It’s hard to believe that it has been eight years since the American release of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man. The film was a critical and commercial success thanks to its effortless blend of spectacle, humor and most importantly, endearing characters. Little did we realize at the time that Favreau’s adaptation of this B-level Marvel superhero immediately catapulted the career-comeback of a lifetime for Robert Downey Jr., set up a firm foundation for an upcoming Marvel Cinematic Universe, and perhaps most importantly, ignited a new era in the comic book movie genre as we know it today.
With the release Captain America: Civil War imminent, let’s reflect back on the times we were living in when Iron Man was released leading up to the times we are living in now.
2008 was a seminal year in the cultural consciousness thanks to benchmark events such as the presidential election and the Beijing Olympics. But the year also marked a time of hardships and struggles as we were hit with the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
Amidst all the highs and lows of that year, we experienced a watershed moment in American history when we elected the first African American as the POTUS. Barack Obama’s campaign slogan was “Change we can believe in” and regardless of where your political convictions align, it’s undeniable that at the time, many citizens of the U.S. identified with the campaign’s sentiments.
I find it quite prophetic that the American people’s hopes during that political era share similarities with the public consensus of Iron Man and to an extent, The Dark Knight. Both these films, particularly the former, enthralled audiences not just with exquisite storytelling, but also planted the seeds of an exciting future for comic book movies as a whole. Since then, we have experienced a time where superheroes have dominated the cinema, with the releasing of films like Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger – broadening them into its own genre of movies.
Of course, for every success come a few misfires. Each major studio releasing comic book movies today have had their share of disappointments. Even though it was a financial success, Marvel Studios’ Iron Man 2 received a mixed reception. Warner Bros. hoped to have started a new franchise with Green Lantern, but was negatively received. 20th Century Fox released X-Men Origins: Wolverine and a Fantastic Four reboot – the former panned by critics but still financially successful and the latter suffering on both ends. And lastly, Sony’s attempt to establish a cinematic universe with its Amazing Spider-Man franchise received unenthusiastic fanfare – eventually leading to canceling further plans in favor of another reboot in collaboration with Marvel Studios.
But even with a couple of misfires, the genre hasn’t been in more liveliness than it has been now. In 2012, four years following Iron Man’s release, The Avengers rocked theaters worldwide. This groundbreaking crossover event that took four years in the making (like a presidential term) influenced numerous studios into crafting shared cinematic universes of their own. 2013 began to show us what a post-Avengers environment would be like with the MCU continuing its story with Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World while DC established its Extended Universe with Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, which led to a divisive reaction from critics and fans alike.
2014 was a turning point for the MCU with Captain America: The Winter Soldier gracing the silver screen. Joe and Anthony Russo’s follow-up to The First Avenger set a new standard for the MCU, utilizing elements from espionage films and political thrillers – all under the guise of a big blockbuster. Marvel also released their biggest risk since their 2008 inauguration with James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy – their first foray into the space opera. Even with this obscure property featuring characters such as a talking tree and raccoon, the film was critically acclaimed and over-performed at the box office, becoming the highest grossing comic book film of that year. 2015 was also a new precedent for the studio not only with the releases of the final Phase 2 films in Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man, but also their new Netflix series Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Both shows pushed the envelope in how far comic book storytelling can go in terms of character development and most notably, maturity.
Now, we reach 2016 – a year where we have SIX big screen comic book movies: Deadpool, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America: Civil War, X-Men: Apocalypse, Suicide Squad and Doctor Strange. 2016 is also the final year in President Obama’s second term in office, thus marking another presidential election. This time around, tensions have definitely grown to a new level on the political front. With primaries currently taking place and a new POTUS to be elected during the month of Doctor Strange, it seems that our idealistic view of our country has become clouded with cynicism, dividing both parties even further away.
It’s fitting that with both Batman v Superman and Civil War echo the tensions found within our selection of candidates. We are once again facing a scenario in which life imitates art. Eight years ago, Americans had optimistic eyes amidst times of economic turmoil much like how Iron Man represented to moviegoers the start of a new era at the cinema. Flash-forward to today, and it seems as though that optimism has significantly died down, and now we see our heroes, whom were destined to work together for a common good butting heads over ideological differences.
But despite of this tension-filled election year, I believe that it is necessary to have themes that permeate our modern culture be represented onscreen – especially within our big blockbusters. Of course, movies are meant to entertain, but filmmakers understand the importance of enlightening audiences with more to discuss than just a fun action sequence.
So when we finally see Captain America: Civil War this week, not only should we be excited by the appearances of Black Panther and Spidey, but most importantly, the themes that can be explored and serve as a topic for discussion amongst the community. These discussions epitomize why these stories continue to resonate with us today and hopefully, for future years to come.