"This is what a superhero movie should be: an exciting, quick-witted adventure built to entertain."

Marvel Puts One on the Board

(050908) It’s not enough that Marvel Comics is now able to ride the current wave of comic book superhero blockbusters by starting their own production company, and it’s not enough that they’re comfortable pumping something like $180 million into their first effort. What truly reveals where we are right now as a movie going public is that Marvel felt their best bet to launch their new studio was with a character not really known at all outside fanboy circles, a character who may not be marginal but is far from an icon. But in a decade ruled by comic book adaptations and colorful sci-fi adventures, even someone like Iron Man could become a guaranteed hit. The geeks haven’t just inherited the earth, they’ve invaded it.

But even non-geeks will find reason to celebrate the arrival of “Iron Man.” This is what a superhero movie should be: an exciting, quick-witted adventure built to entertain. It’s far from perfect - the script is plenty scattershot (the result of having four credits screenwriters, several more uncredited, plus extensive rewrites on the set) and the story never raises itself beyond the too-familiar origin story template - but it’s all handled with a lot of verve by cast and crew that its very style is energetic.

The movie is directed by Jon Favreau, the actor/director who showed off his fantasy storytelling skills with “Elf” and the underrated “Zathura” and now makes his finest feature yet. Here, Favreau doesn’t just understand what makes comic movies tick - he understands what makes this one tick. He knows what sets Iron Man apart from, say, Spider-Man or Superman. Like those characters, Tony Stark brings a certain American optimism to his exploits. But there’s also a bitterness alongside that optimism, a cynical anger that motivates the character. Even more than Peter Parker, Tony Stark’s personal life is a massive complication, from his struggles with alcoholism (a key point in the comics, only hinted at in this movie) to issues of guilt (he’s essentially a war profiteer who learns a harsh lesson and seeks penance). Yet through it all, Stark maintains his smarmy playboy demeanor, and Favreau is smart enough a filmmaker to let this dry, sarcastic tone carry the picture.

He’s also smart enough to cast Robert Downey, Jr., in the lead role. Downey is so right as Tony Stark that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the part. Some folks have mentioned the curious connection between actor and role - factoring in Downey’s infamous battle with drug addiction, both he and his character have essentially climbed their way out of dark periods, eager to make up for lost time - but the real issue is that few actors working today are as good as Downey at crafting such restrained wit punctuated by an ice-cold rock-and-roll attitude. Simply put, Downey is made of cool, and when it comes to taking a self-absorbed womanizer and making him someone worth cheering, who else could pull off such a task?

Favreau then overloads the supporting cast with equally impressive talent. Terrence Howard plays Stark’s beleaguered right hand man, Jim Rhodes. Gwyneth Paltrow is Pepper Potts, Stark’s secretary and possible love interest. Jeff Bridges is Obadiah Stane, Stark’s sly business partner. Any one of these actors, when placed next to Downey, could be considered an incredible “get.” To cram all of them into one film, in top roles, is to ensure than even if all else fails, at least the characters will be fascinating.

All else does not fail. The origin story behind Stark’s transformation into Iron Man is one that diverges most from 1960s-era Marvel Comics’ studies in science-gone-awry. Unlike other heroes who gain superpowers by accident, Tony Stark is the self-made man; his superpowers come from his super-powered suit of armor. And unlike other heroes who are either apolitical, Iron Man is rooted deeply in current events; his earliest adventures were anti-Communist heroics set in and around Vietnam, ideas which are upgraded for the movie to a terrorist storyline involving Afghanistan.

Tony Stark is in the country selling the U.S. military on his latest design of smart bomb when his caravan is bombed and he’s captured by a band of vague baddies (the movie never says “terrorists,” but then, it doesn’t have to) led by the wicked Raza (Faran Tahir). They want him to build a missile for them, and he reluctantly agrees - but he’s really building himself a massive, weapons-clad suit to aid in his escape. It works, and Stark, an inventor with a head for mechanics as well as business, gets the itch to build a sleeker, better suit. Having seen how the weapons his company built have landed in the hands of warlords, the rookie hero vows to rid the world of such death machines.

The film’s politics are shady at best - the script falls back on iffy Arab stereotypes (with one exception, they’re all either ruthless terrorists or powerless villagers in need of American salvation); Stark’s anti-weapon motivations come with plenty of holes (it’s never clear if Tony disapproves of American misuse - or even use - of his weapons; is he upset that these devices are made to kill, or that they just wind up killing the “wrong people”?); several of Iron Man’s fight scenes show a hero unconcerned with ending lives (so it’s OK for Stark’s weapons to kill folks, as long as Stark’s the one pulling the trigger?).

But it doesn’t matter. Such thoughts never enter our heads while the movie’s unspooling with a story that zips along at a breezy pace that not once feels like a full two hours. Favreau and company keep everything moving forward; it’s a movie that never slows down, even when it slows down. The film expertly reworks the origin tale into a ripping adventure that’s dependent as much on character as it is on plot.

It’s only when we enter the final half hour when things start to get a little too loose. A connection between Raza and a second villain quickly unfolds yet winds up shifting the focus just slightly off from where it should be, and the whole thing ends with a massive battle between Iron Man and a second mechanical supersuit (developed and operated by that second villain), which seems a little less complicated a finale than a movie this good deserves. It's a little too "Robocop 2" for my taste.

This is not to say, of course, that the movie fizzles in its final act. On the contrary, the fight sequence seen here is as thrilling, as exhilarating, as popcorn-munching fun as anything else that came before it. Favreau knows how to make an action movie sing, even when it comes down to a simple fight scene where people trade comic book-level dialogue at each other. And, heck, if “Iron Man” can be a giant heap of fun when it’s not working, then you can imagine just how good things get when it is working.

So in the pantheon of comic book inspired films, Iron Man never reaches the epic nature of Richard Donner's Superman. Nor does it achieve the comic to film perfection of Spiderman 2. It's just a little too predictable in its screenplay. But make no mistake. This is one of the very best films of this type in quite awhile. It also deftly announces Marvel's presence in the movie making business. Oh and it also has the funniest Stan Lee cameo yet. The summer movie season is off to a great start.

Directed by:    Jon Favreau
Written by:    Matt Holloway, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby. Based
 on the Marvel Comics characters created by Stan
 Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck, Jack Kirby, Steve
Starring:    Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Gwyneth
Released:    05/02/08 (USA)
Length:    126 minutes
Rating:    PG-13 for scenes of action and violence, language
 and some suggestive references

IRON MAN © 2008 Marvel Studios, Fairview Entertainment, Marvel Entertainment
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2008 Alternate Reality, Inc.

(aka "Old Reviews")