Sarah Halley Finn is a superstar.
She may not be a household name, but she probably ought to be, because she is head of casting for Marvel Studios. Which meant that she was the one, all those years ago, who thought that Robert Downey Jr was a perfect choice to play a spectacularly gifted talent with substance abuse issues. Okay, that could have been typecasting, but even so: the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe spins out of that decision and the ones around it and after it.
Iron Man first came to my attention when my sister, the paranormal YA writer, was at SDCC and saw the panel, and was nonplussed at best by the constant self-congratulation about what a great job they’d done bringing Tony Stark to the screen. And then the movie came out, and…well, you could see why they felt that way. Because they’d done it. Nailed it. Created a flawed and believable character on an arc of increasing self-awareness, given him one best friend who felt real and authentic (“How was the Fun-vee?” Is exactly how my DC teammates would have rescued me in the desert) and another one who felt like more than The Love Interest (especially with the epic “and then you LEFT ME THERE” at the end), created a mentor with a perfect heel turn, put Stan Lee in as Hugh Hefner, and created a comic book movie with no actual super-powers and a sense of contemporary scale and grounding.
The timeline of the thing is what boggles you. This really is an eleven-year story where all the pieces matter. A dud like Iron Man 2? Still sets up the creation of War Machine and the sense of hubris that, coupled with PTSD, will lead to Ultron and Sokovia and the Accords and the events of Civil War, which is why the Avengers aren’t there when it all happens. All because at one point, Tony Stark thought he could privatize world peace.
RDJ has had two lines that absolutely got me long after. One was last year, in Infinity War, where Bruce tells him that the name is Thanos, that he sent Loki, that was the attack on New York, that’s him, and Tony’s reaction is a quiet “this is it.” The thing you’ve dreaded for six years, the inevitable moment of reckoning, the thing you can’t run from or hide from or escape is finally in front of you. That felt real.
The other, of course, was an ad-lib to Bruce about the thing in his chest that kept the cluster of shrapnel from gnawing its way into his heart. This circle of light keeping him alive. And he said “it’s a terrible privilege.” And that stuck with me, still does, because in one stroke he summed up what it’s like to be me. What it’s like to be anyone, really, what it’s like to be alive.
Marvel Comics were only a big part of my life in adolescence for maybe three or four years, tops. I was mostly an X-Men guy, but I was out before we ever heard the word Genosha, so I missed the entire run of the 1990s and the All Mutant Errrthang era of comics. Deadpool and Cable and Gambit and blah blah blah, all after my time. The initial X-Men series of films left me cold, especially when they butchered the whole Phoenix story (Bryan Singer left the X-Men for Superman and killed both franchises deader than fucking fried chicken), the Fantastic Four movies were shake-your-head bad, and Spider-Man, while successful, didn’t seem to be going much of anywhere. Certainly there was no notion that you could ever cross these over.
And then, forced by the necessity of having sold off rights to every profitable franchise in the 90s, Marvel had to start from scratch with only one character anyone had heard of (and still identified mostly with a TV show). Fast forward less than ten years, and in The Martian, what is Mark Whatley’s reference for “I could fly around like”? Iron Man. Not Superman, Iron Man. That’s how you know you’ve shifted the conversation. Because they did another Iron Man. Then a Shakespearian drama. Then a period piece. Then crossed them all over. And at every step of the way, it was possible to say “this is where they’ve overreached, this is where they’ve gone too far, they aren’t going to be able to sell this” and yet, it always worked out. Guardians of the Galaxy. Ant-Man. Doctor Strange. Every time you think they’ve gone frog-sticking without a light, it works out. Eleven years ago, if you’d said that a space-opera epic starring Robert Downey Jr, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, several actors you’d never heard of, and a talking CGI raccoon was about to be the first billion-dollar opening weekend in movie history, you’d have been laughed out of Hollywood.
Think about that: Marvel is about to open its fourth movie with a violent talking raccoon as a frontline star.
This is very much like the last Harry Potter, or the last Sopranos, or the last Breaking Bad: you don’t know who lives and who dies. But you care about all of ‘em. You believe in every single character arc that brought us to this place, even when they were truncated at best like Hawkeye. There’s going to be loss. There’s going to be tears (don’t get me started on the last five minutes of Guardians of the Galaxy 2, especially ‘they came’). I’m not ready to see Tony Stark lose his life trying to stop the thing that he spent every moment of the last six years working to stop.
And yet, I’m also ready to see what I hope will be a satisfying ending, and a depiction of how you can come back from the end of the world – not easily, not without cost, and not back to what you had, but that you can come back at all. Because I need that in my life right now, looking around at 2019. I just want to see a path back out of the dark for somebody.
I guess we’ll find out in about 72 hours.