A film review by Craig J. Koban

Rank: #19

IRON MAN  jjj
½ 

2008, PG-13, 122 mins.

Robert Downey Jr.: Tony Stark / Terrence Howard: Rhodey / Jeff Bridges: Obadiah Stane /  Gwyneth Paltrow: Pepper Potts

Directed by Jon Favreau / Written by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, based on the Marvel Comics character created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck and Jack Kirby

Iron Man is the closest thing I can think of that approximates a businessman superhero.   Very rarely has fighting villainy with aspirations of world domination been so closely tied to stock options. 

Imagine crossing equal parts Howard Hughes (minus the obsessive compulsive disorder, collection of bottled urine and Kleenex boxed slippers) with Bill Gates and then combine that with the mythos of Batman and Robocop and you have the essence of the character.   Much like Stan Lee originally envisioned when the character made his first appearance in March of 1963’s TALES OF SUSPENSE #39, Iron Man’s alter-ego, Anthony Edward “Tony” Stark, was a Hughes and Bruce Wayne figure for the way he was a multi-billionaire, an inventor, a colorful man of the media, and a irrepressible ladies man.  Like Gates and Batman, Stark uses technology to his fullest advantage, which helps him become super human despite his otherwise normal human frailties.  And finally, like Robocop, when Stark fully becomes a man encased in crimson and yellow metal, he emerges as a one-man, battle-ready, kick ass squad. 

Iron Man may not be the most universally popular of Marvel Comic’s heroes (that accolade is easily held by Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk), but the character is still indicative of Lee’s predilections for having his heroes’ alter egos go against the grain: They seem like the least likely people to be costumed clad champions of justice.  Peter Parker is an unpopular teenager that is ridiculed by his classmates and struggles with the pressures of adolescent life while saving the world as Spider-Man.  Tony Stark, perhaps even more interestingly, is a monumentally wealthy war profiteer that made all of his loot selling mass weapons to fight wars that, it could be aptly argued, cost thousands of lives in the process.  Stark, at least initially, is one of the few comic book personas that is guided by good ol’ fashioned American greed and capitalism.  He’s out to make a buck, have fun, and score with as many ladies as possible.  What allows for him to become a hero is when he realizes that all of his financial pursuits in the arms business are hollow.    

With great weapons of mass destruction comes an even greater responsibility and sense of overwhelming guilt. 

Jon Favreau’s long anticipated, $180 million dollar summer blockbuster/adaptation of IRON MAN rightfully and thankfully understands this psychological depth to the character’s origins.  Like two of the greatest super hero films of all-time, SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE and the very recent BATMAN BEGINS, Favreau exhibits a considerable amount of pose and patience with this material.  For a relative novice director (he's made only two films, ELF and ZATHURA), he is keenly able to divulge that the best way to handle this material is with restraint, not sensory overkill.  In a lesser director’s ostentatious hands, IRON MAN could have degenerated into a brainless orgy of dumb, bombastic action and chaotic visual hyperactivity (ahem, TRANSFORMERS), but Favreau is smarter than that.  He let’s this origin story simmer and develop gradually.  We don’t see a full-fledged Iron Man until late in the film, which allows more depth to be shown for the character dynamics and interactions.  Moreover, since we anticipate Iron Man’s appearance, the action scenes later also resonate with so much more spunk and gratifying enthusiasm and energy.

This focus on story and character also allows for the more intrinsic aspects of Stark’s personality and world outlook change to have importance in the story.  Granted, Stark is nowhere near the emotionally and psychologically damaged goods that Bruce Wayne is in BATMAN BEGINS, but there are some noteworthy themes here, that of a war profiteer that develops a crisis of conscience.  His dilemma is to either (a) continue to make deadly weapons, earning his business empire millions, all while they are indirectly used by the wrong hands or (b) denounce his trade, stop making weapons, and become a heroic, titanium clad literal man of steel and attack those that use his weapons, all while his business loses billions.   

The film tries to be a bit more accessible to a wider audience.  Favreau takes aspects of the comic book origins and makes necessary tweaks here and there: In Lee’s first issues, Iron Man was spawned by Stark's abduction by Vietnamese agents during the war, which later propelled him to become a strident Anti-Communist crusader versus North Vietnam and all other Red scum.  Since the Cold War is officially caput, the writers have modernized Stark’s origins to involve terrorists in Afghanistan.  Okay, so maybe the Taliban is no more inspired than using cardboard cutout Vietnamese communists, but they service the needs of this story for a villain we can easily hate. 

The film’s prologue will easily appease Iron Manoholics.  We are introduced to Stark (Robert Downey Jr., more on him in a bit) and his Air Force buddy, Rhodey (Terrance Howard, a great actor marginalized with a somewhat marginalized sidekick character, but he's still decent here) go to Afghanistan to see a demo of Stark Industries’ latest advancements in killing the enemy.  The exhibition of the lethality of Stark’s new bombs has the pomp and circumstance of a circus show, all while Stark lets out his first of many well-articulated zingers: “Is it better to be feared or respected?  Is it too much to ask for both?” 

