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Iron Man (2008)  Print E-mail
Theatrical Movie Reviews Theatrical
Written by Bill Warren   
Friday, 02 May 2008

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Film Rating:
4.5
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“Iron Man” is the best super-hero movie since “Spider-Man 2,” which places it among the top five or six ever made. It’s terrific in some of the ways almost all super-hero movies, good or mediocre, have been: it’s full of action and special effects, and the effects are sensational. But it also has strengths in areas where all too many comic book-based movies have been weak: the characters are interesting, the hero in particular, the acting is well above average, and the story has a lot of heart. Plus, it’s enough fun to keep you glued into your seat, your eyes wide, your ears tuned to pick up the often-sharp dialogue. Hot damn.

Robert Downey, Jr., has famously been through a lot of self-induced hell over the past decade and a half—major drug problems, a flippant, uncaring attitude toward his own life and career, which initially had been promising enough that he got an Oscar nomination as best actor for a role that couldn’t possibly have been easy to do: the title role in “Chaplin.” And he deserved the nomination, too.

Someone pointed out that this summer’s super-hero movies have casts that sound more like the actors in a group of independent movies: Downey, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, etc. This can only be a good thing. The stars of super-hero movies are the characters themselves; placing major stars in roles of this nature is almost always going to be a mistake. Robert Redford was allegedly offered the title role in Richard Donner’s “Superman,” but declined. He said he’d love to play the part, but the minute he flew out a window, the audience wouldn’t think “there goes Superman,” they’d think “there goes Robert Redford, flying out a window.” Producers of super-hero movies have caught on: they cast the best actors for the roles rather than the biggest stars who might fit.

There’s a lot to be gained by having an exceptional actor don your hero’s duds, spandex or a gold-titanium alloy shell, as here. The actor spends more time OUT of the superhero suit than IN it, so he (or she) had damned well better be able to carry the dialogue scenes. And Robert Downey Jr. is well up to the task. His striking eyes, soulful at times, dissipated at others, always intelligent and knowing, aren’t even visible when he wears his Iron Man super-suit, but we know they’re in there (and we do occasionally get shots of his face inside the helmet). He’s learned to convey a great deal through posture, gesture, delivery of lines and the subtle movements of his expressive face. This may well be the best performance as a super-hero in movie history.

Iron Man isn’t as well-known as Batman, Spider-Man or (God knows) Superman, so director Jon Favreau chooses to introduce him carefully. When the movie opens, squillionaire inventor Tony Stark (Downey) is cruising along in Afghanistan in a Humvee, sipping a cocktail and making wisecracks. He’s being escorted by a group of Marines. Then there’s an explosion, and the fleeing Tony collapses onto the desert.

The movie flashes back a few days. We’re given a “Citizen Kane”-like news-shown history of Tony Stark. Not only was his late father a great inventor and business magnate himself, but Tony was a childhood genius, a whiz at mathematics and engineering. He’s also a playboy, and his face appears on magazines and newspapers. His father has died; he’s now running Stark Enterprises with his father’s long-time partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges); mostly, they make high-tech weaponry. Tony flippantly ignores a major awards ceremony in Las Vegas, presided over by his Marine officer buddy Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard); the award is accepted by an embarrassed Stane. Tony is off in a casino, surrounded by sexy chicks, losing big at craps and not giving a damn. He goes to Afghanistan to personally demonstrate Stark Enterprises’ new Jericho missile, which makes use of Stark’s new repulsor technology. Then there’s the trip, then there’s the kaboom.

Back in the present in Afghanistan, Tony wakes up in a cave, fastened to a car battery. He’s being helped by wry Yinsen (Shaun Taub), a fellow prisoner, an Iraqi with a family in a small town elsewhere. He’s also a prisoner of an insurgent group headed by Raza (Faran Tahir). This guy has really grandiose plans, likening himself to Genghis Khan. He wants Stark to build him his own Jericho missile. But Tony has seen that the equipment made by his company hasn’t been saving the world, which he vaguely believed, but is oppressing it. He’s his own victim.

He’s hooked to that battery to keep an electro-magnet on his chest—part of his chest, actually—working: it keeps the shrapnel from his own weapons away from his heart. Tony quickly realizes Yinsen is brilliant and eager to overthrow their captors, so they work together on a project, which they have to keep secret even from the video monitors.

All this is preamble, actually; the movie, already fast-paced, kicks into high gear when Tony dons what they’ve been building: an armored, weaponry-bristling, powered metal suit. And he does make his getaway, picked up by Rhodes—Rhodey—in a Stark helicopter.

Back in America, Tony is a new man. He’s haunted by what he’s seen, deeply ashamed of Stark Enteprises’ part in increasing the ability of tyrants and conquerors to oppress ordinary people. To Stane’s surprise, he immediately announces that Stark Enterprises is abandoning their armament wing. He holes up in his incredibly Malibu mansion, working hard down in his elaborate garage/shop, trying to create something he keeps secret from Stane and even his long-time, dedicated assistant “Pepper” Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).

