Did you happen to notice that in the 2016 Captain America: Civil War movie (that I actually just saw a few days ago) Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark character – Iron Man – wears both a smartwatch and a traditional one? Yeah, it might seem like a nerdy thing to point out, but I wouldn’t dismiss the importance of this trivial fact in relation to the larger context of watches and pop culture.
Watches worn by famous people as well as characters in movies and television shows have more impact on us than we may readily admit. While most collectors will point to their own honed sense of taste and sophistication as the inspiration behind their desires and acquisitions, they are themselves influenced by elements in their lives that are the very establishment of their tastes and preferences. It is a simple truth that we all want to be cool, and to be cool we emulate those people or ideas in our life that bring us closest to the notion of social, economic, intellectual, and performance success.
I say all this because it is an irrefutable fact we are influenced by people – real or otherwise – that we respect, and it tends to be the fact that in some manner or other, we tend to emulate them. In the fashion world, this is obvious and has been going on for as long as there have been entertainment figures such as musicians and actors. Evidence even shows that in ancient Egyptian cultures middle class people aimed to dress and adorn themselves with items worn by the rich. In other words, we all want to be someone.
As I entered the watch world, I noticed how often watch brands would focus on timepieces or concepts which related to pop culture from the past. Moreover, I noticed how often collectors seemed interested in things like those watches that celebrities in the 1960s and ’70s wore, as well as timepieces shown prominently in films. Most people know the borderline fetishization people had for the watch-wearing habits of people like Steve McQueen and Paul Newman. What about the watches worn by Bruce Wayne (Batman) or James Bond 007? In fact, just recently I was sitting in the Omega boutique here in Los Angeles flipping through a James Bond book that had watches in images on virtually every page – and the book wasn’t even about James Bond watches at all.
I didn’t grow up in those eras, so the focus on such characters was lost on me. Nevertheless, a lot of today’s watch collectors did, and for them the idea that they might wear a timepiece worn by a favorite real or fictional personality that they looked up to is extremely appealing.
Over the years, I eventually caught the “as-seen-on” bug as new watches came out that did reference stories I grew up with, and I started to realize the utter importance of how things that inspired us during our youth continue to have strong meaning as we mature into adulthood. For example, I may have easily had zero interest in these 1980s Seiko watches if they had not been featured in the movie Aliens.
Now, fully at ease with the fact that something important from my youth will make me inexplicably want a timepiece, I pay extra attention to how events and product placements today will affect not only contemporary watch culture, but that of the future. And this brings me back to Iron Man. Marvel’s smart and irreverent “bad boy,” playboy, super rich Tony Stark, who gets all the fun toys and happens to also kick ass using technology and not super powers, as Iron Man alongside the rest of the Avengers.
Just like bullet-dodging lady-killer James Bond, it would be tough for males all around the world to not want to be like Tony Stark at least a little bit. His rapid fire yet self-aware whit makes him just human enough for kids and adults alike to see the character as a role model. No less so than James Bond, and there is an entire industry dedicated to helping people wear, drive, shoot, and travel just like 007 despite the fact that he – like Iron Man – is a fictional character brought to life through the magic of Hollywood. All of that is to say that what Tony Stark wears is likely to have some effect now or in the future on pop culture.
I began to make this point about eight years ago in 2008 when the first Iron Man movie came out in theaters, writing about how Tony Stark was wearing multiple Bulgari watches in the film. About a year into blogging about watches, I was rather impressed by the placement of the watches in the film and commented on how the choice of timepieces complemented the character. The story might have ended there with it being just another modern product placement, but in the 2010 Iron Man 2 movie, an entire scene was dedicated to luxury watches. Most people seemed to miss it, but for the watch industry it was a significant triumph.
