Movie Review: Iron Man
By Shane Jenkins
May 2, 2008
What was the last big-budget summer movie made you laugh out loud repeatedly? And (not so fast, Disco Spidey...) with it, not at it? For me, it was the first Pirates of the Caribbean - you know, the good one. In between the exploding of ships and the discovering of sunken treasure was some really sharply written-and-acted interplay between the characters, primarily due to a memorably strange and funny performance from one-time bad boy Johnny Depp. That movie, of course, elevated him onto the household-name tier of celebrity that he had been circling for years.
Meet the new Depp. Robert Downey Jr., for years relegated to appearances in courtrooms and gossip pages, gets another crack at leading man status with Iron Man, and absolutely knocks it out of the park. This is some old-school star-making stuff and I suspect this will shoot him to the top of every casting agent's want list.
If you're a fan of Downey's endlessly witty buddy-cop flick Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (and you should be), you won't be surprised at his way with a quip - this guy could probably make a reading of The Book of Revelations sound off-the-cuff and breezy. What is surprising is just how far his approach manages to elevate the typically moribund genre of superhero movie into something unexpected - fun.
Downey is Tony Stark, wunderkind weapons designer and the playboy billionaire head of his own company. He's gotten rich off inventing new ways to kill the enemy, and if the idea of "enemy" is a little fuzzily defined, well, that's someone else's problem. When we first meet him, he is on a trip to Afghanistan to promote his latest killing machine. He is alternately intimidating and charming, and the U.S. soldiers he is riding with are not quite sure what to make of him. Neither are we, for that matter. He's quick with a joke or to light up your smoke and all that, but his offhanded amorality is tough to disguise.
It doesn't help when we see him in flashbacks back at his beyond-opulent mansion. Stark is such a playa, that he has an elaborate system set up for getting rid of his one-night stands, involving his long-suffering but faithful assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Neither he nor his business partner, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges with an awful beard), seem to pay too much attention to the real-world effects their weapons are having. They are safely insulated in their own world of private jets and sports cars.
While in Afghanistan, though, Stark is kidnapped by terrorists, held at gunpoint (with guns from his company), and forced to build them a powerful weapon. Instead, he uses their supplies to create a high-tech suit of armor that helps him escape. In the process, he sees how his own weapons are being used to oppress innocent people in these towns, who are regularly mowed down by gunfire when they get in the way, and this inspires his transformation into Iron Man.
Because Iron Man, like most of these comic book movies, is about transformation. Physical transformation, of course, into a larger-than-life, high-tech contraption, but also a transformation of the soul. Tony Stark, like Bruce Wayne, has a revelation, and discovers there's more to life than mere conspicuous consumption. He resolves to use this empire he has built to save people rather than enslave and kill them. This is a reliably effective story arc, because we get to ooh and aah over all the amazing gadgetry (and even the sports cars and jets), while feeling like this wealth is being put to good use, something we don't often get to feel in the real world.
In a meta kind of way, the transformation theme applies to Downey too, which is something the movie also seems aware of. Heretofore, it's been almost impossible to separate Downey the actor from Downey the eternal relapser. He's always been a smooth talker, dating back to the first time I remember seeing him, on SNL and in 1986's Back to School. His innate charm even served him well in his various court appearances, as he pleaded for mercy in a seemingly never-ending string of drug busts and incarceration. In casting him, Iron Man's director acknowledges the strikes in Downey's past, and almost encourages us to put what we know of his troubled history into Stark's back story. This is a gamble, but it pays off surprisingly well; the birth of Iron Man is also the re-birth of Downey onto the A-list.
Downey is assisted by a great supporting cast; those Dinners for Five must have made Favreau some good friends. Paltrow, particularly, comes off really well. So often cast in chilly roles that match her pale visage, she gets to be funny and real here, and makes a part that could very easily have been a thankless one into a great supporting turn. Paltrow actually lights up the screen whenever she appears, something I don't think I've ever said before. Terrence Howard plays Stark's military commander friend, and, unfortunately, talented as Howard is, there's not enough here to help him flesh out the role; he gets almost nothing to do but shake his head at Stark's craziness. And then there's Bridges, being especially un-Dude-like. He gets a lot of expensive scenery to chew on, and he goes to town.
It all works well, at least until the climax, where the special effects take over, and the performances are put on the back burner; I guess you have to throw the kids a bone now and then. But mostly, this is a surprisingly adult action movie, with complex themes and real performances. This is easily the best comic book movie since Batman Begins, and a great start to the summer movie season.