Tuesday 11 November 2008

Iron Man (2008)

Tuesday 11 November 2008
Director: Jon Favreau
Writers: Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Arthur Marcum & Matthew Hollaway (based on characters created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck & Jack Kirby)

A canny statement on America's view of itself in the last days of George W. Bush, Iron Man uses its superhero template to intelligent effect. Multi-billionaire weapons developer Tony Stark (a perfect Robert Downey Jr.) is a playboy supplier of arms to the US military. During a visit to Afghanistan to show off his latest product (a devastating "Jericho" missile), Stark's convoy is attacked by the enemy (Al Qaeda?) He awakens to find himself prisoner in a cave, alive thanks to fellow captive Dr. Yinsen (Shaun Toub), who inserted an electromagnet in his chest to prevent shrapnel entering his heart. Both are then forced to recreate Stark's deadly super-missile for terrorist leader Raza (Faran Tahir)…

Stark agrees to Raza's demand, but secretly begins constructing a bulletproof suit of armour (powered by his electromagnet ticker), which he uses to escape and flee to the bosom of Uncle Sam three months later. Having witnessed the damage Stark Industries has caused the world in person, Stark vows to dismantle his company's weapons division -- much to the chagrin of business partner Obadiah Stone (Jeff Bridges) -- and channel his resources into upgrading his armoured-suit idea into a high-tech, flying phallus of American strength and justice: Iron Man.

It almost goes without saying Downey Jr's a perfect fit for this material, as his own lifestyle and attitudes match Stark's womanizing, addictive, charismatic, snarky personality. Strange to see the comic-book Stark's alcoholism sidestepped, though -- particularly as Downey Jr's well-documented battles with addiction would have further blurred reality with fiction. Still, the only things separating actor from character would appear to be the differential in wealth and I.Q. It's the best superhero casting since Christian Bale shrugged on his bat cowl, regardless.

His co-stars are equally well-cast: Gwyneth Paltrow brings her willowy beauty and quirky tone to assistant/would-be love interest "Pepper" Pots; Jeff Bridges wears his head upside-down to become corporate dick/surrogate father Obadiah Stone; and Terrence Howard circles the story as Stark's friend/military liaison "Rhodey", awaiting the sequel's chance to shine -- although he's recently been replaced by Don Cheadle, owing to either alleged difficulties with Howard on-set, or a contractual wrinkle that made him the highest-paid star, depending on who you talk to.

In a welcome reversal of the trend for darker, grittier superhero flicks like The Dark Knight, Marvel's Iron Man chooses the brighter, flashier path established by Spider-Man. The production glistens with colour and well-integrated FX, too; the late Stan Winston's practical suits are indistinguishable from their CGI twins, while the sheer luxury and technical delights of Stark's home, gizmos and vehicles will have you grinning at the overindulgence of it all.

While similar to Batman's Bruce Wayne, Marvel's version of a multi-billionaire knows how to have fun: living on the exotic coast instead of a crime-addled metropolis, outfitting his private jet with pole-dancing stewardesses, etc. There's even a wink to Batman's English butler Alfred, upgraded as a posh piece of A.I called Jarvis.

Iron Man's balance between comedy and drama is also very successful (an equilibrium Fantastic Four failed to achieve.) Stark's relationship with a fire-extinguishing mechanical arm is funnier and eventually more poignant than any human interaction in both Fantastic Four movies.

This is also one of very few comic-book movies where the costumed hero is an extension of the man -- a tool to be utilized, not a character to perform, or alter-ego to inhabit. As a viewer, I never felt the movie was killing time waiting for its eponymous robo-man to appear, either. In fact, with Iron Man only putting in a few appearances, I actually preferred spending time with the traditionally boring man behind the mask. Would you watch a Superman movie where 90% of the plot focused on Clark Kent?

I have a tolerance for superhero origin stories (just one reason why I prefer Batman Begins over Dark Knight, marginally), and have never seen them as redundant, predictable scene-setters. Iron Man benefits from mass unfamiliarity with the character, and manages the tricky task of limiting its hero's role significantly, but never at the detriment of the film. Hopefully the sequels won't overdose on Iron Man fisticuffs, but rather allow Downey Jr more room to play and punctuate his story with super-heroics. The final sting of this film is encouraging to that end. The post-credits easter egg with Samuel L. Jackson even more so.

If there is one failing with Iron Man, it's a minor gripe: the climactic punch-up between Iron Man and "Iron Monger" gives in to expectations of a simple scrap. Fortunately, the FX are excellent and it's an entertaining brawl (despite its resemblance to RoboCop 2's climax) and thus a concession to the popcorn crowd you can live with. But Spider-Man 2, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight all provided finale's with more intelligence simmering beneath the visuals.

Overall, this is a fine comic-book adaptation from director Jon Favreau (Swingers/Zathura) -- a director whose relative inexperience with projects on this scale isn't noticeable. Unless the lack of big action set-pieces was intentional to avoid his shortcomings? Regardless, Favreau gets the casting spot-on, handles the story effectively, plays to everyone's strengths, ensures top-quality FX, doesn't forget the laughs, and finds time for some political subtext. The Dark Knight may have stolen its thunder this summer, but it's Iron Man that will be getting repeated play in households with young kids.

Paramount Pictures / Marvel Studios
Budget: $135 million
126 minutes


Cast: Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark), Gwyneth Paltrow (Virginia "Pepper" Pots), Terrence Howard (Lt. Col. James "Rhodey" Rhodes), Jeff Bridges (Obadiah Stone), Shaun Toub (Dr. Yinsen), Faran Tahir (Raza), Paul Bettany (Jarvis, voice), Leslie Bibb (Christine Everhart) & Clark Gregg (Agent Coulson)