Published at: April 29, 2008, 4:40 a.m. CST by Moriarty
Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here.
Oh, Favs, you did it this time.
IRON MAN is grown-up fun, a rare thing these days. It’s escapism, no doubt about it, and it’s light as air for most of its running time, even with a surprisingly high body count and a rough-and-tumble aesthetic. This is not, however, a kid’s movie, and that is such a welcome discovery that IRON MAN seems even greater than it would if it were just another kid-friendly superhero film.
Marvel Studios makes a hell of a debut with this film, and if they can put together creative teams that take their characters this seriously each and every time they make a film, then they could very well eclipse the work they did with the other major studios, proving that they were right to step back and take control of their own properties once again.
From the opening frames of the film, IRON MAN is confident, cocky, and slick, just like Tony Stark. And, yes, everything you’ve heard about the casting of Robert Downey Jr. is true. It’s an insanely good fit between actor and character, and right away, he’s making you laugh and he’s suggesting such a great history for Tony with every line, and as the opening sequence plays out, you get it all quickly. By the time the actual title appears onscreen, you will be sure that you’re not seeing “just another superhero film.” I can’t think of a single one that starts like this, or that sets a tone like this right away. It’s not James Bond. It’s not ROBOCOP or THE ROCKETEER. It’s not SPIDER-MAN or BATMAN BEGINS. But it’s certainly got elements of all them, digested and then organically reconstituted into something fresh. IRON MAN has its own vibe, and that’s what I responded to the most. This is a movie with a pulse. It may be “summer product,” but it’s far more than that, too. It’s pop art writ large, populated with great actors who all understand exactly what they’re doing. And Favreau, who has been growing with each film as a director, has finally put it all together here. If you wondered whether he was really a comic geek or if he’s just doing this because it’s a blockbuster, you’ll know the answer by the end of the film. This is a film born of pure geek love, and that’s why it works.
Some people are complaining that this is an origin story. That’s sort of true, but it’s not an “origin” the way we’re used to seeing them. There’s no mystical accident. There’s no prophecy about Tony being the chosen one. There’s no magic powers given to him by outside forces. This is just the moment where Tony Stark grows a conscience and decides to contribute something to the world instead of just taking from it. Although he’s brilliant, he is a man of inherited wealth and power, and what we see here is the event that leads him to define himself instead of just playing the role he was born into. Robert Downey Jr. has had a fascinating career, defined as much by what he’s done off-screen as on, and there’s something intoxicating about seeing him step up and become the MOVIE STAR that he’s always had the potential to be. He gives Stark a soul, and even at his most glib, there’s a grounded reality to what he does that makes us believe in this world.
He’s helped by Terrence Howard as Jim Rhodes, the liason between the Pentagon and Stark Industries, and by Pepper Potts, his personal assistant played with wit and glamour by Gwenyth Paltrow, who looks like she walked out of a ‘40s romantic comedy. He believes that Obidiah Stane is also helping him, and Jeff Bridges embraces this bad-guy role, seeming to delight in every terrible thing the film allows him to do. It’s no big secret to say that Stane is the bad guy of the film, but the way the film’s structured, he doesn’t start off as the obvious villain. Instead, Bridges brings his A-game to the film as well, and as a result, both Stark and Stane are given more depth than you’d expect. Anyone less substantial than Bridges might not fare as well opposite Downey, but Bridges refuses to get overshadowed here. He can turn on the charm at times, but when he amps up the menace, he’s scary, and he’s one of the reasons I would not bring younger viewers to see the film. Once he finally reveals his true nature, the film starts to play very, very rough, and I think they skirt the fine line between the PG-13 and the R expertly. Clark Gregg also does some great work as Agent Phil Coulson, and I like how his true nature is only gradually revealed, leading to one of the great payoffs in the movie for fans.
ILM’s work here, combined with Stan Winston’s work, is just as seamless as when they teamed up for JURASSIC PARK in 1993. There are many sequences where I’m not exactly sure what is what. Could be practical. Could be CGI. Beats me, and frankly, I don’t care. By the end of the film, I believed in IRON MAN. I believed that he could exist in our world. And that he would make it better if he did.
Matthew Libatique’s cinematography is rich and colorful, but they’re not trying for a hyperreality like we’ve seen in many of the superhero films. Instead, he gives things a rough-hewn realistic look, very matter-of-fact, and it’s the exact right choice. I wish Hans Zimmer’s score wasn’t so cookie-cutter. We have yet to hear a truly great Marvel hero theme in any of their films. I don’t think SPIDER-MAN or X-MEN or FANTASTIC FOUR or HULK or DAREDEVIL or even BLADE had a theme that really stands out the way the 1978 SUPERMAN theme did or the way the Burton BATMAN theme did. That’s a shame, because in every other way, this is an iconic movie. Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Art Marcum & Matt Holloway have done a tremendous job distilling decades worth of comic characters and storylines into an original piece that manages to pay tribute to many different eras of Iron Man storytelling without feeling the need to “shake it up.” Instead, they’ve cherry-picked the best stuff, carefully putting it all together in a way that should please almost every fan, while never once drowning the film in complicated continuity that would keep a new viewer at arm’s length.
Yes, there are some great nods to comic history, and yes, there are some very sly suggestions about what to expect from future installments in this series (and there will be many, many more... you can be sure of that), but even if you’ve never read anything with Iron Man in it, those moments will play for you, too, because this film is careful to give you everything you need to enjoy it. I like that the script isn’t about some threat that’s about to blow up the entire world, or some villain who is about to topple the US government, or some giant cosmic threat. Instead, it’s a fairly personal story that boils down to a wrestling match over control of a multi-billion-dollar corporation. Doesn’t sound like the most interesting engine, but keeping it simple means that more energy can be focused on Tony himself and the journey he takes as he figures out what to do with his awesome new invention. It’s a fairly lean adventure, and now, groundwork laid, they’re free to explore the larger world that is only hinted at in this film. I appreciated the fact that Stark doesn’t pull his punches as he deals with the bad guys in this movie. It’s violent and scary at times, and Stark doesn’t have the same sort of white-black moral code as someone like Batman. He has no problem with killing someone who deserves to be killed, and that startled me.
When he tears into the organization run by Raza (Faran Tahir), it’s brutal and unapologetic. It’s also one hell of an exciting sequence. In the end, I don’t want to indulge in hyperbole by calling this “perfect” or “flawless” or an “instant classic.” I think it’ll be a word-of-mouth hit all summer long, and for every film that comes out and disappoints, I think that’s another ticket sold to IRON MAN as people go back and show their friends and just watch it again for their own pleasure. And I think it’ll be a movie that sells Blu-Ray players when it’s released later in the year. Whatever the case, I’m satisfied, and it’s nice to feel like a film treats you with respect rather than disdain, especially as the kick-off to what looks like a very fun summer. IRON MAN knocked me flat tonight... and I loved it.
Thanks, Marvel. Keep it up.