"A franchise that is already beginning to rust" - Here's what the critics originally said about the first Iron Man movie

Tony Stark tests out his hand canon in the original Iron Man.

Ten years ago Iron Man propelled into cinemas launching one of the most successful movie franchises of all time. In the decade since its release, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has seen its Iron founding father take a winding journey that led him all the way to this year's Avengers: Infinity War. Nowadays, the film is looked upon as being the bedrock upon which Kevin Feige and co. built their empire, but what did critics think of the film when it originally came out? You might be surprised to know that not everyone was so sure the MCU would last. Read on for a selection of extracts from the 2008 Iron Man reviews (including our own) and find out what the critics originally thought of the Marvel movie which started it all. 


A triumphant Tony Stark stands as his weapons are tested behind him,

(Image credit: Marvel)

BBC critic Paul Arendt rightly made note of Robert Downey Jr.’s charismatic turn as Tony Stark. It seems that even at the time critics realised that Downey was built for the role. 

Stark, a humming dynamo of energy and humour in Downey Jr's delightful performance, is far more appealing that the stodgy, guilt-ridden heroes of Batman and Spider-Man. While he operates on his own steely moral code, there's none of that tiresome bitching about the burden of responsibility. Iron Man understands that being a superhero is supposed to be fun.

Arendt also noted the direction of MCU founding father Jon Favreau and the incredible production design of Iron Man’s suits:

Favreau shoots the plentiful action with elan, and the production design of the Iron Man suits is top notch - he looks like a muscle car on legs.

Arendt wasn’t without his criticism’s of the film, however, he did join other critics in singling out the films weak final act:

Iron Man's only real fault is an underwhelming climax, but by then it has amassed enough goodwill to keep audiences happy. Roll on the sequel.

SFX magazine

Iron Man walks away from an explosion after bringing justice to those who imprisoned him.

Even at the time people knew that casting Downey was a masterstroke as Richard Edward of our sister publication SFX magazine once again noted. 

Heading up the list of positives is Robert Downey Jr, a masterstroke of casting who completely nails billionaire playboy turned armour-plated do-gooder Tony Stark. There’s never been any doubts over Downey’s talent, but in his first blockbuster lead he’s a revelation.

Edward’s also highlighted the relationship between Stark and Pepper Potts...

Indeed, he’s arguably more watchable than his ferric alter-ego, particularly when he’s sparring with super PA/love interest “Pepper” Potts (a fantastic Gwyneth Paltrow) in a “will they/won’t they” relationship that brings Moonlighting to the Marvel universe. 

He wasn’t so keen on the film's main villain, played by Jeff Bridges, however:

With motives that involve fluctuations in share price rather than the traditional “taking over the world”, the villain doesn't really cut it. And by the time Iron Man tests his metal against the bigger Iron Monger you want them to get it over with as quickly as possible – surprising, as it’s only the second proper glimpse we get of Iron Man in action. 

Edward’s was quick to point out how well the film's references worked and the potential for future sequels, which, of course, turned out to be prophetic. 

Of course, story won’t have been Marvel’s only concern, and there’s a chance plot was sacrificed in the name of introducing the world-at-large to a non-A list hero while keeping fans happy (die-hards will love War Machine and S.H.I.E.L.D. references). That Iron Man succeeds in these respects bodes well for the inevitable sequels – maybe then he’ll break free of his origins and show the hero he really can be.

Total Film magazine

Gwyneth Paltrow stars as Pepper Potts.

Our other sister publication Total Film magazine’s lukewarm review favourably compared the tone of Iron Man to the superhero movies of the day.

Not too light, not too dark… a bit grey, then? Not at all: this is buoyant, bright, a constant breeze. But still it hovers somewhere on the superhero-adap spectrum between the good and the great. Not as flyweight as Fantastic Four or Daredevil or Ghost Rider, but just missing the myth-spinning splendour and heft of a Spidey 2 or X2 or Batman Begins.

Like SFX, they also point out Downey’s trademark delivery of the films many one-liners:

The star bullseyes every Martini-dry one-liner (“I’m starving, get me a scotch”; “This is the Fun-vee; the Humvee’s back there”) and has chemistry with everyone: baldy/beardy/shifty right-hand man Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges); military liaison/best buddy James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes (Terrence Howard); indulgent assistant/flirt-mate Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, ginger-haired, hot); vampy journos, starstruck GIs, earnest Afghans… There’s even cute, running repartee with Stark’s anthropomorphised machine-shop ‘bots.

