Iron Man (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Iron Man is a different breed of superhero movie - a film that remembers it's possible to be outside the target demographic and still enjoy a tale set in this genre. What makes Iron Man interesting isn't the storyline which, except for a few wrinkles, is pretty much a standard issue superhero origin plot, but the way in which filmmaker Jon Favreau presents the narrative. Iron Man is mature in its perspective and the way it views its lead character, while at the same time tapping into the inner kid during some expertly executed action sequences. It uses CGI to advance the story rather than to populate the screen with pretty images. And, perhaps most importantly, the humor is restrained enough to avoid pushing the film over the line into camp or self-parody. Over the years, there have been only a handful of exceptional superhero movies, and Iron Man is among them.

Iron Man opens in Afghanistan, as a U.S. troop convoy carrying billionaire arms maker Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is attacked. Those charged with safeguarding Tony are killed; he is seriously wounded and taken captive. A round of flashbacks follows, introducing us to the brilliant, naïve playboy and those around him: his devoted Girl Friday, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow); his take-no-prisoners business partner, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges); and his best friend, Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard). Tony is on his way to Afghanistan to show off Stark Industry's latest and greatest way of killing people, and that gets us back to where we came in.

When he awakens, Tony is in a cave. As a result of his injuries, there is irremovable shrapnel in his chest and he must wear an electromagnet attached to his torso to keep the fragments from reaching his heart. He and his doctor/assistant/translator, Yinsen (Shaun Toub), have been given the charge of making a mighty killing missile for the guerilla leader, Raza (Faran Tahir). Instead, however, Stark uses the available materials to fashion a bulletproof, weaponed suit of armor that allows him to escape from the caves and return to friendlier locales. Once back home, he makes some radical decisions. He decides to terminate the company's weapons division (which sends stocks tumbling and enrages the board of directors) and to concentrate on perfecting the design of the suit that enabled him to escape Afghanistan.

Although Iron Man updates the comic book's opening chapters (shifting the locale from Vietnam to Afghanistan, for example), it remains faithful to the spirit, if not all the particulars. For viewers unfamiliar with the source material, there's no sense of being dropped unceremoniously into the middle of a fanboy's dream flick. Favreau has crafted the production to maximize appeal for both to those steeped in Iron Man lore and those who have never previously heard of the Mighty Marvel Metal Man. This is much like what Chris Nolan accomplished with Batman Begins: stripping away the legend and building it up gradually, using narrative and character (not action and effects) for the foundation.

There has never been a more inspired choice for a superhero than Robert Downey Jr. In recent decades, we've seen the likes of Christopher Reeve, Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Tobey Maguire, Ben Affleck, Nicolas Cage, Christian Bale, and others don capes, cowls, and masks, but none has accomplished this with more style, wit, and panache than Downey. His performance is riveting. He commands the screen. He nails Stark, making him much more than a charismatic fusion of Bill Gates, Hugh Hefner, and Howard Hughes. In one sense, Iron Man is really a character story with action elements, focusing on Stark's psychological journey from luxurious ignorance to shocked awareness and how, having his eyes opened, he can no longer stand by and do nothing. Downey sells this transformation while imbuing Stark with a biting sense of humor.

While none of the supporting characters are given anything close to the three-dimensional treatment accorded to Tony, there are some nice touches. The film does a solid job of misdirection when it comes to identifying the eventual chief villain; it's nice to find a movie that doesn't strictly follow the bad guy manual all the way through. The interaction between Stark and Gwyneth Paltrow's Miss Potts adds a little lightweight romance to things. There's something between these two, although it rarely manifests itself as anything more serious than a Bond/Moneypenny flirtation.

The special effects are top-notch and never seem overused or gratuitous. There are more of them than may be obvious since they're used not only in the several big action sequences but in some of the more sedate scenes (such as the played-for-laughs episode where Tony tries out the flying boots he's working on). Special effects are at their best when they work to enhance the plot without calling attention to themselves. That's what occurs in Iron Man. The effects wizards are in synch with the director, not trying to show off and upstage the actors.

Comparisons can be made between Iron Man and Batman. Both franchises feature rich men who turn to crime fighting as a way to provide balance. Both have lots of gadgets at their disposal. And both have faithful retainers who offer help and advice (Alfred, Miss Potts). Yet, in terms of their cinematic incarnations, even the latest Batman inhabits a pseudo-fantasy world. Tony Stark is grounded in something close to our reality. This gives Iron Man a sense of immediacy that even the fine Batman Begins does not have. Yet Iron Man and Batman Begins have a lot in common in the way that they rework the tired "superhero origin story," replace stereotypes with legitimate characters, and remember that everyone in the audience is not a 14-year old boy.

When it comes to tone, Iron Man achieves something at which many of even its most celebrated predecessors have failed: it doesn't feel like a superhero movie. Instead, it's bigger and more inclusive. The superhero elements are present, so devotees will not feel slighted or duped, but Iron Man wants to be more than just a summer genre picture or an appetizer before the next exploit of a better-known icon. The movie justifies the hype and, in addition to standing solidly on its own, it promises bigger and potentially more interesting developments for the sequel that no one doubts will be made.

Iron Man (United States, 2008)

Run Time: 2:06
U.S. Release Date: 2008-05-02
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1