Plot Afghanistan. Tony Stark, billionaire playboy armaments designer, is on a tour of inspection when his convoy is ambushed by insurgents and he is wounded in the chest by a weapon manufactured by his own company. He is taken to the hideout of a band of multinational guerrillas led by the megalomaniac Raza, who wants Stark to construct a missile weapon. Yinsen, a captive fellow scientist saves Stark’s life, and Stark creates a new power source to keep himself alive. Together they assemble a suit of weapons-packed armour that Stark wears to fight Raza’s forces; Yinsen sacrifices himself to enable Stark’s escape from the guerrilla camp. Rescued by his military friend Jim Rhodes, Stark returns to America and surprises business partner Obadiah Stane by calling a press conference and announcing that his company will no longer make weapons. He develops a new version of his armour and returns to Afghanistan to destroy caches of Stark weapons that Raza’s men are using in a raid against Yinsen’s village. Pepper Potts, Stark’s devoted secretary, discovers that Stane hired Raza to kill Stark and has been responsible for selling Stark weaponry to terrorists. Using recovered scraps of Stark’s original armour, Stane has a team assemble his own, larger suit of armour. He also kills Raza and tries to murder Stark by removing the power source that keeps his heart beating – though Stark is able to fit a replacement. Pepper and a team from anti-terrorist agency SHIELD try to arrest Stane at Stark’s Los Angeles factory, but he uses his armour to defeat them; Stark arrives in his own armour and battles Stane to the death. SHIELD tries to persuade Stark to keep his identity secret, but he admits to the press that he is Iron Man (adapted from Newman 60-61).
Film Note Since Superman’s 1938 debut in Action Comics #1, Americans have looked to comic books to find paragons of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” (Reynolds 74). Iron Man first appeared in Tales of Suspense #39 as an anti-communist superhero who fought in the Cold War to uphold ‘the American Way’ and to denounce communism. David Roach observes that “Iron Man was Marvel’s premier red-baiting strip for its first decade, sometimes even showing Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev plotting against Stark. Almost all Iron Man’s major villains were communists of some hue or nationality, including Titanium Man, an armour-wearing Soviet giant” (Roach 288). But over the years the political agenda of the character shifted as a result of changing social and cultural contexts.
The Merchant of Death This shift is evident in the 2008 film adaptation, Iron Man which, as director Jon Favreau notes, contains a shift from anticommunism to an “exploration of Stark’s morality as a weapons manufacturer who helps to fuel the Middle East conflict” (qtd. in Thompson 6). Certain aspects of the film – particularly Tony Stark’s profession and the setting of key scenes in Afghanistan – tap into specific socio-political events. During his time in captivity, for example, it is revealed that the weapons used by the terrorist cell who took Stark hostage were in fact weapons produced by his own company, Stark Industries. The narrative here begs to read as an allegory for the US’s arming and funding of the Afghanistan mujahideen in the 1980s, a clandestine political commitment that inadvertently led to the formation of Al-Qaeda. Lisa Purse argues that Iron Man’s references to the conflict in the Middle East “are made in a superficial rather than interrogative way to add a sense of currency to the narrative” (Purse 155), a trait common to action movies post 9/11. She states that “Iron Man opens in Afghanistan in order to add a modish pertinence to Tony Stark’s arms dealing and his subsequent punishment’” (Purse 155). And that “Once Stark escapes the terrorists the significant remaining portion of the film is situated in the US, apart from a brief demonstration of the Iron Man suit’s powers saving Afghan civilians from terrorists, a rather simplistic bit of wish-fulfilment” (Purse 154). The lack of ‘interrogation’ into the issues in the Middle East suggests that Purse would position Iron Man as a Hollywood entertainment film that depicts a character-driven fight of good versus evil. Purse argues that the film takes a politically ambiguous stance, focusing on what Cynthia Weber might term the “moral remaking” (2) of the protagonist as a way of redeeming a failed war.
Iron Man depicts Tony Stark as a multi-millionaire, playboy genius who after witnessing the use of his weaponry by the terrorist group takes a more humanitarian view of his future and his company’s purpose. After returning from Afghanistan, Stark reveals that he will stop the production of weaponry by Stark Industries until he is sure that they are being used for the right reasons. His about turn demonstrates the film’s implicit critique of unscrupulous capitalism. Stark sees his company motivated by brutal and unforgiving profit-orientated capitalist idealism, and in stopping weapons production he distances himself from this idealism and ceases to be ‘The Merchant of Death’. When made aware of this nickname earlier in the film Stark responds positively with, “That’s not bad”, again displaying the film’s focus on the “moral remaking” of the character.
Favreau said in an interview with Variety, “It’s a redemption story. We made the story about a man who finds his heart and seeks to do justice and help others. It’s not a specifically American story. Our hero offers a simple inspired solution to these complicated times” (qtd. in Thompson 6). Similarly, lead actor Robert Downey Jr. replied to Empire’s Damon Wise’s question on an unexpected political element in Iron Man with the comment: “Even if there isn’t a political dimension to it, people are gonna project one on it. I don’t see this as a bunch of limousine liberals trying to slip one past the bad guys” (Wise 16). Both Downey Jr.’s and Favreau’s comments affirm Iron Man’s ‘neutral’ political agenda, suggesting that the film’s focus on the character arc is of greater importance than any implicit political critique, a canny if evasive negotiation of a divided political climate (where the war’s in Afghanistan and Iraq were still important issues) that would ensure the widest possible audience.
