(Welcome to Road to Infinity War, a new series where we revisit the first 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask “How did we get here?” First up: Iron Man, and how Marvel turned a series of flaws into profound strengths.)

The Marvel machine went into production without a completed script. A few years prior to Disney purchasing the House of Ideas, director Jon Favreau and then newly named President of Production Kevin Feige began laying track in front of train on Marvel’s first in-house feature – or as co-star Jeff Bridges described it, a “$200 million student film.” Unlike any other movie at the time, Iron Man also had to open up a whole new world of characters yet unseen, scribbling just outside its own margins in order to make good on Feige’s promise of an entire Avengers universe at Comic Con 2006.

How did it go? Well, the year is 2018, and we’re waiting (im)patiently for Iron Man to charge into cosmic battle alongside the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and all of Wakanda in a few weeks’ time. Not only have the aforementioned characters become mainstays of global popular culture, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has also long since become the highest grossing film franchise in human history. Quite a return on investment for a student film.

A Stark Difference 

Marvel wouldn’t be where it is without Iron Man, a character who shattered the cookie-cutter superhero mythology by revealing himself to the world out of pure ego, but it certainly wouldn’t have gotten here without Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man specifically. The character felt like a dare to begin with, with Stan Lee creating something of an antithesis to the youth movements of 1968, turning a capitalist, industrialist, and weapons manufacturer into a likeable fixture of Marvel Comics. 40 years later, Tony Stark’s first film appearance would come into being thanks to a similar creative stubbornness, as Jon Favreau fought all opposition in order to get Downey Jr. into the CGI-augmented red & gold.

An actor whose own past addictions would no doubt prepare him for the role in the long run – though the character’s trademark alcoholism would be swapped out for a PTSD-induced addiction to cocooning himself in titanium come Iron Man 3 – what made Robert Downey Jr. the perfect Patient Zero for Marvel’s experiment was his unique ability as a storyteller. Not only was much of his dialogue improvised on set (the lack of a solid script allowed him to step further into Stark’s expensive shoes), but Downey Jr. was forged into the MCU’s early secret weapon, bringing to the action genre an oft-overlooked talent: the ability to turn even rote exposition into development of character – be it with a look, a smirk, or the disguising of insecurity under layers of sardonic quips.

Right from the opening scene, as Stark rides alongside American soldiers in their Humvee in Afghanistan, his aura simultaneously attracts and alienates. He has the shine of a billionaire playboy and a detached allure that arrived just in time for the social media boom – the age of irony, as it were – but his humour is to-the-point despite the emptiness it masks. From the get-go, long before he builds his rudimentary Mark I suit, his first layer of armour is exactly the person he projects himself to be. The epitome of untouchable, yet commanding a gravity that attracts everyone in its oribit.

It’s fitting then, that this introduction to a superhero so out of the ordinary is soon followed by a seemingly real-world attack and circumstance that cuts him down to size. The unit protecting him is bombed. He is kidnapped by militants. And he becomes a victim of weapons that bear his own name, although his key change as a character comes about as a similarly kidnapped small-town scientist from the Middle East uses technology in a way Stark had seldom considered. He builds something new to save Tony Stark’s life.

Fantasy Hero, Political Reality 

2008 was a landmark year for politics in superhero movies. While The Dark Knight, a film that at the time seemed like it would have a more long-lasting impact, wrestled with abstract questions of the borders of responsibility in the face of national security, Iron Man had far more direct questions on its mind. Shifting the setting of the character’s origin from ’60s Vietnam to modern Afghanistan allowed for literal articulations of modern American military industrial complex to arrive front-and-center, as embodied not by the film’s villain, but its hero.

The reason Stark visits the Middle East is to sell deadly weapons to the U.S. military, weapons he openly compares to the Manhattan project his father worked on decades earlier. Charming as he may be, his outlook is detestable, and he’s forced to face up to it (to some degree) once he’s kidnapped and he sees where all his missiles are actually being shipped. “Peace means having a bigger stick than the other guy,” he tells a reporter, who rightly responds: “That’s a great line, coming from the guy selling the sticks.”

Iron Man is, at its core, a tale of an American war profiteer having a change of heart – represented by the arc reactor in his chest, a glowing promise of untold possibility. It’s a potent idea, focusing on a character who sees his weapons fall into the wrong hands and takes action accordingly, contending with his own legacy by shutting down the weapons’ division of Stark Industries, but therein lies the central problem of Tony Stark. While he works to get his weapons out of said wrong hands, be it the hands of the Ten Rings organization or the hands of Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane, the man behind the curtain (to say nothing of the hands of the US military, to whom Stark was more than happy to sell thus far), there’s nothing clearly delineating whose hands are the right ones. To Tony Stark, the egocentric futurist, the right hands remain his own.

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