Starship Troopers, which came out just a couple of years before Iron Man’s first appearance.
Billionaire playboy Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) inherited his father’s arms-manufacturing corporation. He’s a mechanical genius himself, but he spends most of his time partying. His faithful personal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) struggles to keep his life together. After a weapons demonstration in Afghanistan, Stark is kidnapped by terrorists and asked to make them weapons, instead he makes a chest implant to protect him from a possibly-fatal wound and a suit of powered armor that he uses to escape. Upon his return, he refines the suit and uses it to fight some of the wrongs caused by his company’s weapons. His business associate, Obadiah Stane (an uncharacteristically evil Jeff Bridges), wants Stark Eterprises, and he builds his own suit it get rid of Tony.
Stan Lee made a few innovations to superhero comics in the 1960s that served to make Marvel the leading comic company. One of the most important was the idea that all of his heroes had to have a flaw. Iron Man was one of his weakest inventions, I think. Stark’s flaw was that he needed the suit to live due to injuries to his chest. There are some interesting implications there, but they never get explored, and it really just became a cheap device to keep the hero down for a bit, a la kryptonite. Later writers developed new flaws for Stark, womanizing and alcoholism, that made him much more interesting, and highlighted the contrast with his steel exterior. The film does a great job of capturing that take on the character.
I remember that before this film came out in the spring of 2008, there was a sense that the Renaissance in superhero movies was coming to an end. In the two previous summers, there’d been a string of failures, maybe even embarrassments like X-Men 3, Spider-man 3, Fantastic Four 2, Ghost Rider, and Superman Returns (though they were still making money). On top of that, Iron Man was not a big-name character, and it seemed to some like Marvel was scraping the bottom of their intellectual property barrel. But, this film made a surprising amount of money and garnered a lot of critical praise. Jeff Bridges later reported that director Jon Favreau shot most of the movie without a script, and that may be a big part of its success. The film rides on Downey’s charisma and charm, and his ad libs work brilliantly. It’s a fairly simple formula – take a charming and talented star, give him a fun character with some intriguing flaws to work with, and surround it all with some solid effects and action, and you get a very entertaining superhero flick. I think it’s a lesson that more superhero movies, and science fiction movies in general, might profit from following.
Of course, a couple of months later, another superhero movie came out that took the exact opposite approach, The Dark Knight Returns. It’s a better movie, and one of the most thrilling I’ve seen. It got a Saturn Action award (I’m not adding another category, and I don’t have much to say about it that hasn’t been said). Both it and Iron Man were nominated for the Hugo, but neither won (nor should they have, but more on that in a couple of weeks).