Iron Man

starring Robert Downey Jr, Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges and Gwyneth Paltrow
written by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway & directed by Jon Favreau
Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and brief suggestive content.

Billionaire weapons manufacturer Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) re-evaluates his irresponsible lifestyle and business practices after a terrorist group in Afghanistan kidnaps him and commands him to build them a missile. Instead, he constructs a powerful metal suit and uses it to escape. Once free, he decides to improve the new technology and use it to clean up the mess created by his share of the American military-industrial complex, but his amazing suit has not gone unnoticed by the other cogs in the war machine.

Iron Man feels very much like the James Bond entry in the superhero genre (although Bond is, in his own way, a superhero). There are beautiful women, sweet cars, outrageously cool gadgets, large explosions, an ultra-smooth leading man and a quasi-sophisticated story drawn from current events and told on a global scale. All of these elements combined form an impressive vanguard to this summer’s batch of special effects-fueled blockbuster fare, but is it anything more than that? Well, yes and no.

The first thing Iron Man really has going for it are the special effects. Since the action essentially revolves around a the abilities of a variety of ridiculously tricked-out metal suits, it is important that the results be both impressive and realistic-looking. They are. Stark moves with an appropriate weight when he is suited up. The effects that bring this to life are contiguous with the concrete elements, and it is not immediately apparent where reality ends and the computers take over. Some of the action sequences are positively jaw-dropping, and, more importantly, they are immersive. I found myself absorbed by what was going on on the screen rather than being consciously aware of the quality of the effects.

Second, Iron Man tells a reasonably good story. The movie takes its time in laying out the groundwork of the character’s origins. That origin is perhaps of even greater importance here than it might be in another superhero film because the main character begins the movie as a (mostly) likable anti-hero and must slowly (and believably) evolve into a more altruistic person due to his circumstances. The care and attention lavished on this character arc is probably the movie’s greatest strength on a cerebral level, but it is responsible for the greatest weakness, as well. So much time is spent developing this foundation that the climactic battle with the villain at the end, and even the development of that villain, feels shoehorned into the final few minutes as though to fulfill a requirement of the genre. This being a superhero movie, an equally-super villain must rise to challenge him by the end, so one does.

Further, Iron Man seems so self-consciously aware of itself as only the opening chapter in the next major superhero franchise (and, believe me, there will be a franchise), that it cannot resist a barrage of none-too-subtle winks to remind the audience of more movies to come. Many such movies will end with a very open-ended nod in the direction of a sequel, but here there are so many nods that the sure-to-be-forthcoming Iron Man 2 is a major theme of Iron Man. The result was quite distracting, particularly during the abbreviated climax.

Finally, there is the cast to consider. The support from Howard, Bridges, Paltrow and others (including an uncredited Paul Bettany as the voice of Stark’s computer) is top-notch. Paltrow in particular delivers a disarmingly believable and down-to-earth performance, despite being saddled with a ridiculous moniker. (Pepper Potts? Really? I cringed everytime her character’s name was mentioned.) The chemistry between Pepper (*cringe*) and Stark was a pleasure to watch.

Make no mistake, though, despite state-of-the-art visuals, a decent plot and a strong supporting cast, Robert Downey Jr. is the movie. His charm and talent and dry sense of humor really kick Iron Man up several notches on the entertainment scale. It is not really an exaggeration to say that, without him, this movie has bupkis. He is the hero and the much-needed comic relief. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as much or as freely in a serious superhero movie; at least not with the movie. From the opening moments, Downey creates a character that we both like and care about, despite being a shallow, womanizing, amoral lush, so that we are already invested and ready to follow him through every step of the transformation ahead. It is an impressive feat, and he makes it look effortless.

However, what I think I appreciated most about the movie thematically was its complex take on battling evil, with Stark as a surrogate for America as a nation. Without explicitly stating as much, Iron Man suggests that, while evil men certainly exist in the world, some of them are on our side, and building a bigger, better or smarter bomb creates its own unique and serious problems, whatever others it may solve. Early in the film, Stark, in a conversation with an indignant reporter, says, “My old man had a philosophy. Peace means having a bigger stick than the other guy.” The reporter replies, “That’s a great line coming from a guy selling sticks.”

Later on, Stark says, “I saw young Americans killed by the very weapons I created to defend them and protect them. And I saw that I had become part of a system that is comfortable with zero-accountability.” And yet, seeming to feel that the rules still don’t apply to him, he creates a new “ultimate weapon” to rid the world of the threat caused by his other weapons. In light of this, it is fitting that he is forced, in the end, to face an enemy that he is ultimately responsible for. In a way, Stark is his own worst enemy and, as with America, the gravest danger, both to himself and to everything he has come to stand for, is of his own devising.

~ by Jared on May 3, 2008.

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