What he’s creating, of course, is a super-refined version of that armored suit. He’s making it possible for him to become Iron Man.

Even though Tony Stark is melancholy and lonely, Downey’s wit and personality keep him from becoming a drag on the story. Quite the contrary—he drives the story forward. He doesn’t drink as much (in the comics, there was a famous, ground-breaking series of stories in which Stark finally realized he was an alcoholic), he rarely goes out. He concentrates on that suit, assisted by a couple of clever industrial robots. Pepper, who’s clearly more than halfway in love with him (but doesn’t let him know), trusts him enough to help keep what he’s doing a secret even from Obadiah Stane and Rhodey.

The screen credits not just Marvel’s Stan Lee (who has his traditional Marvel-movie cameo), but Jack Kirby, Don Heck and Larry Lieber, all of whom were instrumental in establishing Iron Man as a Marvel comics character. The screenplay here is by two writing teams, Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby (who co-wrote “Children of Men”) and Art Marcum & Matt Holloway. The story has the usual first-movie problems for a superhero—the origin has to be spelled out—and a somewhat weak ending, with Stark in full Iron Man gear, battling an opponent wearing an even bigger and more powerful similar outfit, in the skies and on the ground near Santa Monica.

But there are also several terrific sequences—Tony’s escape in Afghanistan, his first flight in his Mark II Iron Man suit (this one looks like polished chrome) and a battle between Tony in the red-and-yellow Mark III suit and some American fighter jets. This is made more difficulty because Tony has to work hard not to harm the pilots.

And there’s a lot of humor. In the first place, Stark is a wisenheimer as well as brilliant; it’s hard for him to say three lines without a muttered wisecrack. But there are also creative gags—as Iron Man rockets through the skies like a human guided missile, he gets a telephone call. Wouldn’t you know it, just when you’re really busy, the damned phone rings.... And many, comic fans especially, are going to be very surprised by the last line of the movie.

Even at two hours plus, “Iron Man” is tightly focused and lean—we see only what we need to see, then on to the next sequence. Yet even so, there’s time for crisp, clean exposition and characterization. Everyone who opens his or her mouth has a vivid character, from Tony’s eager-beaver chauffeur (director Favreau himself), to the insurgent burly, jolly and brutal second-in-command (Abu Bakaar), to a sexy reporter (Leslie Bibb, busy these days), to a helpful but maybe sinister government agent (Clark Gregg). This bit is especially clever: even if you don’t recognize the name Clark Gregg, you’ll recognize the actor; he’s forever playing sinister, duplicitous government agents or businessmen—and seems to be doing much the same here. That’s SEEMS to, mind you…

Gwyneth Paltrow is as unusual a choice for Pepper Potts as Downey is for Tony/Iron Man, but she works just about as well as he does, which is plenty. She’s sharp, but not in a gotta-top-him Lois Lane manner; she’s sexy but that’s obviously not why Tony keeps her around (his bedroom activities, some of which we see, clearly don’t include her). She’s smart, she’s efficient, and she’s not afraid to confront the arrogant Stark. Also, she looks like she’s having a terrific time in a kind of movie she probably never expected to appear in.

Jeff Bridges is a surprising but worthy choice as the stern, carefully avuncular Obadiah Stane (and he has the best name in the movie). He shaved his head and grew a beard, which makes him look something like a biker in an expensive suit, but it’s the right look for the role. Terrence Howard doesn’t have much to do here, but since in the comics, Rhodey eventually adopted a super-suit himself, maybe there’s something for him in one of the sequels.

People scratched their heads and shrugged when Robert Downey, Jr. was cast as Iron Man. But despite his problems with addiction and the law—he served a year in prison—he never really lost the affection of Hollywood, he never completely dropped off the screen. Almost everyone knew who he was, almost everyone thought of him as a victim working hard to regain his footing. He brings a lot of that baggage into his role as Tony Stark—and it all works FOR him. But what works the best on his behalf is his clear understanding of the character of Tony Stark, that when we first meet the arrogant, self-assured, overly cool and hip playboy, he’s a man nearing the end of his tether, a man in great need of redemption. It’s to Downey’s enormous credit that he makes Stark so basically likeable that we WANT to see him undergo this redemption. It’s to the credit of Favreau and his screenwriters that his journey to redemption is so damned much fun.

Jon Favreau has worked mostly as an actor (he was Foggy in “Daredevil”) and writer (co-wrote “Swingers”), but did direct both “Elf” and “Zathura.” Who’d have thought he’d be so much the right choice to head “Iron Man”? Not I, that’s who. But he’s done a great job. Even though it’s not exactly short and has a great deal of terrain to cover before Stark even puts on the red-and-gold suit, the movie zips along, borne more by the characters and their interactions than by the plot. It’s serious enough when it needs to be, light and almost frothy at other times. It’s always clever, always engaging, and you always want to see what happens next. ESPECIALLY after that very last line.

But Downey, Paltrow and Howard, at least, have already signed for two more “Iron Man” movies. Something to look forward to.







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