Monday, May 05, 2008

In Theaters: Iron Man

Poster via
It may be a good sign that the first summer blockbuster of the year is as intelligent as IRON MAN. (I just know that statement is going to backfire on me.) It’s a solid action film, but what’s memorable about it is how much thought has gone into it. A superhero film that technically follows the structure of such things but does so with an offbeat attitude, the big screen debut of Marvel’s armor-suited guardian doesn’t pander to its audience the way big movies are expected to. Which isn’t to say it’s a great movie, or without its flaws, but it’s well put together, and the acting alone is of a caliber you don’t expect to find in films like this.

Robert Downey Jr. plays Tony Stark, head of Stark Industries, which manufactures weapons, aircraft, communications systems, basically anything big and metallic that the government pays lots of money for. He’s a brilliant inventor and a millionaire playboy without Bruce Wayne’s angst, bedding beautiful girls and jetting around the globe, always with a drink in hand and a dry quip at the ready. He’s in Afghanistan making a sale to the Army when his convoy is ambushed by a mysterious terror group, who take him prisoner. In the scuffle he is injured by shrapnel from one of his own missiles, and a doctor who’s also being held prisoner comes up with a crude mechanical heart plug that stops the one unremovable shard from burrowing in further and killing him. The terrorists (known as the Ten Rings, and being more would-be conquerors than religious fanatics) want Stark to build missiles for them, but he takes advantage of their resources to instead build a giant suit of powered armor which he uses to escape. On getting back to civilization, Stark wonders how his weapons ended up in the hands of the enemy, and shuts down the weapons division of Stark Industries, rousing the ire of his partner Obadaiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), who once ran the company. Stark develops his suit technology further, unaware that Stane and the Ten Rings are conspiring against him.

While most superhero movies seem to be driven by a particular script or director’s vision, it’s clear that IRON MAN is built around the casting of Downey. In the comics, Stark has struggled with alcoholism and bad-boy behavior (unfortunately current continuity has him in a rather dour authoritarian role), and though it’s hard to say how much the actor drew on the parallels to his own life, he’s obviously worked hard to create a fully realized character. Downey’s droll, deadpan attitude always works just right against his character’s excesses, both as playboy and superhero. It’s really fun to watch the performance, and the character created by it; it infuses a spirit of wild anarchy into a $186 million franchise picture. Movies like this aren’t allowed to take these chances, in theory, and though the film isn’t quite as radical with genre conventions as, say, Ang Lee’s underrated HULK, it shows what you can sneak in while still delivering what audiences come to see.

The writing is surprisingly strong as well; I have a feeling that Downey was allowed to take liberties with the script, but the dialogue is sharp overall, full of memorable quips. The story is literate, and though it actually takes a while for “Iron Man” himself to make his debut, the material leading up to it is good enough that it doesn’t matter. I would complain that the film doesn’t really have the time to deal with some of the things it gets into; the arms smuggling plot in particular doesn’t feel quite resolved. But then, delving too much into any one aspect of the film’s plot would probably slow things down, and though there are a couple of slow bits the filmmakers wisely keep up a steady pace, with no time for detours. The emphasis the film places on banter between its characters is also welcome; because studios depend on international grosses to cover overhead for almost every film they release, and because witty repartee isn’t guaranteed to translate at all, it’s often sacrificed in favor of physical humor. (Of course, as I write this, the film has made $96 million outside the US, so maybe the conventional wisdom can at last be put to bed.) There are some really funny lines in this film, and not just because Downey delivers them.

Actor/director Favreau demonstrates a solid grasp of pacing, and both the action and humor benefit from good timing. As much as Downey dominates, Favreau is sure to surround him with a strong supporting cast; Gwyneth Paltrow is decidedly strong as Pepper Potts, Tony’s long-suffering secretary, Bridges injects a very odd sense of humor into his villainous role, and there are strong turns by Terrence Howard, Shaun Toub, and Faran Tahir (as well as an uncredited appearance that- well, just wait through the credits, is what I’m saying.)

Upon initial viewing, the film lacks whatever extra quality that would make me put it into the A range, but that may just be the first viewing. It’s solid enough that it’ll definitely hold up well over time, and I absolutely recommend it. It’s pleasing to see such a big movie being as smart and spry as this, and to see a film as smart as this to be an apparent hit. If IRON MAN falls short of epic, it’s still a damn good time.

Based on a character created by Stan Lee, Don Heck, Larry Lieber, and Jack
Screenplay by Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Art Marcum & Matt Holloway
Directed by Jon Favreau

Grade: B+

(I now realize I've given out that grade three times in a row. Am I getting predictable?)

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