This month marks the 12th anniversary of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the release of Iron Man. The 2008 film was the flagship for largest cinematic universe in film history, and proved that comic book movies benefit more so from capturing the essence of their characters than from trying to mimic plotlines.
While one of the most popular heroes nowadays, Iron Man was a huge risk for Marvel to rest their cinematic universe on. Unlike Spider-Man or Batman, Tony Stark didn’t have the same cultural presence; however, everyone embraced Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man by the time the film wrapped its theatrical run, and it was primarily because of his character.
While the movie has a lot to praise, the script itself was unconventional to say the least. It was revealed by Jeff Bridges that during rehearsals and filming Downey, him and director Jon Favreau were re-working the script, but, despite this, the film took off. This can be credited to the fact that Downey and Favreau, regardless of where the story was going, knew the direction Tony would go.
That’s the benefit of having decades worth of canon. Debuting in Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Steve Ditko, Gene Colan and Don Heck’s Tales of Suspense #39, Iron Man has decades worth of comics to pull from. While there are hundreds of stories to try to adapt, it’s better to develop a representation of his character based on the themes presented over the years. Iron Man is particularly great to adapt because, regardless of the story, he is rooted in Lee’s original vision of him.
“If there was one thing [the young readers] hated, it was war,” Lee said in an interview for Iron Man. “So I got a hero who represented that to the hundredth degree. He was a weapons manufacturer… he was rich, he was an industrialist. I thought it would be fun to take the kind of character that nobody would like… and shove him down their throats and make them like him.”
As long as this part of Tony stayed the same, the film could go in any direction story wise, even if it wasn’t comic accurate, which the first film is not in terms of plot and character relationships. Tony’s original backstory is rooted in the Vietnam War, but placing the movie in the 60s would make it a period piece, adding an unnecessary obstacle. Along with that, several character dynamics, including his relationship with Pepper Potts and Obidah Stan, change from the comics.
These changes improve the film because they benefit Tony’s character. He is still a combative person in a contemporary setting, which stays true to Lee’s vision more so than a rehashing of dated politics and tropes. Meanwhile, pushing his relationship with Pepper to the forefront and making Obidah a family friend gives Tony a personal connection to the stakes at hand, and it makes his conflict more relatable, once again conforming to Lee’s vision.
With the massive success of Iron Man, the model of basing the films off the characters instead of the comic arcs was set in motion for the MCU. Captain America: The First Avenger, for instance, would capture the essence of Steve Rogers despite the film not being tied directly to a singular arc and changing his dynamic with several characters. What makes Chris Evan’s iteration of Cap so strong is the same thing that makes Downey’s Iron Man so strong; their characters’ moral fibers stay intact despite the changes to the source material.
This is also evident in the films that directly pull from established comic arcs, like Captain America: Civil War. This film elevates the idea of re-creating the essence of the character by applying it to the events as well. While there are numerous things changed from the comics, the film still reads as Civil War because it captures the heart of the arc, which is Tony and Steve splitting the superhero world in two over their conflicting beliefs.
This movie is successful because of this take on adaptation as well as how the characters drive the story. Instead of having the politics of the Sokovia Accords be the primary conflict, the issues are personal with Steve fighting to save his friend and Tony fighting to avenge his mother. While the politics of the accords are important, what propels the story and makes it more engaging are the characters’ personal connections.
There are films that defy the model set in place by Iron Man. Thor: Ragnarok, while it does a similar job at pulling themes from comic arcs instead of replicating the events, changes Thor’s personality in a way that better suits the MCU, but he is different from his comic self, who is more like the God of Thunder in 2011’s Thor.
Iron Man changed the world of film at large and catapulted the MCU. Along with giving fans a character they would love for more than a decade, the movie set the standards of adaptation for Marvel. While the events of the movies matter, when it comes to adapting the source material, it’s the titular characters and the themes tied to them that matter the most.
KEEP READING: Iron Man Nearly Started a Civil War with… Black Widow?!
2008's Iron Man was the flagship of the MCU and proved the best way to adapt comics to film is by focusing on the characters first over plot.