The Avengers’ Infinity Saga (23 movies) begins and ends with Iron Man. He is the title character in three movies, the leader of the ensemble cast of Avengers in six others, an important support character in both Spiderman movies, and makes an appearance in most of the others.

Iron Man’s debut in the comics took place in March 1963, with Tales of Suspense #39. Stan Lee wanted to create a story around a wealthy businessman, a pampered playboy like the Scarlet Pimpernel or Bruce Wayne. Tony Stark was a weapons manufacturer, severely injured when he was captured by Communists and kept alive by a device in his heart, which could also power a suit of armour, like a high-tech knight-errant. At first the armour was grey, like the Hulk’s skin, but quickly became a golden yellow more easily worked with in the colour comics. The Avengers appeared only a few months later, for fans who wanted a Marvel version of DC’s Justice League.

In 1981, Tony Stark came out with an all-black stealth armour. In 1983, Jim Rhodes—Tony Stark’s pilot—took over as Iron Man when Stark went off to deal with his alcoholism—proof that Robert Downey Jr. was born to play Tony Stark. In 1987, Iron Man discovered that a criminal organisation called Force was using his suit technology against him, so he traveled the world battling and destroying every armoured suit based on the stolen technology. In 2005, his new armour could be controlled by his thoughts. In 2006, the seven-issue Civil War series appeared, with Iron Man facing off against Captain America over the Superhero Registration Act. This had ramifications in just about every Marvel magazine. Later, Tony Stark took over the leadership of SHIELD, and, in 2009, he passed on his armour to Nick Travis so he could work on the Space Elevator. That year, the Dark Avengers featured most of the major Marvel villains, led by Norman Osborne, Spiderman’s great foe. In 2010, Steve Rogers created the New Avengers and the Secret Avengers, then Iron Man and Spiderman teamed up against Carnage, and in 2012, there was an Avengers vs. X-Men crossover.

The film opens in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, where Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is being driven in a Hum-V by soldiers. The convoy is hit by enemy fire and Stark, badly injured, passes out as he sees that the rockets were built by Stark Industries. There is a biographical flashback and we learn that Tony is the son of Howard Stark, founder of Stark Industries, and becomes the head of the company at the age of 21. The next scene is an awards dinner in Las Vegas, where Stan Lee is mistaken for Hugh Heffner and Tony slips out. The acceptance speech is given by his long-suffering company manager Obadiah Stone (Jeff Bridges in an uncharacteristic role), and the award is brought to Stark at the craps table. Reporter Christina Everhart (Leslie Bibb) interviews him and in the next scene wakes up alone in his bed. His personal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) shows her out. “I guess you do everything for Tony Stark,” the snarky reporter says. “Yes,” Pepper replies. “I even take out the trash.” Tony is taking a plane to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, where he demonstrates his new Jericho Missile. Now we are caught up to the opening action scene.

Stark wakes up in a cave with wires in his heart and a magnet stopping the shrapnel in his chest from killing him. A doctor named Ho Yinsen (Shaun Toub), also a prisoner, has saved his life. The leader of the Ten Rings terrorists, named Raza (Faran Tahir), welcomes “the most famous mass murderer in America”, water-boards him when he refuses to sign papers, shows him tons of Stark Industries weapons, and tells him he will be freed if he builds them a Jericho missile. He sets to work immediately, building an arc reactor to power the electromagnet in his heart and a prototype suit of armour. Now immune to bullets, he walks out of the cave, taking out the terrorists as he goes, Doctor Yinsen dies, Stark destroys all the Stark weapons with his flame-throwers, and he rockets away across the desert. Helicopters commanded by his friend James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Terrance Howard) find him and he is brought home. He calls a press conference, to which Phil Colson (Clark Gregg) of SHIELD turns up, where he announces he is shutting down Stark Industries weapons division, enraging Obadiah Stone.

Jarvis was the butler in the Stark household when Tony was growing up. Accordingly, he named his A.I. assistant JARVIS (Just A Rather Very Intelligent System). Voiced by Paul Bettany, it helps him build a better arc reactor and a better suit of armour, with rockets in the boots and gloves. Stone warns him that the company is trying to force him out. His first flight in the new armour is both thrilling and funny, with typical Robert Downey comments (apparently largely ad-libbed), exploding classic cars, and an Icarus-like flight into the stratosphere that nearly kills him. A later scene in which Iron Man plays tag with U.S. Jets is just as impressive. Meanwhile, the Ten Rings terrorists have found the remains of his first armour and are rebuilding it. Obadiah is still providing Stark Industries weapons to them; he wipes them out and takes the original suit of armour as his own. Pepper finds out and is threatened by Obadiah, Coulson of SHIELD turns up again to help her, and a climactic battle follows in city traffic, on the roof of Stark Tower, and in the stratosphere, with Stark in a lighter, more sophisticated suit of armour and Stone in a huge and powerful brutish sort of armour. After the credits, Nick Fury turns up to talk to Tony Stark about the Avengers Initiative.

There had been an Iron Man movie in development since 1990 at Universal, Fox, and New Line Cinemas, but Marvel Studios acquired the rights in 2006, saving us from Quentin Tarantino directing Nicholas Cage as Tony Stark. Director Jon Favreau insisted on casting Robert Downey Jr., despite the Marvel Studios’ opposition, because he thought Downey was the best at playing a “likable asshole.” With the help of Industrial Light and Magic, the suit was created by Stan Winston, who like Downey, Favreau, and Jeff Bridges, was a fan of the Iron Man comics. The movie received 94% on Rotten Tomatoes.