iron Man. Did executives dare hope for what they achieved?

Finishing at the box office behind only the original self-made billionaire playboy crime fighter–The Dark KnightIron Man outearned a Pixar Best Picture nominee, the return of Indiana Jones, Twilight, Will Smith, and James Bond.

Could Marvel’s future succeed as it has without the committed and terrific Robert Downey Jr.? We don’t have to worry about it.