With just one sentence, Robert Downey Jr. made film history in the first Iron Man. The sentence not only gave the starting signal for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it also turned an entire genre inside out. Four words that changed everything: “I’m Iron Man.”
While DC’s Superman (most recently Henry Cavill) with simple horn-rimmed glasses and a stuttering voice becomes Clark Kent to hide his true identity, Tony Stark can be celebrated as Iron Man on the big stage. While Batman wants to ensure law and order as a symbol of horror and is strictly careful not to be exposed as Bruce Wayne, the Hulk takes selfies with children. The MCU is erasing secret identities and turns his heroes into pop stars. Even Tom Holland’s Spider-Man caught it in the first trailer for Spider-Man: No Way Home. But why actually?
How Robert Downey Jr. made film history with Iron Man
It all started with the final scene in the first Iron Man. After Robert Downey Jr.’s character saved the world from Iron Monger (Jeff Bridges), she wonders who is in the iron costume. Rumors quickly shoot down on Tony Stark as the new world saver. A press conference is set to shed some light, the government provides a typical cover-up story, and Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) provides Tony Stark with an alibi. We have seen all of this in countless other films, one way or another. Superhero: inside must remain anonymous, we have learned.
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But the rampage pig Tony Stark ends the press conference with a twist that reappears eleven years later in Avengers 4: Endgame and brings cinemas to a boil again. His first entry in the MCU and later also ends with “I am Iron Man” Robert Downey Jrs. last appearance in the fight against Thanos. The end and the simultaneous beginning of an era. Only Spider-Man is still worried in the MCU that he will be revealed as Peter Parker.
Iron Man marked the end of old-fashioned secret identities – and the beginning of the MCU
The MCU is not only breaking with comic book conventions, but also with the status quo in the superhero film genre. Before the first Iron Man, the heroes always worried about their own privacy, or at least one clear separation between normal and superhuman identity. Superman (Christopher Reeve) had to give up in Superman II – Alone Against All His Strength to be allowed to be together as Clark Kent with Lois Lane. The film does not provide any explicit reasons for this exchange. And yet we understand the dilemma because: is so. Genre convention.
For a long time, superheroes hid behind a bourgeois identity – then Tony Stark came along
Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) tries in vain to reveal his secret identity to his lover Vicki Vale in Tim Burton’s Batman. When she is in the Batcave later, there is great drama. Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) tries to protect his family and friends in Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man film and fails miserably. Over and over again these films show us that having such superhuman powers is a burden.
Because if you are a superhero, you not only endanger yourself, but also your loved ones. If you want to prevent this, you have to draw a clear line between your two identities.
Decades of comic book stories and blockbuster films hammered this simple lesson into our consciousness. Iron Man wipes them out of the catalog of conventions with one sentence and thus turns the MCU heroes into pop stars. Only: why actually?
The MCU is breaking new ground and has a pretty good reason for doing so
Marvel has long been known for their self-irony and breaking conventions, so it is only logical that they consistently say goodbye to masked heroines and mysterious heroes without a face. Instead of denying the pop star status of their own superheroes, they deal with it very aggressively. This sets the MCU apart from other comic book and film universes and makes it lively and realistic.
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Not only Iron Man is allowed to save the world as a pop star with super armor. Other heroes, too, forego secret identities in later films and adventures. Thor remains Thor, whether on Asgard or Earth. The alter ego of Chris Hemsworth’s character, Donald Blake, is only used here with a wink and as a fan service. In the later years, Marvel even developed a delight in ironic play with secret identities and superhero: inside personas. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) desperately tries in the first Guardians of the Galaxy to be addressed as Star-Lord by everyone. And fails miserably in the first trailer. Marvel may like break with genre conventions, but remains true to itself.
Stan Lee said that Marvel’s stories always describe the world outside of our windows. Superheroes are also in our world: inside the new pop stars. And it all started with Iron Man. Or about it with the words from MCU mastermind Kevin Feige to say:
“The success [von Iron Man] inspired us to believe in ourselves when it comes to staying true to the comic book and still not being afraid to change things. ”
There’s more MCU with Loki in the podcast: Is the most important Marvel series also the best?
The new Marvel series Loki at Disney + changes the superhero universe like none before. Jenny Jecke and Max Wieseler take a close look at the first season in the podcast.
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What does the series mean for Tom Hiddleston’s anti-heroes after 10 years of cinema? Which new elements enrich the series? And what are the weaknesses of a show that has to set the course for the Marvel Cinematic Universe in such a short time? We talk about it, explain some characters’ comic book backgrounds, and speculate what Loki means to the MCU. Spoilers are guaranteed!
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How do you like your superheroes better: as celebrated stars or with a secret double life?