This summer is going to be jam-packed with comic-book super-heroes on the big screen, and the first one out of the secret hideout is Iron Man. While the character is definitely one of the giants of the Marvel Comics universe, he’s less well-known in popular culture than others like Captain America, Hulk or Spider-Man. Most of the buzz around this movie has been within the fanboy community, but judging by its opening week box-office results, Iron Man may soon be a household name. While the movie is chock full of the high-tech and special effects befitting a summer tent-pole blockbuster, a lot of the credit for this movie’s success should also fall at the feet of actor Robert Downey Jr., who portrays billionaire, Tony Stark — the man inside the metal suit. Downey brings his signature smart-mouthed performance to this character who is a playboy industrialist and technological wizard. His vast fortunes and decadent lifestyle come courtesy of Stark Enterprises, a family business in manufacturing weapons for the US military (and maybe a few others). Stark is kidnapped while on a trip to Afghanistan and his warlord captor forces him to build a super-weapon, but the tables are turned when he builds a hi-tech suit of armour instead, and thus a hero is born.
I was not very familiar with Iron Man’s origin story before hearing about this movie, so I’m not sure how much it was tied with the politics of war. A post-Desert Storm Tony Stark struggles with the guilt of seeing his own company’s weapons being used to kill American soldiers and does a moral 180. While there’s nothing wrong with that outcome, it really dragged down the first third of the movie for me. The super-hero story typically requires a lot of suspended disbelief, and the more you try to make it realistic and socio-politically relevant, the more disjointed it feels. I especially noticed this in a scene where the US military was targeting Iron Man after he’d just destroyed some Afghan terrorists. They didn’t know if he was hostile or not, so two jet fighters went after him in middair. All the complicated politics and protocols, all the chain-of-command and military responsibility didn’t allow room for a vigilante in a cool metal suit to come in an clean house. They seemed like elements from two separate stories. Thankfully, everything took a decidedly more enjoyable and consistent tone by the mid-point. More about the true villain was revealed and the super-hero’s only concern was defeating the bad guy and saving the day. (I know it’s simplistic, but super-hero stories are fables. They’re better that way.)
As I said, Downey’s acerbic tone leant a roguish charm to the character and made him into a refreshingly unique hero, which is more than can be said for most of the other high-caliber actors. Oscar-winner Gwyneth Paltrow played Pepper Potts, Stark’s assistant and anchor. Her performance was adequate, but if it had been more dynamic it might have drawn attention away from her oddly-coloured strawberry-blonde hair. Oscar-nominee Terrence Howard played Jim Rhodes, a friend and supposed-conscience to Stark. Frankly, there was very little chemistry between Howard and Downey, and it doesn’t seem plausible that they would have been friends. I’m undecided on 4-time-Oscar-nominee Jeff Bridges’s performance as Obadiah Stane, Stark’s business partner and friend. Sporting a Lex-Luthor-esque scalp, Bridges really worked that gravelly voice of his so that we could never be sure if he was getting ready to dispense wisdom, negotiate a deal, or just squash someone. He was the only one in this movie who gave Downey a run for his money.
All complaints about tone or acting were, however, blasted away by a fun story (once it picked up) and some very good visuals and effect — the flight scenes were quite awesome. Add to that the dashes of humour as Stark talked back to his workshop’s computer intelligence (voiced by British actor Paul Bettany) and this movie more than pulls through to rank among the better super-hero movies well worth a trip to the cinema. [Oh, and if you’re a Marvel Universe fan, you MUST stay until after all the credits have rolled for a fist-pumping epilogue and cameo. It’s better than the one in X-Men 3, trust me.] (4 out of 5)
What if I made Iron Man?
I would definitely have telescoped the first part where Stark is kidnapped and builds the first version of the armour, and I would have had fewer scenes about the details of the technology — it’s not real anyway, the more you try to explain it, the less sense it makes. With regard to the technology, there’s got to be a way to stretch out the timelines so that it doesn’t seem like it takes less than an hour to whip up one of these Iron Man suits. The other thing I totally would have removed is the romantic-comedy moment between Downey and Paltrow (though it did allow for an excellent bit of awkwardness at the end of the movie). Was it an attempt to keep the girlfriends in the audience interested? I dunno.