A decade and a half after the 2008 premiere of Marvel’s “Iron Man,” it’s hard to remember a time without it. The film took a lesser-known comic book character and turned him into the most popular member of the Avengers, made him a cultural phenomenon, and changed the landscape of popular film as we know it. The film helped to revive Robert Downey Jr.’s career after his battle with substance abuse and made him one of the most beloved names in the geek world.
When we meet Tony Stark, he’s kind of a jerk. He’s rich, inherited his father’s company, makes weapons of mass destruction, and he’s really full of himself. However, when he’s ambushed during a weapons test in Afghanistan and ends up in the hands of the terrorist organization the Ten Rings, he’s gravely injured and shoved in a cave with fellow prisoner Yinsen (Shaun Toub). That cave scene … well, it doesn’t take away his incredibly high self-confidence, but the circumstances of that part of the film change him. He’s dying, and someone he doesn’t know helps him. He realizes what his life so far has amounted to. It moves him forward and sets him on the path of crime-fighting as a superhero.
It’s hard to imagine “Iron Man” without that pivotal scene in the cave, but, according to the book “MCU: The Reign of Marvel Studios” by Joanna Robinson, Dave Gonzales, and Gavin Edwards, it almost didn’t make it into the film.
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‘Maybe we won’t do the cave’
According to the book, director Jon Favreau often had fast changes in his production. Even scenes with sets that were already built were taken down unused when things changed in the storyline during the shoot. That almost happened with the pivotal cave scene. Art director Susan Wexler explained:
“The script changed so much. We started building the cave where Iron Man is really conceived, when Tony Stark is kidnapped. That was the one thing we knew that we were going to be doing. It was three-quarters of the way done, and they said, ‘Maybe we won’t do the cave.'”
She then said that production designer J. Michael Riva mentioned that the set was already there and they might as well use it. Perhaps they would have had the scene where Stark gets the arc reactor in his chest (and later builds the first Iron Man suit) somewhere else if Riva’s suggestion hadn’t been taken. Maybe it would have worked, but probably not as well.
Proof that Tony Stark has a heart
The thing is, that scene is so perfect because it separates Tony from his wealth and privilege. It takes him away from being the recipient of his late father’s largess and fame. It puts him in a situation that is so opposite from his everyday life that it forces him to confront who he is and who he’s let himself become. That cave, his injury, and a stranger saving his life is all in such contrast to the life he normally lives that it throws the change in our faces, just as it throws it in his. The same scene somewhere else might not have worked as well.
He has the skills to save himself. He has the humanity in there to save the world. He just had to be put in a situation where he doesn’t have anything to rely on but himself and a stranger to save his life and show him what’s important. The scene was so pivotal that, as the book points out, “Avengers: Endgame” finishes the credits with the sound of his hammer in the cave, creating that suit.
“Iron Man” is currently streaming on Disney+.