Comic book economics The Marvel Entertainment Group (MEG) was in a dire financial situation during the 1990s, agreeing to declare bankruptcy in 1996. As a solution to their corporate hardship, the decision was made to merge MEG with partner companies, and the Marvel Studios subsidiary was created as a way of seeking some economic return to shore up the newly formed Marvel Enterprises – renamed shortly after as Marvel Entertainment (fundinguniverse.com). The studio, with access to Marvel’s library of over 5,000 characters, first produced a picture with one of their lesser-known properties: Blade. The film was released in 1998 with a budget of $45m and took over $131m at the box office. X-Men (2000) followed, taking $296m worldwide and signalling the start of Marvel’s recovery. X-Men was followed by Spider-Man in 2002, and a number of sequels and spinoffs (2003-2011). Though these films were commercially successful the intellectual property rights of the characters were retained by the producing film companies rather than by Marvel. For example, the licensing rights to X-Men and The Fantastic Four were owned by 20th Century Fox, and Sony had control over Spider-Man (McClintock). As of 2007, the Spider-Man trilogy (2002-2007) had made nearly $2.5bn but because the ownership rights were not controlled by Marvel profits were retained by the studios. As Sharon Waxman explains, “Marvel makes relatively little money from these box office bonanzas, because of unfavourable deals struck in the 1990s. A Lehman Brothers analysis calculated that Marvel made just $62m from the first two “Spider-Man” films” (Waxman).
But, as Chris Hewitt notes, following the success of these films “Marvel’s own involvement in its flagship characters’ cinematic fortunes has reduced over the years as it focuses on its own studio, and characters to whom it fully owns the rights” (61). In 2004, David Maisel joined Marvel Studios with the hope “to transform [the company into] a true filmmaking brand, maintaining control from script to release, keeping all the profits for the company and building a film library, while using someone else’s capital” (Waxman 2007). In 2005 Marvel Studios struck a deal with Merrill Lynch, a major Wall Street bank, that secured a $525m revolving credit facility that allowed the production of ten films over seven years, with budgets ranging between $45m and $180m (McClintock). The Merrill Lynch deal allowed Marvel to receive the funding needed to produce films without risking a great financial loss. The conditions of the deal stated that if the films proved to be a financial flop Marvel wouldn’t have to pay back the investment; instead the licensing rights to ten characters from the Marvel Universe would be handed over to Merrill Lynch.
Iron Man was Marvel Studios’ first self-funded production following the Merrill Lynch deal. With a budget of $140m it was close to the maximum $180m cap of Maisel’s budget range. This choice indicated Marvel’s intentions and determination to produce a large-scale blockbuster that would signal the revival of the company. The gamble paid off and the movie proved to be a commercial success, “kick-start[ing] the summer season with a bang after taking nearly $100m across 56 territories in its opening weekend” (Lodderhose 50). This paved the way for sequels and standalone movies for other lesser-known Marvel properties.
Shortly after Iron Man‘s general release, Marvel and Paramount issued a press release stating that “buoyed by the $574m global success of Iron Man, Paramount Pictures is to handle worldwide distribution on the next five films from Marvel Studios” (Kay 2008). In 2009, the Walt Disney Co. acquired Marvel Entertainment for $4bn. Although this didn’t affect the deal between Marvel and Paramount for the distribution rights, it did mean that once the deal ended Disney would be licensed to distribute Marvel productions. However, in 2010 Disney purchasing the distribution rights to the two outstanding properties Paramount still owned: The Avengers and Iron Man 3, thereby taking full control of the Marvel Universe (bloomberg.com).
Market forces and the Marvel Universe The growing popularity of comic book adaptations led not only to a continued increase in box office gross for Marvel, but also allowed the studio to continue its original endeavour of building a shared diegetic space inhabited by characters from their vast back-catalogue. A number of references are made in Iron Man towards other Marvel characters, hinting at the introduction of fan-favourites from the comics into the cinematic universe. For example, Iron Man references War Machine, who appears in the comics alongside Iron Man as his ally and trusted friend. War Machine is a main character in Iron Man 2 (2010) along with Black Widow, an elite agent working for a special military division named S.H.I.E.L.D. At the end of Iron Man there is a post-credits scene which introduces Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D, teasing fans with possible story arcs of future Marvel films. In the scene Fury states his reason for meeting Stark is that he wants to talk to him about ‘The Avengers Initiative’. The Avengers are a team consisting of several prominent Marvel characters, including Thor, Captain America and The Hulk. Marvel has subsequently released standalone films for each of these characters as well as uniting them in the record-breaking The Avengers (2012). The use of crossover characters in comic book movies is a new trend, which Iron Man introduced and The Avengers consolidated. By introducing these crossover characters from the same universe, Marvel created a basis for future spinoffs and new franchises in a pattern that the wider industry has sought to emulate.