But Total Film were critical of Favreau’s direction:

Bits and pieces bedazzle: the cool wonder of Downey Jr. air-surfing in his garage, scads of sexy holo-technology, a couple of shots of glow-in-the-dark portent… but in terms of the bigger picture, Fav’s lightness of touch isn’t a match for the verve and vision of a Raimi, Singer or Nolan.

The Hollywood Reporter

Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter talked about the ways in which Iron Man borrowed from the sci-fi that came before in order to create something new. 

The film neatly borrows from a raft of both real and science-fiction technologies as well as previous sci-fi movies to propel the fast-paced two-hour film. In his home basement (think Bat Cave), Tony can talk to his computers and robotics (think R2-D2) while his suit starts to resemble RoboCop on human growth hormones. The space flights and acrobatics over Los Angeles evoke Spider-Man. Yet the whole package is distinctly its own, a tale originated in the '60s cleverly and logically transposed into today's world.

He also singled out the performances of both Downey and Paltrow for praise:

Downey plays off his own bad-boy image wonderfully. The writers give him great lines to work with and ditto that for his Girl Friday, Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts, whose own svelte lines cannot be improved on.


Tony Stark repairs one of his suits in Iron Man.

Time gave the movie a glowing review singling out the comic book action as a high point.

He soars through the night sky, disrupts military aviation, wages holy war against those twin bastions of evil, terrorists and corporate bigwigs. He's Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), zillionaire industrialist, and he arrives accompanied by the POW!, BANG! and KA-BOOM! suitable for a movie based on a comic book, but with lots more intelligence than the genre usually demands. 

The Time critic Richard Corliss was full of praise for the intelligent, kid friendly epic:

Readers of movie reviews often think that critics hate the big Hollywood stuff and cherish only the little films about Romanian abortions or Iranian kids. But some of us, this one anyway, knows that there's an American style — best displayed in the big, smart, kid-friendly epic — that few other cinemas even aspire to, and none can touch. When it works, as it does here, it rekindles even a cynic's movie love. So cheers to Downey, Favreau and the Iron Man production company. They don't call it Marvel for nothing.

The New York Times

Tony Stark shows the villain of the film the arc reactor keeping him alive.

The New York Times opened it’s review by commenting on the “glut” of superhero movies being released at the time. They had no idea. 

The world at the moment does not suffer from a shortage of superheroes. And yet in some ways the glut of anti-evil crusaders with cool costumes and troubled souls takes the pressure off of Iron Man which clanks into theaters today ahead of Hellboy, Batman and the Incredible Hulk. This summer those guys are all in sequels or redos, so Iron Man (a Marvel property not to be confused with the Man of Steel, who belongs to DC and who’s taking a break this year) has the advantage of novelty in addition to a seasonal head start.

They too heaped praise upon the films witty script and fantastic casting:

The film benefits from a script (credited to Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway) that generally chooses clever dialogue over manufactured catchphrases and lumbering exposition, and also from a crackerjack cast that accepts the filmmakers’ invitation to do some real acting rather than just flex and glower and shriek for a paycheck.

They did join other reviews in criticising the films thin plot, however.

Those moments are what you are likely to remember. The plot is serviceable, which is to say that it’s placed at the service of the actors (and the special-effects artists), who deftly toss it around and sometimes forget it’s there.

Not everyone was filled with praise though and some critics were ready to call time of death on the MCU before it had even started...

The Guardian

Iron Man faces off against his nemesis the Iron Monger.

Unlike most critics, The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw wasn’t so keen on the potential franchise starter. Bradshaw singled out the films supporting cast as one of the reasons it didn’t work for him. Not sure I agree with that...

She is played by Gwyneth Paltrow, the Queen of Bland, and there is a yucky scene in which Stark and Pepper almost kiss and it looks worryingly like some sort of sibling-incest. He also has a best-buddy-cum-wing-man in the form of a soldier called Rhodey, in which role Terrence Howard is performing at about 35% strength.

Bradshaw did offer faint praise for Downey’s performance before making a prediction that turned out to be... well, wrong:

As for Downey, he is such a distinctive, not to say barking mad performer, quite unlike anyone else around, that it is always good to see him. But I can't quite see his Iron Man capturing the imagination.

In hindsight, we’re sure that Bradshaw totally doesn’t regret the prediction he made in the closing line of his review: "Clearly Iron Man 2 is being readied: but this is a franchise that is already beginning to rust."

Ten years later and Iron Man's is still going strong, but if you have questions about his latest outing, check out our Avengers: Infinity War ending explainer.  

Matt Trask