(Image from IMP Awards)
Iron Man (2008)
The superhero genre has become a part of the menu of cinema, with at least a couple of funny pages based movies having come out every year since X-Men scored a slam dunk back in 2000 (speaking of which, I really need to revisit those X-Men films). I have to confess to having felt just a little bit blase about the endless stream of superhero comic book adaptations, including those still on the horizon. How many more origin stories could we stomach? Well, having now seen Jon Favreau's Iron Man, I say plenty more! I hate to toot my own horn (yeah right), but I had a good feeling about this way back in April last year when I reviewed Favreau's Zathura:
The film confirms that Favreau is a very talented filmmaker who can handle effects heavy films with ease without sacrificing story and character, which bodes well for Iron Man.
This feeling was confirmed by the trailer, of which I said:
Robert Downey Jr. seems like genius casting as a cocky, self-centred multi-millionaire arms dealer. I'm glad this isn't going for an overly dark or dour approach and has some humour thrown in. It may be another origin story, but this origin actually seems a little more interesting than most. The glimpses of Iron Man in action, although it was mostly of the first bulky suit that he creates, looks spectacular! And the actual costume... wow, it looks stunning!
Just call me the prognosticator! Enough copy pasting, onwards with the review!
Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a genius engineer and billionaire who runs Stark Industries, the world's leading arms supplier. Stark is brilliant and he knows it, and he walks around with an arrogant swagger and an air of amused indifference towards the world. His indifference extends to what his weapons are used for as well, until he is captured by a rebel group during a weapons demonstration in Afghanistan and forced to assemble a missile for them. A chest injury during his capture forces Stark to build an electromagnetic device based on his own revolutionary 'arc reactor' technology to keep himself alive. Together with another prisoner, Dr. Yinsen (Shaun Toub), Stark spends his months of incarceration secretly building a suit of armour - instead of the missile - to be powered by his reactor, while being lectured by Yinsen about the evil deeds his company's weapons have been used for. He uses the suit of armour to bust his way out the cave prison and destroy the terrorists' weapons stockpile (all manufactured by Stark Industries), but Yinsen is killed in the process.
Shaken by his brush with death and the realization of the actual impact his company has on the world, Stark returns to the US a changed man and immediately vows to stop making weapons, a move frowned upon by his mentor and partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) and his military friend Jim Rhodes (Terence Howard). He immediately sets to work refining his armored suit to create something revolutionary. When he becomes increasingly frustrated with the lack of impact he has via Stark Industries, he decides to take the fight to the bad guys using his new sleek, super powered armoured suit... and Iron Man is born!
The plot isn't going to set the world on fire, but there are some elements here that set 'Iron Man' apart from the typical superhero origin story. For one thing, the main character is far removed from the usual burdened, angst ridden sad sack type. Throughout the movie, even after his rough experience, Tony Stark is a carefree individual with a magnetic personality. Another departure is the lack of a major villain stealing the limelight - there is one but he really only pops up at the end. The focus is almost solely on Stark from start to finish, and in many ways the conflict is driven mostly by Stark trying to atone for what he himself has helped inflict upon mankind. The superhero mechanics of Iron Man are also fairly unique, with the protagonist having only one real power - his intelligence - that he uses to engineer himself into a superhero, a superhero who is incredibly cool in a flashy sports car kind of way! The screenplay is pretty good, with Stark being well fleshed out and equipped with plenty of great lines and humour. Even the relatively underdeveloped villain's incorporation into the story feels organic and works well. The commentary on weapons and war seems a bit muddled, with the US military coming out looking squeaky clean, but I'll let that pass as the underlying message about the impact of arms suppliers is still valid and topical.
John Favreau's filmography demonstrates a proclivity for character driven fare that isn't overly serious, and this is something he brings along to Iron Man - a sense of fun and storytelling that focuses largely on character. The best stuff in this movie isn't the material involving Iron Man battling, it's the stuff with Tony Stark and the journey he goes through, and his interactions with people around him. The stuff with Stark designing and experimenting with his suits are also fantastic standout moments. This is not to say that the Iron Man scenes aren't great either, because they are, and Favreau's tendency to eschew CGI in favour of models and real, physical elements brings a sense of tangibility to many scenes (though I must confess the line is starting to blur - CGI is really getting there!). The final battle is quite well done even if it does feel a little small scale for a fight between men in super powered armoured suits. But hey, that's what sequels are for - to up the ante! The production values are stellar, with excellent special effects throughout and gadgets and technology that are truly droolworthy without looking too far fetched.
Which brings me to the key piece in the puzzle - in much the same way that Tony Stark is the heart and soul of Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. is the heart and soul of this movie, and I can't imagine too many other actors pulling this off with such aplomb. It should come as no surprise though, as Downey's always been great (see 'Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang' for recent proof), and his charisma and brilliant comic timing make the character of Stark eminently watchable. If you consider for a moment the fact that despite the character being a spoilt asshole on paper he still comes across as human and sympathetic on screen throughout, you'll realize what Downey brings to the role. The rest of the cast are also pretty great. Jeff Bridges is cold and bald and more than a little sinister; Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark's assistant Pepper Potts (!) is surprisingly endearing; and of course there's Terence Howard, who's great but underutilized for an actor with enough presence to star in his own superhero film (and who may yet at least play one, if the comic book's story is anything to go by). There are also memorable turns by Shaun Toub as Dr. Yinsen (love the crazed shooting in the caves!) and Faran Tahir as the leader of the Afghan rebels.
'Iron Man' is an excellent film, and particularly exceptional as a superhero origin story. I think it has reinvigorated the genre to some extent by avoiding those now all too familiar trappings while still staying true to the overall formula of the classic superhero yarn. It's fun, funny, and offers enough action and excitement to make the two hours fly by while offering a wee bit of commentary about the business of war and personal responsibility. The sequel is already in the pipeline, and with Downey Jr. and the rest of the crew on board it's not unreasonable, based on how terrific 'Iron Man' part one is, to expect something good a couple of years from now!