IRON MAN is a lot of fun and will make a lot of money. It seems to have a bit of “four quadrant” appeal even, and may be the superhero movie that breaks out of the young male demographic that is their bread and butter.
Or maybe not. It’s hard to imagine a movie that investigates boyish fantasies more thoroughly. Fast cars, loud missiles, flying around in a metal suit shooting fire out your hand, tinkering in the lab and soldering together a miniature nuclear power plant out of some scraps you found lying around the cave – this is a Radio Shack fantasy all the way.
Mild spoilers to follow below the cut.
Economical in its action pieces, the movie retains interest through endless scenes of Robert Downey Jr. as industrialist Tony Stark tinkering in his lab, puttering with circuits, and bantering with robotic and computer “assistants.” Comparisons to both Dexter’s Lab and Gyro Gearloose with his little Helper are unavoidable, but also part of the fun. There are lots of in-jokes here — the required biography via newsreels and magazine covers includes one of Jeff Bridges in Tucker, a story of a real life inventor, but one that doesn’t end as happily. Here Bridges plays Obadiah Stane, the second in command at Stark Industries. I hadn’t been paying too much attention to previews of the film, so I wasn’t immediately aware that Bridges played the villain — although a few scenes of him riding a Segway, smoking a cigar, playing classical piano and playing chess are all the hints you need, even before Stane gets his own ideas about flying around in a metal suit. The music credits at the end reveal that the music Stane was playing was composed by Salieri — another of history’s villains.
The inspired bit here is the casting of Downey as Iron Man. Downey is a gifted enough performer to have survived career setbacks that would have reduced anyone else to late night special on VH1 with Dr. Drew. Even in the role of a superhero he sparkles, shines and humanizes the cartoons. He’s aided by a very funny, smart script credited to Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Art Marcum & Matt Holloway. So many names in the credits usually means a problem but here they’ve kept everyone’s best bits.
The story follows the beats of every superhero movie ever made to the letter, including the Charity Gala©, the Fight in the Warehouse© and the Heroic Reveal©. As the first movie ever produced by Marvel Studios, much is on the line here, but they’ve wisely gone for quality with solid vet Jon Favreau directing and a cast of Oscar® nominees and winners, including Downey, Bridges, Terrence Howard as Rhodey and Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, here Stark’s long-suffering Miss Moneypenny-esque assistant. There’s real chemistry between every member of the cast, from loyal friend Rhodey, who still casts a supervisory eye on Stark’s booze and broads excesses, and even Paltrow, so often insufferable but here intelligent, efficient and with enough of a backbone not to just throw herself into Tony Stark’s arms.
The story is a canny update of the original Iron Man’s beginnings, with the fooferaw in Afghanistan substituting for North Vietnam. Different decade, same problems. As the film begins, Stark is a callow, shallow member of the military-industrial complex, off to the Afghani plains to show off a new missile system. He’s also a mechanical genius. Things go wrong when his convoy is ambushed and he’s kidnapped by some bearded bad guys in keffiyahs — they’re not quite the Taliban, but more a motley crew of international ne’er-do-wells, including Hungarians. Stark awakens with some sort of magnetic gizmo keeping shrapnel from his heart, installed by a sidekick scientist. He’s ordered to put together a missile system, but decides to make himself an Iron Man suit along the way to effect an escape.
From there it’s a merry battle of flying around and blasting things, with some political/industrial intrigue thrown in. Stark sees the error of his ways in building weapons of destruction which can be turned against innocents as easily as used to keep the peace, which causes some conflicts with his board of directors, the US government and Stane. Luckily all of these tussles can be solved by donning a mechanical flying suit.
IRON MAN avoids the cartoonishness of the Fantastic Four movies with ease. This smart inventor acts like a smart inventor and not a dopey fuddy duddy, like the movie Reed Richards. It also ups the gravitas element of X-men, where the flash of Magneto’s concentration camp childhood gives a real-world grounding. IRON MAN deals with the post 9/11 mess in the Middle East in a palatable way — there’s nothing American know how can’t solve. It’s no surprise that the best action sequence is one where Iron Man takes on a pair of US fighter jets. It’s the only one where he has a foe that might just take him out. In the end, IRON MAN is pure Americana. It’s sometimes glib and self-congratulating; but it’s also determined and brave when it needs to be.
Nitpicks: I was annoyed to see Gwyneth Paltrow fleeing for her life in high heels when a moment before she was teetering around in five-inch stilettos like a drunken Meatpacking District bimbo. I guess that’s HER superpower.
Also, just WHO designed that Stark Industries logo? Weak! Milton Glazer would have been called in long ago.
Finally, it’s hard to overstate just how perfect Robert Downey is in this role. No line is too corny, no motivation too stretched. He makes everything credible, witty and enjoyable. Freed from captivity the first thing Stark requests is an American cheeseburger. He eats it in the middle of a life changing press conference. Downey takes a bite and says his line but at the same time allows a brief expression of pure rapture at tasting a good old fashioned burger again. (Product placement declared it was from Burger King.) Suffice to say that immediately after watching the movie I made a beeline to Shake Shack. Those Shack burgers are tasty.