Just when things look rosy for Stark’s latest inventions, disaster strikes.  Cave dwelling terrorists ambush his convoy and Stark is nearly killed in the process.  However, he is kept alive, largely because of the efforts of a fellow prisoner (Shaun Toub), but his life support is a bit…say…tricky.  We discover that he has a nasty little piece of shrapnel lodged in his chest so his prisoner friend was forced concoct an electromagnetic device that stops it from ever hitting his chest (imagine having a big, long, and deep halogen bulb implanted in your chest and you get the idea).  However, things get worse for Stark when the terrorist leader, Raza (Faran Tahir) wants him to build him the same fiercely effective weapons that he just demonstrated for the army. 

Realizing that he will most likely die no matter what, Stark pulls the ultimate MacGuyer to get himself out of this mess.  Instead of building the bomb, he crafts himself a gigantic suit of metal armor with weapons and rocket boots so he can blast his way to freedom (funny, but how the terrorists are not able to deduce that he’s building an armored suit and not a bomb through their security cameras is beyond me).  Needless to say, Stark makes it out alive, thanks to his prototype iron man suit. 

When he arrives home he has an unalterable change of heart (maybe the shrapnel is helping) about his vocation and decides to cease all manufacturing of weapons, seeing as they are getting in the hands of people he thought he was fighting.  This, of course, would mean disaster to any weapons making business (one thing the film never thoroughly explains is how Stark does not loose everything from this move).  This move stuns his secretary, the affectionately named Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltro, playing her role here with so much more spirit and sass than she did in a similar part in SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW, where she looked bored stiff).  Even more stunned are Stark’s board of directors and his close friend and colleague, Obidiah Stane (played with a sneering undercurrent of greedy vindictiveness by the great Jeff Bridges).  When Stark Industry stocks take a nosedive, Stane goes on the villainous offensive.  Bridges, bald as a baby, sporting a thick oppressive beard, and munching on cigars much of the time, is a real treat as this lecherous fiend, even if this villain is a bit perfunctory and routine. 

Of course, after Stark decides to go from weapons manufacturer to super hero, he decides to make some serious overhauls to his original iron man suit.  These moments are a kick, if not surprisingly hilarious (look at one scene which shows Stark’s first test of his gravity defying rocket boots, which generates the film's biggest laugh).  With rubber and metal versions of the armor created by Stan Winston Studios alongside visual effects work down by Industrial Light and Magic, there is rarely a moment in IRON MAN where the visual trickery is not seamless.  Best of all, they don’t draw needless attention to themselves that distract from the overall whole.  They’re where moments in the SPIDER-MAN films where - as much as I liked them - the sight of the CGI wall-crawler looked too artificial, but Iron Man flies and moves around with plausible weight and dexterity. 

That, and he looks really, really cool in battle. 

As much as I truly admired the film’s visual effects ingenuity, IRON MAN – like SPIDER-MAN – is made all the more appealing of a super hero film largely because of the man behind the mask…or in this case helmet.  The masterful comic book films knew the obligation of focusing of the hero’s secret identity to its fullest, and Iron Man is no exception.  Has there ever been a more inspired, surprising, and perfectly cast actor as a comic book hero than Robert Downey Jr.?  Downey himself is no stranger to budding heads with the law over his much publicized bouts with drugs and alcohol, and his laid back craziness, lightning fast verbal wit, and easygoing drollness and capriciousness are so flawlessly imbued in this Stark’s hedonistic impulses.  Weak actors would have played Stark up to hammy caricature, but Downey invests in this figure, which makes his psychological  turn from a cocky, conceited, and selfish billionaire industrialist to self-actualized and well-meaning super hero all the more believable.  Downey’s scenes with Paltro also have such a finely tuned chemistry and flirtatious symmetry (the way they fire off dialogue back and forth and nearly finish each other’s sentences is inspired).   Like Tobey Maguire’s take on Peter Parker, without Downey Jr. in IRON MAN, the film would never soar so high and would have lacked humanity. 

IRON MAN was a long time in the coming; directors as far ranging as Joss Whedon, Nick Cassavetes, and Quentin Tarantino were once considered to helm the project.  Jon Favreau may not initially feel like the most solid choice to quarterback a multimillion-dollar summer blockbuster like this, but his resulting film wholeheartedly delivers on most expected and unexpected levels.  Kids will, no doubt, eat up IRON MAN’s nifty and boisterous action spectacle, but adults in the audience will like the film’s sly intelligence, dry wit, and humble sophistication with the hero’s larger story arc.  Favreua has stated that he envisions a grand IRON MAN trilogy that would later focus on darker elements of Stark’s life (like his comic book battle with alcoholism, which should be very, very interesting considering Downey Jr.’s real life troubles with sobriety).  Amen to that, because if this first film is any indication, than the next two installments will be worth the wait.  IRON MAN, as the first official high marquee release of the summer season, is an exhilarating, high-octane action/adventure laced with social commentary, a bit of romance, and – most importantly – a thoughtfully created man behind the hero’s façade.  IRON MAN is a great entertainment, a lot of fun, and virtually rust free.  

 

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REVIEWS:

 

IRON MAN 2  (2010)  jj1/2

 

IRON MAN 3  (2013)  jjj

 

 

 

 

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