Saturday, June 7, 2008

Iron Alone Doesn't Make the Man

After it made $100 million in its opening weekend and received unanimously glowing reviews, I decided I had to get in on this Iron Man thing. I'm not merely a sheep, though, I had actually thought it looked pretty cool for awhile. I just had to admit it to myself. I'm glad I did. It was an unreasonably good superhero movie.

I've always liked Robert Downey, Jr., and I'm thrilled that he finally got a juicy leading role and is an officially bankable commodity. People were excited to see a middle-aged superhero for once, but with the exception of Peter Parker/Tobey Maguire (who in actuality is over thirty but can look way younger, like me), I really don't think there HAVE been a lot of younger heroes. So, I don't get the gripe, but I'll play devil's advocate. Yes, it was nice to have an older dude kicking ass, especially when that dude is Robert Downey, Jr.

Iron Man is a much more sophisticated superhero story than usual, though. It contains a lot of political commentary and relevance to today's war in Iraq and the arms race (it's not just for the 60s anymore, kids!). So, whether you like it or not, you get a superhero flick with a brain and a moral conscience.

Downey, Jr. plays billionaire technological genius and notorious womanizer Tony Stark, a guy who manufactures weapons and couldn't care less what people do with them, that is until he finds himself in Afghanistan (I think) and gets practically blown to smithereens by one of his WMDs. He then gets taken hostage by some terrorists and trapped in a cave. It was a bad day for Tony. He makes a friend, fellow hostage Dr. Yinsen (Shaun Toub), who saves his life by removing all of the shrapnel he can from Tony's body. However, there's still a ton of metal left, so his doctor-buddy implants this cool-looking device in his chest that acts as a magnet and keeps all of the metallic shavings under control. To put it simply, it's the only way he'll live. The terrorists want Tony to build a missile for them, but after months in captivity and almost dying, he's a changed man. While he's supposed to be building a weapon for the baddies, he decides to build something to get him and his friend out, a primitive version of the Iron Man suit. It works, he gets out, and he chooses to follow a new path. He wants Stark Enterprises to do good instead of evil, which doesn't sit well with Obadiah (Jeff Bridges), the sinister partner left over from Tony's dad's greedy days.

That's the gist. The rest of the film follows Tony's evolution into Iron Man and his accompanying psychological/emotional crises and impressive character arc. Stark has an assistant named Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who witnesses all of Tony's sexscapades (not literally - grow up, people) with some judgment and a twinge of disappointment (of course there are feelings, and reciprocally), but is unflinchingly loyal, because she sees a side of Tony that the public never sees. Pepper Potts is without a doubt my favorite name for a superhero's rock/gal Friday. It's so cool. I want a name like that. Anyway, she's a wonderfully strong, empowering character who indulges Tony but never gets bullied. She's always in control and gets to do her share of butt-kicking and saving of the day.

I just loved this film. I was pretty much riveted from start to finish. I admit that the beginning felt a little slow to me. It took a long time to set up Tony's situation, but then when the movie was over, I appreciated it, because it made the pay-off more rewarding. Still, at the time, I was fidgety. My only other complaint - why didn't we get to hear Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" during the film? I craved it! Other than that, Iron Man is a supremely wonderful film, very action-packed but also emotionally-engaging and funny and smart and romantic. It was written by two pairs of guys - Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby (Children of Men), and Arthur Marcum and Matt Holloway (the upcoming Punisher: War Zone), and then spiffed up by John August (Go, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). I think it's pretty obvious which scenes were written by which duo, but put together, it all works. I thought the action scenes were ragingly, edge-of-my-seat awesome, and I absolutely adored the political and personal aspects. Jon Favreau's direction is marvelous. He's clearly an actor's director, and he really allows them to have room to breathe and evolve their characters. He also lets the story run its course, which I still maintain was a bit slow at the beginning, even though I get why. He's an extremely talented director.

The acting is fantastic. I remember a day when Jeff Bridges was good-looking. Now, he seems to revel in roles requiring him to look kind of nasty (The Big Lebowski, Tideland, and this one), but he has a great time doing so. He's really, really good and oily in Iron Man. Terrence Howard plays Lt. Colonel James Rhodes, Tony's friend and the company's military liaison. Howard is an unbelievably likeable actor, and he made me want to learn more about Rhodey. Paul Bettany, unrecognizable to me while watching, does a magnificent job as the voice of Tony's best friend/robot Yoda JARVIS. Paltrow is stunning as Pepper Potts. She's stunningly beautiful, of course, but she's also very dynamic and sassy with just the right amount of sentimentality. Paltrow moved me as Pepper Potts. It's fantastic to see her doing great work again. It's been awhile.

Robert Downey, Jr. is the man. He brings so much credibility to this character when it could have been played very flippantly. His performance is the perfect balance of machismo and heart. He makes Tony's emotional struggle so palpable, and I was totally engaged in his journey. This is absolutely some of Downey, Jr.'s best work. He's a badass when he needs to be and morally conflicted and constantly evolving the rest of the time. He's just perfect. And he's super sexy - who knew?

Iron Man was a pretty sweet way to start off the summer. I just hope they don't tarnish this achievement with the sequels and the impending Marvel hero superparty movie (everyone's invited!). What makes Iron Man so special and exceptional is its uniqueness. Don't take them away from Tony Stark..or us.

Rating: ****1/2 (out of 5)

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