What an age we live in, when a middle-aged actor as quirky and unpredictable as Robert Downey Jr. can headline a multi-million dollar blockbuster franchise based on a B-level superhero that few are familiar with. More surprising however, which I’m pleased to report, is that Iron Man is one of the better entries in the superhero genre, as well as one of the most amusingly enjoyable film-going experiences in recent memory.
Iron Man, based on the Marvel Comics’ character created by funny-book legend Stan Lee back in 1963, is a cleverly off-beat take on the superhero mythos, featuring the most unlikely of heroes. Tony Stark (Downey Jr.), a charismatic and quick-witted billionaire arms manufacturer in the Howard Hughes mould, is critically injured and detained by Middle Eastern terrorists while conducting an overseas demonstration of his latest weapon to the U.S. military. After the fanatical group demands he build them a super-weapon, Stark takes it upon himself to instead construct a large weaponized suit to aid in his escape. After breaking out of his makeshift prison he returns to the U.S., where he realizes the impact his deadly hardware has had on the world and decides to employ his new creation in cleaning up the damage. His radical shift in ideology has profound effects on his relationships with shadowy business partner, the wonderfully named Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), best friend and U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes (Terrence Howard) as well as his devoted and lovable personal assistant Pepper Potts, warmly played by Gwyneth Paltrow. Soon, as is typically the case, Stark must use his abilities to put an end to a super-powered threat which threatens to level the city.
Despite a relatively routine story arc, which we’ve seen used countless times in films ranging in quality from Spider-Man to Ghost Rider, the key to Iron Man’s success is its willingness to write to each actor’s individual strengths and not allow the effects to trump the character work. Robert Downey Jr. is nothing less than a revelation here, making Tony Stark a study in humorous odd-ball behaviour. He delightfully portrays the fierce and perceptive intelligence of Stark, while simultaneously underscoring each moment with droll witticisms and off-beat observations. Most importantly, he effortlessly convinces us that this 43-year-old eccentric really could strap on enough heavy metal to make Ronnie James Dio blanch and save the day.
In fact, it’s surprising in retrospect how close Downey’s performance comes to completely overshadowing the special effects eye-candy. Taking a page from the Batman Begins playbook, director Jon Favreau makes the wise decision to emphasize Tony Stark’s personality and relationships over the scenes featuring Iron Man blowin’ stuff up real good. To this end, Terrence Howard and Jeff Bridges provide great support, and while both a tad under-used, make their archetypal roles feel alive. Likewise, Gwyneth Paltrow is ideal, providing her and Downey Jr.’s scenes with a kinetic bouncy energy, while still managing to subtly hint at their unspoken amorous yearnings. The duo’s rapid-fire conversations play as perfect homage to the great Cary Grant/Katherine Hepburn screwball comedies of yore (Go rent Bringing Up Baby NOW!), and are refreshingly mature and free of nausea-inducing romantic clichés. As well, I really appreciated the fact that these two are no longer lovestruck kids with cloudy minds, but instead capable professionals who understand the daunting prospects of love. They are realists as opposed to idealists.
The special effects by the brainchildren at Industrial Light and Magic are inventive and nearly flawless. As a realized creation, Iron Man is among the best looking effects-driven heroes, with realistic weight and mobility. More importantly, the CG is used in service of the story, instead of in place of it. Iron Man may dart around the sky like a hyperactive projectile, but we never overlook the human being inside the tin-can.
If I have one complaint about Iron Man, it’s the somewhat underwhelming super-villain material. Due to the film focusing its energies towards telling a great origin tale, the development of the arch-nemeses is a bit rushed. The best villains, such as Dr. Octopus and Joker, thrive on a fair share of on-screen development, and Iron Man’s baddie isn’t in the same league. The final battle is more perfunctory than essential, and when compared to the more impressive mano-et-mano's in Spider-Man 2 or X2 comes up pretty short. Here's hoping for a more iconic villain in the future, such as Mandarin or, if dreams come true, Fin Fang Foom.
Downey Jr. and company have crafted a smart and wildly entertaining blockbuster, a rare feat, and Iron Man is guaranteed to thrill and amuse even the most cynical of viewers. In addition, they’ve laid some great foundation for what will likely prove to be an even more fantastic sequel. See you in 2010, Iron-fans.
4 out of 5
P.S.: I hope the next installment also pushes the boundaries of the genre a little more. The best superhero flicks, Tim Burton's and Chris Nolan's Batman's, Spider-Man 1 and 2, and Superman: The Movie and the underrated Returns all aimed to be great films, not just great comic-book films. I'm eager to see Iron Man 2 strengthens its geo-political messages and shows a tad more ambition and style.