At about 52 minutes into Iron Man 2, Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) character walks into Tony Stark’s bedroom carrying a watch box asking the question, “do you know what watch you’d like to wear tonight Mr. Stark?” I remember sitting in the movie theater at the time thinking to myself, “Holy shit, did that just happen? How did this scene get made?” Johansson then puts down the box (just like the ones so many of us have, meant to hold a dozen timepieces) and makes Iron Man a martini, handing it to him and asking “is that dirty enough for you?”
The look on Robert Downey Jr.’s face is not one of a man acting in that precise moment. He then replies to her that he wants a “Jaeger” and beckons her to bring the entire box to him on his lap. One of Hollywood’s most important sex symbols just made him a drink and proceeded to ferry in a box of luxury timepieces. If this isn’t a scene men will want to live out at some point in their lives, I don’t know what is. Whether or not this scene was Hollywood storytelling or marketing won’t matter a lick in a decade or so from now. Its officially part of “cool-guy lore,” and this is part of a larger picture which creates coolness and demand for tomorrow’s watch purchase decisions.
Now that I’ve established that Tony Stark is a bit of a watch guy, and that the Iron Man movies celebrate this, I wanted to talk about what Tony Stark is wearing in Captain America: Civil War. No, it isn’t per se an Iron Man movie, but it is the same characters in the same story universe. What was Robert Downey Jr. wearing throughout most of the movie? Not a real product, but rather a prop smartwatch that seemed to unfold into an Iron Man suit – among doing other things – and is powered by a smaller version of the reactor that Stark has in his chest keeping him alive.
On a bracelet and looking about as cool as a smartwatch can these days, you see Robert Downey Jr. wearing the watch both on top of his wrist and under it in various scenes in the movie. In fact, the watch has as much (if not more) of a part in the plot, as James Bond’s “gadget” Rolex and Omega watches did in 007 movies.
This comes at a time when smartwatches are not a major part of “cool” culture, nor are they universally loved yet. In fact, we arguably have yet to find a core value for smartwatches given today’s technology. Nothing you can buy works like Tony Stark’s smartwatch. And yet there is inherent promise in the concept, and more importantly, product validation. By Iron Man wearing a smartwatch, the entire product genre gains a few coolness points – at least with youth. Robert Downey Jr.’s rendition of Tony Stark is well-dressed and effortlessly hip despite his age. Intentional or not, this is Hollywood’s nod of approval to the entire smartwatch industry. If anything, it should help consumers stay curious to see what manufacturers come out with next.
After seeing Tony Stark wear his Hollywood prop-master-special smartwatch throughout most of Captain America: Civil War, I was excited but also a bit disappointed. Is this the end of a classy Mr. Stark who gracefully chooses his luxury timepiece for the evening’s opportunities? The answer is “No,” as it turns out, which for me is the most important part of the story. While in “business mode” throughout the movie, Stark wears his functional smartwatch; when he is more relaxed toward the end of the movie, all of a sudden I see him wearing a traditional watch. It is as though even the movie producers realized that with emerging technology also comes new choices. The smartwatch is for business and action, while the traditional timepiece is for play and leisure.
Now, that isn’t a concept that hasn’t been raised around here before, and it is interesting to see it repeated on the big screen. I didn’t even see the dial of the traditional watch he was wearing very well, but one could easily tell by the case and strap that it was not the Iron Man smartwatch from earlier in the film.
Sure, for now, this is all just stuff that happens in a movie. It is easy to dismiss, but time has a way of making these costume and prop decisions important. As kids grow up, they do so without forgetting their heroes – be they real of fictional. A good story is still a good story, whether it is true or not, and the same goes for characters. We are each free to choose who our role models are, but once we do, we can be damn sure their style choices have a real impact on us. Now, I’m curious to see what will be on Tony Stark’s wrist in Iron Man 4.
Until then, be sure to check out this interview with Robert Downey Jr. about his “epic” watch collection. Enviable it definitely is – epic, maybe not so much. And while Downey Jr. clearly was not aware, there actually is a fake watch among the ones he shows… Let’s see if you can spot which one it is – we’ll add the answer to the end of this post at the end of the day of publishing.