“Iron Man” has the distinction of being the first in Marvel’s new line of Marvel Studios-produced movies to make it to the big screen. It will soon be followed by the reboot of the “Incredible Hulk” with Edward Norton. Marvel has already announced a slew of other comic book properties following in their footsteps, including a Captain America movie, an Avengers movie, and a Thor movie, to name just three. With “Iron Man”, Marvel Studios has chosen wisely; from the very beginning, “Iron Man” had the makings of a commercial and critical success, and judging by the film’s massive box office here and abroad, that promise has been borne out.
Robert Downey Jr. plays Tony Stark, the billionaire golden boy of Stark Industries, known as much for their war machines as their Playboy CEO’s exploits on the social scene. Stark shares control of Stark Industries with longtime family friend Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), who as it turns out has eyes on more than just a share of the corporation. Stane’s steps toward head honcho of Stark Industries gets a boost when Tony, during a trip in Afghanistan to introduce the Jericho missile system, the company’s latest death hardware, is ambushed by rebel forces and taken hostage. The rebel’s leader wants Tony to create a poor man’s version of the Jericho, but Tony has other ideas. With the help of a fellow captive, Tony creates a bulky, impromptu version of the Iron Man armor and battles his way to freedom.
Tony Stark returns home a changed man, not least of which because he now has a hole the size of a baseball in his chest, and his heart is kept pumping by a makeshift electronic doohickey that can only exist in a movie about a man who flies around in armor. Tony quickly discovers that his need to make amends for the evils of his “merchant of death” days is not supported by many people, including Obadiah. Much to Tony’s surprise, Obadiah has already begun to wrestle control of the company from him, and as Tony will eventually learn, has even more nefarious plans for Tony. With only his trusty personal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) to rely on, Tony locks himself in his lab, and begins to create the greatest invention of his life — the Iron Man suit.
Yes, “Iron Man” really is as plot-heavy as the above two paragraphs make it appear to be. As an Origins Story, “Iron Man” is saddled with having to create a universe for its characters, as well as plot the rise of the superhero, which invariably takes up half, if not more, of the film. The result is that “Iron Man” has a limited number of Iron Man action scenes, and in fact, if you’ve seen the trailers, then every scene that takes place in the movie has already been represented in snippet form in the previews. Would I have liked more Iron Man action? Yes, but to be perfectly honest with you, I didn’t really notice that Iron Man doesn’t really do a lot in the movie besides take on some rebels in a village and then later, fight Iron Monger to close out the film.
The reason I, and many fans probably didn’t mind the dearth of Iron Man action is because the rest of “Iron Man” is THAT good. Jon Favreau keeps the film moving, intercutting plot exposition and narrative progression with Tony Stark’s invention of the suit in the secretive lab of his Malibu home. Much of the film’s middle is simply just that: Tony in his lab creating the Iron Man suit. Some potentially boring stuff filled with techno babble, but Favreau somehow manages to keep the whole thing as entertaining as anything else in the film, including all the high-flying Iron Man action. Of course it helps that Robert Downey Jr. is also THAT good as the heart and soul of the machine.
A performance as good as the one Robert Downey Jr. delivers here deserves an entire paragraph of fawning over. As with Christian Bale’s Batman, it will now be quite impossible to imagine anyone else playing Iron Man other than Downey. How a usually scrawny actor like Downey managed to bulk up just enough and take control of a role as physically demanding as Tony Stark is a mystery, and is a testament to the man’s work ethic. Downey’s Stark is pitch-perfect, and his transition from callous Playboy to reluctant and guilt-ridden superhero is wholly believable. Downey IS Tony Stark. ‘Nuff said.
Not that the rest of the cast are chop liver. Gwyneth Paltrow does some of her best work in years. Paltrow’s Pepper Potts is the perfect counter to Downey’s Stark, and the two’s scenes together are lively and great fun. A scene in the middle, when Tony begs Potts to help him on his mission, simply breaks your heart. Obadiah Stane’s villain is less effective, mostly because the script spends so much time with Tony’s motivations, that when Stane turns villainous, it’s hard to buy into it. Was he always a villain? If yes, how did a man as smart as Tony Stark never see it? The other notable casting is Terrence Howard, who plays military man Jim Rhodes. Watch for Rhodes to move to the front in the inevitable sequel.
It’s saying something when a comic book movie is more notable for the performances of its HUMAN characters than it is for its oftentimes inhuman superheroes. That is very much the case with Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man”. There is no doubt that a sequel will provide all the Iron Man action one can handle, as superhero movies invariably get bigger, in every sense of the word, with the second installment. With Favreau in all likelihood returning, and Robert Downey Jr. already signed up, there is a very good chance that the “Iron Man” franchise may eclipse “Spider-Man” in terms of quality. But of course, we’ll have to see how Favreau and company handles a sequel, before taking the leap into the always dangerous territory — the third movie. When it comes to comic book movie franchises, the third go-around is never the charm. Perhaps ol Shellhead can change that.
Is Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man” the best comic book movie ever made? Most definitely not. That crown is still held by “Spider-Man 2” in my book. But is it decent? It’s actually better than decent. In fact, the best parts of “Iron Man” don’t even involve Tony Stark suiting up as ol Shellhead. And that, at the end of the day, says more about director Jon Favreau’s skills as a director and leading man Robert Downey Jr.’s talents as an actor than anything else. To be sure, “Iron Man” has its comic book moments, as it surely must, being a comic book movie and all, but it’s the long periods in-between stuff blowing up that makes “Iron Man” what it is.
Jon Favreau (director) / Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, Matt Holloway (screenplay)
CAST: Robert Downey Jr. … Tony Stark / Iron Man
Terrence Howard … Jim Rhodes
Jeff Bridges … Obadiah Stane / Iron Monger
Gwyneth Paltrow … Pepper Potts
Leslie Bibb … Christine Everhart
Shaun Toub … Yinsen
Faran Tahir … Raza