Iron Man was never supposed to be the frontman. Or to put it another way, he was hardly the most appealing focal point when looking at the cast of characters Marvel has available. It is important to understand the context in which it came to pass that Iron Man would lead the MCU’s crusade into becoming what is so far the century’s defining pop culture franchise. Marvel Comics was facing oblivion. They had sold the rights to their classic characters (Spider-Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four) to various studios in an attempt to stave off bankruptcy. This was not working. And so when Disney came in with an offer to create an Iron Man film, with a vision to work towards an Avengers film, they couldn’t accept the deal more quickly. Iron Man may not have been Disney’s first choice had Marvel’s whole cast been on the table, but as it stood, he was — in their eyes — the best of the rest. This led to two films that defined the attitude of MCU films but have a bluntness to them that more recent instalments have learnt to hide.
Iron Man (2008) begins with Tony Stark – a billionaire arms dealer – seeing his hubris come to a head. He is shown to be an egotist, a misogynist, and most of all, a capitalist – a man who puts nothing before profit. During the course of the film, we see Stark go from vulnerable captive to — using his scientific genius — invulnerable superhero. He creates a suit of armour with weapon capabilities beyond anything his company or even the U.S. government has ever seen. The film sees him become Iron Man, someone who would fly halfway across the world to stop a racist stereotype – I mean terrorist cell – from attacking a village. Tony is goaded into protecting this village when someone dares question why the insurgents are using his company’s weapons. His nefarious business partner has been selling to both sides, but this does not erase the fact that Stark rescued the village to save face. The film may try to frame this incident as him being upset by the harm his weapons cause, but this is unconvincing. He is an arms dealer. He has seen firsthand how his weapons can harm people, which led to him creating the superweapon he begins to inhabit.
Stark begins and ends the film as an egotist. Once the world (or the reputation of his company) is saved, he decides to ignore his advisor’s advice and announce to the world that it is he, Tony Stark, who is the man behind the mask. Iron Man can be seen as an evolution of the Reagan-era action film, individualism is king – but paired with this comes exceptionalism and, of course, a divine right. Stark is not the off-duty cop scaling a skyscraper to save his love; he is far from the everyman. He is the scientific genius billionaire playboy, an ideal we are supposed to strive towards, and what is this ideal? A private individual acting unregulated, who spouts fairly misogynistic rhetoric quite regularly, and is actively affecting geopolitics. Stark is, supposedly, just doing what any of us would do were we in his position. We should not question his motives, he is a superhero, they save the day— end of discussion. When we dig into his motives in this film, we see that it is actually a film all about saving his own skin. In Iron Man 2 (2010), the story twists, and Stark must now fight to preserve his individualism.
Iron Man 2 opens with Stark facing pressure from the U.S. government to hand over the Iron Man suit, letting it become state-owned, as — according to the government — no private individual should own such a weapon. This leads to Stark literally saying “I have privatised world peace,” leading to rapturous applause. The film is so transparent in being about the rejection of state-owned projects, and the glorification of privatisation and deregulation. t’s almost hard to believe — from its villain, a remnant of the Soviet Union (what more significant symbol exists of the supposed failure of state-owned projects), to the cameo of Stark’s friend Elon Musk, a notorious union-buster who himself attempts outlandish projects using his “genius” (see wealth), however somewhat less successfully than his onscreen pal. Again Stark’s nemesis is a fellow capitalist; however, what becomes clear upon watching the films in tandem is that these villains are to be seen as bad apples. For every Tony Stark, you get an Obadiah Stane. Is the trade-off not worth it?
The first two Iron Man films, the beginning of the MCU, are films that set out the aims of a conglomerate— deregulation, reliance on the private sector, and trusting exceptional individuals over the community. This is something that the MCU would distance itself from as it grew in popularity and complexity. But initially, the original Iron Man films have more in common with a Reagan-era action film’s depiction of an ideal society than a typical Marvel comic’s vision. Given where these films have led to, with Disney now controlling Marvel as a whole and acquiring more and more beloved pieces of pop culture every day, the films come across as a bleak warning of what those behind the scenes believe. Tony Stark might not have been Disney’s first choice to front their new franchise back in 2008, but looking back, they were a match made in heaven.