From Cave to Space: Iron Man’s Legacy

by Mima M

When Marvel Studios was casting for Iron Man in 2006, Jon Favreau—who was hired to direct the first film of the nascent movie studio just months before—wanted to cast reformed Hollywood bad boy Robert Downey Jr. to play the titular character. Kevin Feige (then only second in command in the Marvel Studios hierarchy) strongly supported Favreau’s top pick for Iron Man. The studio’s top brass at that time weren’t too thrilled with the idea, and said no multiple times. Favreau and Feige kept insisting, and they kept getting rejected. It was only after Downey blew everyone away when he auditioned for the role that the studio heads finally relented and made him Tony Stark.

The reason for that was simple: executives weren’t willing to cast someone who they thought would be a production risk, because making the movie was a huge gamble in itself. David Maisel, Marvel Studios’ chief operating officer at that time, brokered a $525-million financing deal with Merrill Lynch so that the studio could start making its own movies, rather than just sign the rights of their characters away to the rest of Hollywood. What Maisel had to put up as collateral, though, was exactly that—if Marvel Studios failed to repay their debt, then they had to give up the rights to make films on whatever characters remained with them. The future of the studio depended on the success of Iron Man as well as The Incredible Hulk, which they shot simultaneously.

The production could have been a disaster. Veteran actor Jeff Bridges, who plays Obadiah Stane in the movie, called it a “$200 million student film.” They would come on set and do heavy script rewrites on the day scenes were supposed to be shot, causing shooting delays. “Carving our way through the wilderness,” was how Jon Favreau called it. But this process—however unanticipated and anxiety-inducing it may have been to the guys who wrote the checks—provided Downey with the right environment and enough legroom to not only portray Tony Stark, but also create a unique and genuine version of the iconic comic book character.

Robert Downey Jr. is often called the godfather of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and rightfully so. He is, after all, the progenitor of what is now a 22-film slate for a trailblazing studio, with no signs of stopping. But being the first doesn’t automatically grant you that title, nor is being a skilled actor. What Downey has done to breathe life into Tony Stark is phenomenal—he has made this billionaire, playboy, philanthropist the heart and soul the MCU, opening the doors for other superheroes to follow in his footsteps.

Fans love Tony Stark for a variety of reasons, and it doesn’t hurt that Downey plays him so brilliantly. But what has made Tony Stark indelible to the MCU is not because he is the first, nor the smartest, nor the richest Avenger—it is because his story is the overarching narrative that has driven this universe for the past 11 years. More specifically, his fears have been a prime mover in a chess game that has been going on for over a decade.

Tony Stark’s fears are, at its core, a manifestation of how much he loves. That is the ultimate realization in Iron Man, which is why it’s such a satisfying origin story. The rest of his films are about how he nurtures that love—we see that so clearly in Spider-Man: Homecoming, and even the rest of the Iron Man trilogy—and the mistakes he makes along the way while trying to protect it. Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War are all examples of the lengths Stark will go to keep his found-family alive, and together.

Iron Man is where Tony Stark breaks out of the gilded cage that was built by his father’s name and, by extension, the expectations that came with carrying that name. The cave in Afghanistan is both a literal and metaphorical representation of that cage. While in captivity, he questions the idea of legacy, both his father’s and his own. With Yinsen, he throws away the Howard Stark playbook and finally opens himself up to the human reality where love is not a weakness, and hope is the main currency. “Don’t waste it,” Yinsen tells Tony before he dies. “Don’t waste your life.”

Tony Stark spends the rest of the Infinity Saga trying desperately to atone for his and his father’s sins. He gives these super-powered misfits a place to belong as he tries to build a home for himself—one where he isn’t a carbon copy of his father. One where he won’t fail the next generation. One where there is a world for the next generation.

That is what he realizes his legacy should be about.

It’s only fitting, then, that the beginning of the end of the first decade of the MCU is a direct allusion to where it all began: the cave. The first trailer for Avengers: Endgame shows us a fading Tony Stark as he delivers a haunting moon-shot message to the love of his life, calling us back to the man that created this revolutionary armor from a box of scraps in order to escape captivity. “When I drift off, I will dream about you. It’s always you,” brings Yinsen and his words (“So you’re a man who has everything…and nothing”) back from the dead, if only to show us how far Tony Stark has come from the cave, and then to return to it in the form of his biggest fear: space.

Stuck on the Milano with nowhere to go, the infinite expanse of stardust has not only been the main object of his nightmares since the first Avengers movie, it has also become a visual representation of his greatest failure—the failure to protect his home, and the people he loves. But adrift in space with seemingly no hope of returning to earth, the essence of Iron Man remains, reminding us of how incredible Tony Stark’s journey has been since “I am Iron Man.” With Nebula by his side, we know in our gut that he will build his way back home once again.

But we also know in our gut that Tony Stark’s journey will reach its end come Avengers: Endgame. The promotional materials leading up to the movie have loudly hinted at it—from “whatever it takes” to “avenge the fallen” to “it’s not about how much we’ve lost, it’s about what we have left.” For those who have followed Iron Man’s journey from cave to space, those words foreshadow a great sacrifice, and the end of an era.

Looking back, you can’t help but be amazed with how far the MCU has come since Iron Man, especially since creating a shared universe was never the studio’s priority. Kevin Feige told Vanity Fair that they “had no real plans at that point” while they were filming Iron Man. “It was a pipe dream. So much of what we’ve done is based on a pipe dream.” Thinking about the what-ifs can blow your mind: what if they hadn’t cast Robert Downey Jr. to play Tony Stark? What if New Line Cinema had been able make an Iron Man movie from their original script? What if the script for Iron Man was locked at the beginning of production, and filming had gone perfectly?

We still toy with those questions some 11 years and 22 films later, but only because the cinematic experience of this franchise is so novel, yet so incredibly human. At last year’s world premiere of Avengers: Infinity War, Downey stood up in front of the entire El Capitan Theatre and gave an emotional speech. “This is the MCU right in front of you. It’s all about fighting for equality. The whole idea is to make space for others to succeed, and exceed our expectations. The movies are inviting us to surrender and love and be of service. They are metaphors for how our world should be—or could be one day, if we fight for it.”

And that? That is Tony Stark’s legacy.

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