Published at: April 28, 2008, 10:53 a.m. CST by merrick
I have a problem with giving films star ratings, or, really, any sort of numerical rank, but I do appreciate that some people may want a quick summation without reading too much, so here it is: yes, IRON MAN is everything you were hoping for.
To qualify that statement, I should point out that it will only be what you were hoping for if, in fact, you were hoping for one of the most enjoyable superhero movies ever made, with no weak spots and brilliant characterisation. Fanboys with impossibly high standards who are only happy when they're poking holes in things are going to have their work cut out for them.
I'm not going to delve into the plot at all -- one of the reasons I studiously avoided most of the marketing for this film is so I could have some surprises when I actually watched it, and I'm glad I did -- but I will say that this film should help put to bed the argument that origin stories are getting tired. I've always felt that complaining about seeing an origin story in a superhero movie is like complaining about every romantic comedy featuring a guy and a girl hooking up. Isn't the origin half the fun? Taking something patently ridiculous and trying to have it make sense for a cynical 21st century audience? IRON MAN's origin story actually has its cake and eats it too; somehow, the film blends a relatively grounded trial-and-error process with moments of glorious ridiculousness. Watching Tony Stark go from self-centred weapons manufacturer to noble superhero is the
best part of this film, and it quite rightly focuses most of its energies on this transformation.
Now, to the directorial stylings of Jon Favreau... Reading interviews with him early on in the process, I was convinced of his passion and understanding for the genre, but what impressed me in the film itself was his handling of the action scenes. Action scenes are typically considered the most exciting part of any film (which is why you hear so many stories about studios reshooting films to cram in more tedious car chases), but they're actually the thing that bores me most. They're usually so workmanlike and standard, that I find myself looking at my watch more than the screen. Of course, I've begun to notice that only happens with directors who are generally considered "action directors". I think recent trends against the typical action film bear this out. Genuine action scene excitement is, these days, typically generated by guys like Paul Greengrass and Peter Jackson; not the names people used to associate this sort of movie. And that's why it works. Following in that tradition, Favreau appears to understand why action is supposed to be exciting, and delivers scenes that are, upon close inspection, constructed in a very unconventional way.
On to the cast... Robert Downey Jnr is on screen for practically the entire film, which in itself is enough to recommend it. I honestly believe this is some of his best work... and I'd say more about him, but I'm actually trying to tone down the gushing. Needless to say, he's perfectly suited to the role; his casting is almost certainly the film's biggest masterstroke.
I'm afraid I can't fault the supporting cast, either. Jeff Bridges is predictably great, Terrence Howard continues to prove he's the one of the best character actors around, and Gwyneth Paltrow matches Downey Jnr in every scene they share. We hear this claim a lot in press notes for comic book films, but this time it's true: Pepper Potts is not a standard damsel-in-distress. She's an active foil to Stark, and an actual key participant in the climactic battle. I'm a huge fan of SPIDER-MAN 2 and BATMAN BEGINS, but neither of those films really knew what to do with their love interest. IRON MAN does. Paltrow tends to cop a lot of flack, but I've always been a fan. When she's in the right movie (SE7EN, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS), she's perfect. Oh, and very glad to see Clark Gregg getting a lot of screen time. I love Clark Gregg.
I haven't mentioned special effects yet, mostly because I didn't notice them. And that's actually a compliment. I couldn't tell the difference between the practical effects and the CGI because I wasn't sitting there thinking "Oh, isn't that clever how they rendered those flames"; I was instead watching Iron Man fly. It's not often that you can immerse yourself completely in a film so wall-to-wall with effects, which makes the achievement all the more impressive.
This is usually the part of the review where I'd talk about the moments where the film dropped the ball, in order to maintain (or manufacture) my reputation as an objective critic. Sadly for me, I can't find such a moment, so I'll have to risk your scorn and derision and claims of plantiness until you see the film this weekend and discover that I was telling the truth all along.
I still consider SPIDER-MAN 2 to be the greatest superhero movie to date, but IRON MAN firmly secures its place as an automatic name-check when we speak about the highlights of the genre. They can't make the sequel fast enough.
(PS: As a side note, don't hold your breath for the Samuel L Jackson cameo. The scene they notoriously filmed with Stark and Nick Fury is, it now seems, undoubtedly for INCREDIBLE HULK. But there are some great S.H.I.E.L.D. references that will no doubt pay off in future Marvel movies.)