Ten years ago today, AC/DC launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not literally of course, but it’s not a lie. Kevin Feige, Stan Lee, Robert Downey Jr., Jon Favreau, and eventually Disney nursed it from its uncertain inception to its dominant present. But the first sounds that christened the audience into what would become the MCU wasn’t an obligatory English narrator silkily telling us a fictional history or CGI armies laying waste to faraway planet in which we have no emotional stakes. It was “Back In Back.” Malcolm and Angus Young’s legendary riff and Brian Johnson’s coarse shriek accompanying the image of a formidable military escort tearing its way down a sand road in the Kunar Province of Afghanistan – carrying Tony Stark with a drink in his hand. And like an AC/DC track, the MCU exploded from there and kept rocking a decade later with no signs of slowing down.
Ten years ago today, Iron Man came out in theaters, kicking off the MCU. The first movie released from Marvel Studios, Iron Man was far from a sure thing. Firstly the titular superhero wasn’t top tier; not many outside of Marvel Comics aficionado were as familiar with Iron Man as they were with Spider-Man or X-Men or the Fantastic Four.
Secondly was the star: Robert Downey Jr. We know RDJ now as a bonafide box office stud, but back in 2008 he was still very much a risk. He had a long history of drug abuse and arrests and was all but dead in Hollywood. Director Jon Favreau, of Swingers and Elf fame, lobbied hard for RDJ to be his Tony Stark but Marvel Studios, in its infancy at the time, wasn’t comfortable with the risk for what could be a potential franchise (It’s funny reading all this back now.) He was paid just $500,000 for Iron Man. Terence Howard, the original James Rhodes, earned $4.5 million, but was replaced by Don Cheadle due to salary discrepancies.
But it worked. In a summer that had movie audiences salivating over the long-awaited sequels for both Indiana Jones (Crystal Skull) and Batman (The Dark Knight), Iron Man was the dark horse. Using a script that was largely improvised and rewritten during production, Iron Man surprised everyone, earning $98 million in its opening weekend. Now that’s chump change compared to what MCU movies rake in now, but still a hell of a way begin something that would only grow. Without Tony listening to “Back in Black” in his humvee, there would be no Star-Lord girating to Redbone.
RDJ embodied everything we’ve come to know and love about Tony Stark: his humor, genius, leadership, resourcefulness, and ever-burgeoning humanity. He had no qualms about brushing off criticisms of his complacency regarding the destruction his weapons caused and God damnit if they weren’t executed soundly; even joking about how often he practices his responses in the mirror. But throughout the course of Iron Man and Avengers sequels, an imperfect Tony suffers the annoyances of a developing conscience. That started in Iron Man.
Held hostage in a cave in Afghanistan after his escort was attacked, Tony found himself bunking up with the embittered Yinsen, also being held hostage. Yinsen, unimpressed by Tony’s riches, humbled him down to size, reminding him that all he will be known for is designing weapons that kill innocent people. “That is your legacy, Stark.” Tony had no quips or insults or security escorts to whisk him away from this brutal truth. He sat there and took it, wondering what his future looked like, both inside the cave and, perhaps with luck, outside of it. Tony with the help of Yinsen built the Mark I, the very first Iron Man suit, out of parts given to him so he may build a deadly missile for terrorists. Tony suited up and shot his way out of the cave with Yinsen firing ahead with a rifle he grabbed from a dead bad guy. Only Yinsen was shot. Tony went to help him up but he opted to remain there and die instead. With his dying words, he breathed to Tony: “Don’t waste your life.” And from there Tony Stark transformed forever. His emergence – “I am Iron Man” – brought on a larger world filled with allies and enemies, sometimes shuffling back and forth between the two.
In the MCU movies that followed, Tony had experienced triumphs and tragedies in his mission to keep the world, and universe, safe from threats he helped cause. He is very aware of the gallons of blood on his hands but he’s dedicated to ensuring that no more gets spilt. For one more movie at least, RDJ’s contract pending. But he looks like he’s having a blast though so let’s keep our fingers crossed for more.
Happy 10th birthday to Iron Man: the one that started it all, always number one with a bullet and a power pack.