In terms of mainstream blockbusters, the 2000s have clearly been the decade of the comic book movie. Since X-Men came out in 2000, there has been a plethora of comic book superhero movies. Some of these movies like the X-Men series, the Spider-Man series, and Batman Begins have been absolutely solid. Other comic book titles like Daredevil, Fantastic Four, and Ghost Rider haven’t worked nearly as well. The latest Marvel franchise to come to screen, Iron Man, seemed like a bit of a wild card. As a comic Iron Man was an all right title, but he’s always been a second rate character, also it’s director Jon Favreau was not a proven effects director. However, things began to look better when Robert Downy Jr. was announced, which seemed like brilliant casting, the trailer was funny, and the effects seemed solid.
The film centers on Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), a brilliant scientist who runs a major weapons business. On a business trip to Afghanistan Stark’s convoy is attacked and Stark finds himself held hostage by terrorists. Stark is forced by these terrorists to build a missile, instead he uses the materials provided to build an armor suit to escape. Upon returning home Stark begins to question his role as a weapons manufacturer, eventually he decides to use his powers for good and builds an improved version of his escape armor in order to fight evil.
As I previously established, there have been quite a lot of superhero movies lately, and any filmmaker trying to make another has the challenge of bringing something new to the table. Favreau, the writer of Made and Swingers, didn’t seem like the type to make a superhero epic. It turns out that what Favreau was good at in his previous films was exactly what Iron Man needed to set itself apart, namely dry witty dialogue and attitude. Before his epiphany Stark is a snaky millionaire cynic, a sarcastic narcissist prone to funny one-liners. He’s not unlike the characters in Swingers, flawed witty people. Robert Downy Jr. is absolutely perfect for this role, coming off similarly articulate and funny performances in A Scanner Darkly and Zodiac.
Stark’s position as a millionaire arms manufacturer also allows the film a certain degree of unpretentious, satirical social commentary. The film examines the nature of capitalism and the effects it can have in war zones. Stark choosing to sacrifice profits for what he sees as his company’s ethical responsibility is an interesting moral, and there is also a statement tin the fact that his stockholders see this attitude as a sign of mental illness. Of course, this isn’t Syriana, it’s a comic book blockbuster and this social commentary will probably just go over the heads of those not interested in looking for it. It is however there and it is an interesting look at a similar statement about the military industrial conflict made by the original Marvel comic book that took place against the backdrop of the Vietnam War as opposed to the war in Afghanistan.
This satiric nature along with the witty dialogue do give the film some teeth and set it apart to a good degree which makes both elements important as this could easily have felt identical to other similar films. In fact the film’s tone is quite clearly borrowed almost entirely from the Spider-Man series. This style is closer to a silver age comic book world that the darker, weightier world’s of Batman Begins or X-Men. It is stylistically truer to the spirit of it’s original comic book source material than either the Batman or X-Men franchises, which is neither a good or bad thing, but is a major stylistic decision.
Iron Man is a character that translates to film surprisingly well, one would have thought such an artificial character would have lead to a poor CGI fest. However, it actually works pretty well because, as last year’s Transformers showed, metallic technology looks better as CGI than organic flesh. This can be seen in one scene where Iron Man, who looked photorealistic when covered in his suit, took his glove off to reveal a CGI hand which looked much more fake than his metal armor. That odd bit of fake looking effects was most definitely an exception in a film whose effects are otherwise completely solid.
The supporting cast is solid, but Downey Jr overshadows it in many ways. Jeff Bridges is clearly having a lot of fun playing Obadiah Stane, Stark’s mentor and buisness partner. Bridges goes with a shaved head and beard, and has some interesting line delivery. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Stark’s long suffering assistant reminicant of John Gielgud’s butler character in the 1981 Dudley Moore vehicle Arthur. There is a certain sexual tention between Stark and the Paltrow charcter, but it never blooms into a full on romance which is probably being saved for a sequel. Paltrow is good but is wasted to a certain degree her character never feels tacked on, but isn’t a role large enough to be in the league of a major actress like Paltrow. Terrence Howard is also featued as a military Colonel named James Rhodes who comicbook fans know will eventually become a sidekick of sorts called War Machine. Like Paltrow, Howard feels wasted in this instalment, where he has little role other then to be established for future sequels.
Saving things for future sequels is really the biggest problem Iron Man has as a film unto itself. In many ways the film simply feels like a setup for a future franchise so that Hollywood can make yet another trilogy to carry them through the next six years. Like many first instalments in franchises like this, the film gets really bogged down in origin story and ends up without much of a superhero story to make an action film out of once the character is established and gets his powers. Consequently the film suffers in its third act in a big way where we are treated with a half-assed plot twist that isn’t that surprising and doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. We also see the result of some clunky foreshadowing.
Iron Man, like the comic it’s based on, will probably be doomed to be the middle child of the Marvel Universe. It never reaches the heights of the Spider-Man or X-Men franchises, nor does it stoop to the depths of Fantastic Four or Ghost Rider. Hopefully the inevitible sequel will be able to hit the ground running and kick ass, as is often the case with superhero franchises. It’s a solid, fun film even if it’s ultimately lightwheight and not wildly original. It’s worth seeing for Robert Downy Jr. alone as this is one of the few superhero films where the secret identity is significantly more interesting than the superhero, and that’s not really a bad thing.
*** out of four