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Does Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man have a place in 2018?

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On Robert Downey Jr.’s birthday, and in the lead up to Avengers: Infinity War, let’s take a look back at the legacy of RDJ’s Iron Man and what it means now in 2018.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe celebrated its 10th anniversary a few months ago, marking a decade since the release of Iron Man (2008), when superhero movies were reinvented for good.  

Far from the grittiness of Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) and the Ben Affleck Daredevil films, Jon Favreau's Iron Man gave us a quippy, funny hero, a brighter colour-palette, and far more feel-good fun.

The question, however, of whether that film would have enjoyed the same success today, was raised recently by Joe Robert Cole, who co-wrote the record-smashingly successful Black Panther (2018) along with director Ryan Coogler. 

Cole appeared at a SXSW panel discussing how the current political and social climate, both in Hollywood and in the wider world, has impacted audience attitudes towards the superhero genre, reports IndieWire.

About Iron Man, Cole said, “Think about where we are now, with this very vapid, unintelligent president, and our world is cracking on the edges because of that. Think back to Tony Stark, him being douchey, and that being okay.

“If that character, Stark, was created in a movie today, I wonder if the response would be like, ‘Oh, it’s cool that he’s douchey and disrespectful to women … That’s fine.’ I think we’re at a different place. I think it’s a better place.”

He’s right. Compare Tony Stark’s arrogant genius-playboy persona with T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman)’s open humility. Where Stark attitude towards women was dated even in 2008, T’Challa actively surrounds himself with a plethora of women, each of whom he has a unique, respectful, and trusting relationship with. 

Compare the joke of Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) “taking out the trash” in the morning - a.k.a. Tony’s one night stand - to the complex and varied interactions between Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), Okoye (Danai Gurira), Shuri (Letitia Wright), and Ramonda (Angela Basset). 

It puts the matter into stark (ha!) relief. That’s not to say that Iron Man doesn’t have merit as a hero - not at all. Tony’s always been a complicated hero riddled with alcoholism, self-doubt, and daddy issues. His emotional arcs, though convoluted of late, still have cathartic value.

However, Black Panther and the reinventions of Spiderman (Tom Holland) in Homecoming (2017) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in Ragnarok (2017), and the critical and commercial success of these films, proves something: our perspective on heroism is changing.

The arguably toxic, hyper-masculine ideals presented by Stark, and by Captain America (Chris Evans) and earlier iterations of Thor, are slowly being replaced by a different kind of leading man. The three latest films in the MCU have a noticeably different tone - rather than jaded and sarcastic, they present good-natured heroes with a noticeable lack of chips on their shoulders.

As Ragnarok director and all round legend Taika Waititi put it in an interview with The Independent, “Thor and Loki are just two rich kids from outer space and we shouldn't really give a shit about what their problems are.” And so he made Ragnarok a tongue-in-cheek romp, while simultaneously  presenting a sharp examination of post-colonialism and the contemporary refugee crisis.

We should look back at Iron Man as the birth of a legacy, and praise it for what it did well in its contemporary context, but it’s clear that audiences are clamouring for something different now. With Avengers: Infinity War on the horizon, boasting a truly ridiculous number of heroes facing their biggest threat yet, it certainly isn’t a huge leap to make that not all of them will make it out alive. Since we were robbed of a meaningful death in Captain America: Civil War (2016), there is rampant speculation regarding whether it’ll be Iron Man or Cap who’ll bite the bullet first.

I say let them both go. Let’s make room for Marvel’s first solo female hero in Captain Marvel (2019). Let’s make room for Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) to pick up the mantle of Captain America. Let’s make room for Black Panther’s 3-film franchise.

We’ll always be grateful to Robert Down Jr. and everything he’s done for the MCU, but it’s time to give the new — more relevant — kids the spotlight.

Avengers: Infinity War releases on April 26, distributed by Walt Disney Studios.

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