The Marvel universe remains the mercy of market forces, however. Due to the negotiations between Marvel, Sony and Fox over rights ownership, films like Spider-Man and X-Men are set in different universes to The Avengers even though all characters share a single universe in the Marvel comic book publications. This is also seen in the films Daredevil (2003) and Elektra (2005), both of which were produced and distributed by 20th Century Fox. Elektra’s character appears in Daredevil, although there is no reference to this encounter in Elektra. This makes Elektra a spinoff, rather than a crossover. As of April 2013, it was revealed that the licensing rights for Daredevil, but not Elektra, had reverted back to Marvel Entertainment (newsarama.com), allowing Marvel an opportunity to recreate Daredevil as a part of their own cinematic universe.
In the 1960s Marvel redesigned many characters to make them seem more relatable, especially through the depicition of “heroes with problems” (Roach 288). The casting of Downey Jr. is interesting considering his similarity to the comic book character of Tony Stark. Downey Jr. was arrested several times through 1996-2001 on drug-related charges, completing his final stint in rehab in 2001 (time.com). Favreau comments on Downey’s casting; “He’s got an edge and a sense of humour and has lived in the public eye in a way that is very consistent with the way that Tony Stark was portrayed in the comic books over the last 40 years” (Reading 36), as Tony Stark battles with substance abuse in the comic books. The character is also a reference to industrialist and inventor Howard Hughes. One of the issues that creator Stan Lee sought to address with Iron Man was the creation and sustenance of the military-industrial complex, an issue that Hughes was also very much involved in. Hughes used his enterprises to support the Cold War effort and was a prominent US defense contractor, developing guided missiles and electronic airplane guidance systems (Genter).
Iron Man also utilised pre-existing popular culture in its marketing strategy. In 1970, heavy metal band Black Sabbath released a track named ‘Iron Man’. Although it had no relation to the Marvel character, the song played during the closing titles, tying in with the film’s ‘heavy metal’ aesthetic (as with the tagline). This again shows Marvel expanding the film’s intended demographic beyond adolescent males to an older generation, while still retaining the ‘family-friendly’ nature of their productions.
These complex connotations aimed to engage an older audience than previous Marvel superhero films, which seem more concerned with issues of teenage angst. For example, we see Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) in Spider-Man, and Rogue (Anna Paquin) in X-Men struggling with new powers and responsibilities. The target demographic of Iron Man is also broadened by its origins in a long-running comic book, appealing to those who grew up with the Marvel characters. In keeping with this, Paramount agreed that to attract a larger number of moviegoers none of the films they distributed for Marvel would be rated R; the equivalent of a 15 rating in Britain. (McClintock). The PG-13/12A rating meant that those younger than twelve would have to be accompanied by an adult, encouraging a wider audience to pay to see the films.
That is not to say that the teen audience was neglected. The Iron Man DVD also contains an advertisement for a new animated series named Iron Man: Armoured Adventures, which sees Tony Stark as a teenager in the Iron Man suit. The incorporation of a teenage character aims this series at a younger generation, making him more recognisable to a new audience. This creates merchandising and franchising opportunities, as “commercial partners from toy, soft drink and fast food empires were prepared to spend astronomical sums to secure their position at the eye of marketing storms that would surround any potential blockbuster with a strong youth and pre-teen demographic” (Grainge 134). Comic books have long been associated with a wide array of merchandising and collectibles and figurines can secure large sums of money, particularly rarer items. An original copy of The Tales of Suspense #39 featuring Iron Man’s first appearance has a value of around $1,500, while the first issue of Action Comics No.1, featuring the first appearance of Superman, has a value of $1.5m (nydailynews.com).
David Bordwell argues that “[w]ith the rise of the summer blockbuster, producers searched for properties that could be exploited in a string of movies. A memorable character could tie the instalments together, and so filmmakers turned to pop literature […] and comic books.” Marvel have executed this with their string of crossover movies following Iron Man. Bordwell talks further about the benefits of having a multi-character universe which can tie into other media outputs, noting that “superhero movies fit neatly into the demand that franchises should spawn books, TV shows, soundtracks, toys, apparel, and so on” (Bordwell). Video games are also an important aspect of this franchising. Iron Man, Iron Man 2 and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) all had video game tie-ins released before the films were in the cinema. It is now commonplace for movie-inspired video games to enter the market pre-exhibition, allowing the consumer and potential audience to become more familiar with the film and characters.
Following Iron Man Marvel have been instrumental in reshaping the contemporary Hollywood film industry. From films based on their properties released by other studios to their own independent productions, Marvel films are now the dominant product. Superhero and comic-book based features have proven lucrative and marketable, able to capitalise on their pre-existing intertexts and generate large sums of secondary revenue from merchandising. Their success lies with their opportunistic political posturing and their nature as genre productions, where, as David Bordwell states, “a comic-book movie can succeed if it doesn’t stray from the fanbase’s expectations and swiftly initiates the newbies.”
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Written by James Chapman (2012); edited by Jake Stickley (2014), Queen Mary, University of London.
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