2020’s summer blockbuster season has been put on hold because of the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the movies from the past that we flocked out of the sun and into air conditioning for. Welcome to The Ringer’s Return to Summer Blockbuster Season, where we’ll feature different summer classics each week.
Some years ago, the British car show Top Gear had a running gag about how Jaguar drivers tended to be a particular brand of charming sleazeball. No matter how irresponsible and caddish they were, no matter how much white-collar crime they committed, it was impossible to hate them because they were so fun and likable. Not long afterward, Mad Men put Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to work on its first automotive account for Jaguar, illustrating Top Gear’s point, if not calling back to the joke directly.
Once upon a time, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was a showcase for people who (if only figuratively, considering the force of Audi’s product placement) drove a Jaguar. Robert Downey Jr. first donned Tony Stark’s regrettable facial hair in Iron Man 12 years ago this weekend. We could not have known then that he would become the biggest star in the biggest movie franchise in the history of popular culture. And we could no more have known that in the 11 years that followed, his character would evolve into a sober-minded straight shooter, leaving a lovable douchebag-shaped hole in the franchise that never really got filled.
When we first meet Tony Stark, he’s in the back of a U.S. Army Humvee, holding a glass of whiskey as he alternates between hitting on the driver and teasing the soldier sitting beside him. When the soldier asks him if it would be cool to take a picture—this is around the time when cameraphones were finally ubiquitous enough to turn selfies into the autograph of the 21st century—Stark says, “It’s very cool.”
From there, in flashbacks, we see Stark blow off an awards ceremony thrown in his honor to go gambling at a Las Vegas casino; then he charms a hostile Vanity Fair reporter into his bed. The early Tony Stark embodied the seductive combination of wealth, intelligence, and self-confidence, which allowed him to do whatever he wanted all the time. That freedom is a more alluring superpower than a flying suit of armor, and more relatable to modern America than, say, a Boy Scout with a firm sense of right and wrong and a PED regimen that would make Lance Armstrong blanch. When Iron Man came out, superhero movies like the Christopher Nolan Batman series tended to make saving the world look like a huge bummer. Tony Stark showed that we could grasp world peace with one hand, leaving the other free to mix a cocktail.
That didn’t last long. Stark is quickly captured by terrorists and learns that his family company has been selling arms to not just allied militaries, but terrorists and criminals, as well. This revelation causes him to grow a conscience and (fortunately for the world, less so for viewers) a sense of honor and duty.
More than any other character in the MCU, Iron Man engaged with the thorny questions of superheroism on a nuanced level, and in terms that reflected the world his viewers inhabited. The original Iron Man—released five years into the second Gulf War and in the heat of the 2008 presidential election—illustrated the common liberal view that a kinder, gentler Bush Doctrine was possible; that America could be the pillar of a unipolar world order by waging war just a little more purposefully and less brutally. The Obama administration proved this view to be outmoded quickly enough for Avengers: Age of Ultron to be read as a criticism of automated warfare, once again with a conflicted Tony Stark at the center of the story.
In Captain America: Civil War, Stark’s nuanced pragmatism puts him at odds with Captain America’s uncomplicated moral idealism when the U.N. wants oversight over the Avengers. The two literally come to blows after Steve Rogers’s friend Bucky Barnes finds himself in the U.N.’s crosshairs. (Whoever came up with “friend” here must’ve been the same guys who translated The Iliad and tried to convince us Patroclus and Achilles were just cousins, but I digress.)
Over the course of 11 years in theaters, Iron Man became not just the Avengers’ general but their quartermaster, a combination of Zeus and Hephaistos. He lent his technology to S.H.I.E.L.D. and recruited or outfitted key members of the Avengers team; while the viewers of Iron Man could easily have imagined an older Tony Stark flirting with Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May in Spider-Man: Homecoming, it would’ve seemed a bit of a stretch to picture the billionaire playboy serving as a surrogate father to her nephew.
As the MCU franchise matured, so did its keystone character. Was it necessary for the definitive superhero of his generation to occasionally get sad about thinly disguised stand-ins for contemporary issues in American foreign policy? Maybe not. Or maybe that made him more credible to an audience that could relate to the forever war unfolding onscreen.
Looking back through all that history, though, it’s sometimes hard to remember that for the first 30 minutes of the MCU’s existence, the biggest superhero in pop culture had a private jet equipped with a stripper pole. And we don’t appreciate that enough.
Aspects of the character didn’t age well; one or two jokes that went completely under the radar in 2008 are positively bracing today, and the concept of the autodidactic playboy billionaire gets less cool every time Elon Musk opens TweetDeck. But Tony Stark was never more fun than in his first appearance.
Downey came to the MCU off the back of memorable and quippy roles in films like Zodiac and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and brought the same motormouthed charm to Tony Stark. Even when he’s delivering a straightforward sales pitch for a guided missile, he’s entirely captivating.
Downey plays a celebrity who enjoys attention without being thirsty, a genius who has no problem talking to the everyman, and a billionaire who doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty—all at the same time. Even without the suit, Tony Stark is a superhero, but more than that, he seems like he’d be fun to hang out with.
And while that quality never fully disappeared, it stopped defining him after the first half hour of Iron Man, culminating in the doting, cautious father who met his demise in Avengers: Endgame. Saving the world is important, as is interrogating the permeating moral and ethical issues of contemporary statecraft. But is it as fun as the party bus to Bagram Air Base? Not by a long shot.