Marvel Studios' first feature Iron Man opened in theaters for Thursday night preview showings on May 1, launching the first phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The slick superhero flick, directed by Jon Favreau and starring Robert Downey Jr. as industrialist playboy Tony Stark, was the premiere independent feature from Marvel Studios and would spawn two direct sequels as well as the wider MCU, the 23-movie shared continuity home to the Avengers and other franchises produced by Marvel mastermind Kevin Feige. 12 years later, the now Disney-owned franchise has grossed $22.55 billion globally and holds the highest-grossing film of all time in Downey and Stark's superhero swansong Avengers: Endgame.
Iron Man grossed $3.5 million in opening night preview showings on May 1 before going on to win $35.2 million in official opening day numbers on May 2, at the time the thirteenth biggest-opening day ever.
Its $98.6 million domestic opening weekend and first place finish at the box office was at the time the eleventh-best biggest opening weekend, but Iron Man has since been bumped back to 62 on the list.
Five of the top ten spots are held by Iron Man's MCU successors, with superhero team-up movie Captain America: Civil War — where Iron Man opposed Chris Evans' Captain America in a starring role — taking over Iron Man's spot at #11.
"[Iron Man] beat Will Smith and Jesus," a Paramount insider said in the wake of the Marvel movie's 2008 opening, referring to the Will Smith-starring I Am Legend ($77.2m) and The Passion Of The Christ ($83.8m). "It's just mind blowing. Internally, some people were going into high 80sM and low 90sM but people were laughing at them. We had our own box office poll and maybe one person thought $100M."
The superhero hit, also starring Gwyneth Paltrow,Terrence Howard, and Jeff Bridges, went on to gross $585 million at the worldwide box office, making it the eighth highest-grossing movie of that year.
Before Iron Man launched the most successful film franchise in history, Feige worried the film wouldn't make it into theaters.
"We didn't have Spider-Man. We didn't have Fantastic Four. [We had] the B-list characters — that was the L.A. Times or somebody's headline," Feige previously told Vanity Fair ahead of Iron Man's 10th anniversary. "I never really thought that because I knew that Iron Man was really cool and Hulk was, arguably, next to Spider-Man, the biggest character we had."
"I thought they all had amazing potential, but the goal was deliver these two movies, and make the best Iron Man film we could, and make the best version of Hulk, even coming five years after another version of Hulk," Feige added. "It wasn't, 'This is the first of a 22-movie cinematic saga.'"
A sequel, Iron Man 2, would follow in 2010. Stark would then assemble alongside Captain America, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) in 2012's The Avengers, just four years after Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) stepped from the shadows in the Iron Man post-credits scene to usher Stark into a bigger universe.
When Vanity Fair asked Feige what advice he might have for other studios attempting to replicate Marvel’s success with cinematic universes, Feige said, "The only advice is don't worry about the universe. Worry about the movie. We never set out to build a universe. We set out to make a great Iron Man movie."
Iron Man and other Marvel Studios movies are available for streaming on Disney+.