Hollywood has been mining the comic book shelves for quite some time, but has been hitting it particularly heavily over the last decade. Everything from the classics to the new-age stuff has been tapped at one time or another (several times, even), but they’ve met with mixed results. For every “Batman Begins,” there are a handful of “Spawn”s and “Hulk”s. The latest entry into the genre is “Iron Man,” based on the 1960s Marvel Comics series.
“Iron Man” tells the story of genius billionaire weapons designer Tony Stark who, after a horrific turn of events, changes the focus of his energies from the business of destruction to doing good. The film opens with Stark (Robert Downey Jr., “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”) trekking through Afghanistan with a US military convoy, mercilessly belittling his uptight escorts with his aloof wit and playboy charm (he apparently scored with all twelve Maxim Magazine cover models in one year). That is until an IED tears through the convoy and Stark gets blown up by his own bombs. Through an interlude of flashbacks, we find out about Stark the brilliant scientist and those closest to him: his best friend and military liaison Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard, “Hustle and Flow”); his personal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, looking ravishing as a red head); and his deviously ambitious business partner Obadiah Stane (a barely recognizable Jeff Bridges). We then learn that Stark was in Afghanistan to demonstrate Stark Industries’ latest WMD when all hell breaks loose.
Stark awakens to find himself kidnapped by a pan-Eurasian terrorist group, armed with Stark Industries equipment, who have aspirations of picking up where Genghis Khan’s hordes left off. To add injury to insult, he also has a large electromagnet fixed to his chest to prevent embedded shrapnel from perforating his heart. Ordered to construct a weapon from parts cobbled together from the terrorists’ stash of Stark Industries gear, Stark instead puts together an armored suit and blasts his way to freedom. But having now seen that his products are being used to perpetuate war rather than keep the peace, Stark declares that his company will pull out of the weapons industry (which sends the company’s stock into a freefall and the Board of Directors’ blood pressure through the roof) and focuses his energy on perfecting the armored suit to allow him to right the wrongs his life has been built upon.
Being that this film is a superhero origin story, quite a bit of time is spent on exposition and character construction. A fair amount of that is spent establishing Stark’s relationships with the other principle characters, chiefly the brewing romance between Tony and Pepper. This type of thoughtfulness is rare in popcorn action flicks and the movie is all the better for it. But perhaps the most startling aspect of “Iron Man” is that, aside from the iconic gold-titanium alloy armor suit, there’s really nothing ‘comic book’ about it. No gaudy backdrops, no over the top villains and no alternate reality settings. This film is firmly rooted in the present real world and benefits from thus being able to connect directly with the audience. That being said, there’s quite a bit of action and snazzy sfx throughout. In particular, the development and testing of the Iron Man suit is handled brilliantly, with equal parts razzle-dazzle and comedy.
The other high point is the inspired casting of Robert Downey Jr. in the titular role. With his immaculately sculpted beard and debonair attitude, Downey is spot on as the free wheeling elitist playboy who’s happy to be naïve about what his technology is really being used for so long as the bling and whores keep rolling in. Yet Downey remains perfectly believable when selling Stark’s change of heart. He doesn’t let the performance get bogged down with forced psycho-babble complexity or moralizing. He’s sort of the anti-Batman. What separates Tony Stark from Bruce Wayne is that, while the latter is fueled by guilt and angst, the former is by altruism and determination. This frees Stark to still enjoy his public life while pursuing his private crusade. While Wayne is in a perpetual state of moral turmoil, Stark already knows what he wants to do and why. This contrast in characters is reflected in the diametrically opposed tones of the respective films: the “Batman” movies being all dark, gothic and nihilistic while “Iron Man” is bright and full of playful bombast. The rest of the cast play their roles well, though none really stand out. “Iron Man” is the Robert Downey Jr. show.
As both an actor and director, Jon Favreau (“Swingers”) has made his name in light comedy fare infused with catchy dialogue. With this sophomore foray into high-octane action, he’s shown himself to be quite capable of handling complex CGI and intricate action scenes while still maintaining that wit and light hearted air. The cast is well chosen and they all inhabit their roles believably, the sfx are top notch and there’s enough action to keep the pace moving. With “Iron Man,” Favreau has put together one of the best comic book movies to date and leaves me eagerly anticipating the sequel.
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