How 'Iron Man' launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe 12 years ago

The film, which faced a number of challenges, went on to gross more than half a billion dollars worldwide

Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man (2008)
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Long before the Avengers assembled on the silver screen and the Marvel Cinematic Universe became a multi-billion dollar franchise, Iron Man was alone at the helm. The first of a 23-movie cinematic saga.

In fact, it has been exactly 12 years since Robert Downey Jr first donned the high-tech Iron Man suit on May 1, 2008. This was also before superhero flicks became all the rage.

In many ways, the Jon Favreau-directed Iron Man set the tone for all the superhero films to come. There was quite nothing like the film when Iron Man first came out. It was as adrenaline-pumping as it was funny, as slick and cool as it was suspenseful.

And though Iron Man would eventually lead the way for Marvel to claim its place as one of the highest grossing movie franchises of all time, filmmakers weren't always so sure about how the film would fare.

In fact, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige once said in an interview he wasn't even sure that Iron Man would make it into the theatres, especially since it was a B-list character.

Iron Man, which also stars Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard, and Jeff Bridges, went on to gross more than half a billion dollars worldwide, making it the eighth highest-grossing movie of 2008.

The film had a number of hurdles set against it. It was Marvel's first self-financed film and in the beginning, they had a hard time trying to get a writer on board. Producers also weren’t sure how the film would fare, especially with the murky reputation of its lead actor, Downey Jr, who was coming out of rehab and was a frequent and notorious figure in the tabloids. Still, Favreau insisted on him with a certainty that swayed the rest of the Marvel crew.

But despite everything, Downey delivered a timeless performance as Tony Stark. As exciting as Iron Man was as a superhero movie, it is the fact that the story touches upon universal themes that resonated with its audience. There was the exploration of the burden that comes with a fraught father-son relationship, and the peeling back of the ugly layers of the narcissism. It showed a flawed and self-occupied character going through an introspective journey in order to better himself.

The year 2008 may not seem so long ago, but it has been a lifetime for the Disney-owned Marvel Cinematic Universe and the superhero-movie genre. It may be a $22.5 billion (Dh82.6 billion) franchise now, but perhaps its best movie is still its first and least assured. Mainly due to the odds that were stacked against it and the retrospective knowledge of how Iron Man would draw contrails in the sky with for other superheroes to follow.