When I wrote this article it was originally published on LRM, for which I am very grateful. It is published here with minimal modification for posterity.
By this time next year, the Marvel Cinematic Universe will be almost a decade old. That will mean 17 films, nine TV/Netflix series, and one bizarrely arranged IMAX/TV hybrid under its belt. Fingers are crossed that DCEU’s Wonder Woman and Justice League films will deliver, but unless something changes, “superhero fatigue” will be just another buzzword and moviegoers will still be flocking to theaters to savor every moment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
But Marvel wasn’t always such a safe bet.
Ten years ago the fledgling Marvel Studios made deals with Paramount and Merrill Lynch. Marvel put the up the film rights to the most popular characters (that they still held) as collateral on a $525 million loan. Considering production costs, distribution, and marketing, that means Marvel had just staked their existence on just two films. One of the two films was a quick reboot of the Incredible Hulk (the previous Ang Lee version had been released just 5 years earlier). The other was an Iron Man film that had been in development purgatory for nearly 20 years across four different studios. Long story short, Iron Man became a cultural touchstone and a critical and commercial success while The Incredible Hulk also happened.
Iron Man was successful for a number of reasons. Jon Favreau’s direction was on point. Visual effects were a spectacular and seamless blend of practical effects and CGI. The dialogue was great. Oh, and Robert Downey, Jr. was a revelation as Tony Stark. But, this was also based on a risk.
Nobody argued with Robert Downey Jr.’s talent. He had been producing phenomenal work since the 1970s, but there were other issues. For starters, hiring him often came with the added cost of “incarceration coverage” (LA Times, 1997) just in case he was arrested during filming. In fact, Mel Gibson had to foot the bill for RDJ insurance himself when filming The Singing Detective. (When researching this article, I tried to pin down the number of times that Downey was arrested prior to Iron Man and I pinned it down to around “several”). There was also the fact that Downey was then in his 40s. Studios usually went for a hot new rising talent in order to capitalize on sex appeal and keep contracts figures low.
However, with the critical and financial success of Johnny Depp after the Pirates of the Caribbean films (remember, Depp’s trajectory wouldn’t wain until after 2011’s On Stranger Tides), Favreau went to bat for Downey and successfully convinced the executives that using him was the only way to go. Favreau himself is quoted as saying, “The story of Iron Man was really the story of Robert’s career.” Robert Downey Jr. IS Tony Stark.
And on this rock, Marvel built its church.
The public couldn’t get enough of Downey as Tony Stark. Despite the issues with Edward Norton, Marvel quickly shot a scene to add Tony Stark into Incredible Hulk (turning the now-famous Marvel end-credit sequences from a thing that happened into a bonafide tradition). Iron Man 2 had everyone’s attention so it was modified to become a platform for expanding the MCU. Dialogue about Tony Stark was added into Thor, making sure the audience knew that Tony Stark was nearby. Tony Stark’s father Howard became a supporting character in Captain America: The First Avengers. The Avengers arrived a few years later and Tony Stark was front and center.
Tony Stark’s story was now the story of the MCU.
But what else was there? Phase Two did a great job of diversifying the narrative. Iron Man 3 wrapped up Tony’s arc and Thor continued on. Guardians of the Galaxy gave the MCU its first foray into unpopular characters and stories that “nobody had heard of,” and was a resounding success. Another surprise came from Captain America: Winter Soldier. Under the direction of the Russo brothers, Steve Rogers became a political allegory for America itself, juxtaposing freedom and security. It was a well executed modernization of a character that might have been dismissed as an unfortunate and necessary relic of the comic books. The MCU finally had two films and some major characters that had little to no influence from Tony Stark. The future of the MCU might be able to continue without Tony Stark and Robert Downey Jr.
But then they reversed course.
In Avengers: Age of Ultron Tony Stark creates Ultron to protect the world and Ultron decides to protect the world by destroying humanity (as one does). Oops? Two hours later Tony proceeds to try again (for science, I guess) and creates Vision, who decides to protect the world with the time honored fatherly approach of wearing sweaters and not knocking before entering.
So we’ve got another story about Tony, and that’s probably fine. After all, he’s an Avenger and arguably the MCU’s most popular character so we can focus on him for a minute and then move on, right? We’ll also ignore the fact that Michael Douglas’s Hank Pym spends a large portion of Ant-Man symbolically glowering at the Starks. No more major appearances by Tony Stark until Infinity War, right?
Of course not. We now know that the next Captain America movie was not the story of Steve Rogers. It was the story of Tony Stark. I’ll grant that the movie certainly starts with Steve. His love interest dies. His best friend resurfaces. His past villain incites the action of the introduction. Still, despite the first act belonging to Steve, the rest of it belongs to Tony Stark. Tony’s actions in Age of Ultron inspired Zemo. Tony is the one who brings in Spider-Man. Tony is the one leading the hunt for Bucky. Tony is the one making personal discoveries and it’s Tony’s quest for vengeance that comes to fruition in the end. Things happen to Steve, but Tony has the character growth. Not only does Tony Stark become the villain of the movie, the presence of Tony Stark robs Steve Rogers of his proper final act.
So, what about going forward? Sony’s upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming trailers heavily feature Tony Stark (both as Iron Man and otherwise). We can expect at least a third Guardians of the Galaxy movie and the word was that Chris Pratt was cast as Star Lord with the idea that he could share the screen with Robert Downey, Jr. without getting upstaged. It goes without saying that Robert Downey Jr. was the first person signed on for Infinity War, but you already knew that, didn’t you?
I would argue that the theme of the entire MCU is “you create your own demons,” which is, of course, a Tony Stark line (Opening Narration, Iron Man 3). And the MCU owes its existence to Robert Downey Jr. After all, six of the seven highest-grossing MCU films heavily feature him. But are they going too far? Does Spider-Man really need Tony Stark in it to be successful? Is the MCU really just one characters’s narrative? Even the newest member of the MCU, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange, is described as a “Tony Stark type.” Perhaps they are thinking of moving on. Will the MCU ever exist without a Tony Stark?
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