Friday, May 02, 2008

"Iron Man" -- * * *

If not a breathtaking new spin on superhero films, Jon Favreau's "Iron Man" is still slick, solid entertainment and an enjoyable way to start off the summer movie season. Refreshingly targeted more at adults than the genre tends to be, this movie is always, at the least, a lot of fun, and having the perfectly-cast Robert Downey Jr. at its center certainly doesn't hurt, nor does its "rock 'n roll" spirit. In terms of audience reaction, I don't think the roof will be raised as it was for, say, "Batman Begins" or "Spider-Man," but I have a hard time imagining anyone being strongly dissatisfied with what they get here. Those who have had their expectations raised to extraordinary levels may want to keep them in check, but the movie does deliver on most fronts, and I'm certainly planning on seeing it again.

Based on the comic book created in 1963, "Iron Man" tells the intricate story of Tony Stark (Downey Jr.), a brilliant inventor/billionaire with a carefree lifestyle and ownership over Stark Industries, the country's top weapons contractor. On a presentation of weapons, Tony's convoy is attacked in Afghanistan, and he is promptly captivated by the "Ten Rings," a Taliban Lite group of insurgents. After a bit of torturing (water boarding is employed), the captors insist that Stark build them a weapon of mass destruction; instead, he builds himself an impenetrable, weapons-filled suit of armor and escapes captivity. Upon returning home, Tony is insistent upon changing the direction of the company and shutting down their weapons division, despite the trepidation of his assistant -slash- love interest Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and outright refusal by his aide, Obediah Stane (Jeff Bridges). Beefing up his suit of armor into a significantly more advanced version, Tony firstly sets his sights upon his Afghan captors, but soon enough has to deal with resistance from Stane, whose motives are much more sinister than he initially lets on. Thrown into the mix is military man Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard), a benevolent friend of Tony's who discourages him from acting on his "Iron Man" impulses, but grudgingly assists him in covering them up.

The movie is kick-started with an great opening sequence (which reminded me of "M:I-3") that raises the stakes, and sets up an immediate danger, before jumping back 36 hours to show how we got there. This leads into what, if anything, sets "Iron Man" apart from most of its ilk: it actually feels like a real film, not just a first cog in a franchise. Yes, it's an origin story, but the structure takes its time with what it's doing, and the movie is better for it; did anyone complain that Bruce Wayne doesn't become Batman till well over an hour into Nolan's film? If you came in knowing nothing about the movie, for at least the first 30 minutes, you'd think you were just watching a solid military thriller. There's no winks or nods, no "I am Iron Man, here's how I got that way" narration; everything seems like a natural progression of events, and doesn't just rush to get Stark into that sleek metal suit (if you're wondering, he first straps on some form of the suit and flies around the 60-minute mark).

Before entering the theater, I was a little disheartened to hear that yet another superhero film felt the need to surpass two hours (even barely), but it turns out to be paced remarkably well. There never seem to be any real lulls-- this is no "Hulk"-- and it wasn't until close to the end that I realized there really weren't that many action sequences. Oh, there's plenty of action and special effects, don't get me wrong; but I question whether there are enough big set-pieces (I think I counted four) for some. Still, what we get is appropriately "awesome." His first trial run with the suit, a huge cliche in these sort of films, is genuinely thrilling and funnier than it has any right to be. The two biggest moments are Stark/Iron's return to Afghanistan to dole out his reckoning upon his brutal captors, and the big climactic hero-vs.-villain fight near the end; the former is fairly exciting and applause-inducing, while the metal-suit-on-metal-suit fight was fun, yet a bit too reminiscent of "Transformers" for my blood. Though they’re not technically action sequences, I was particularly impressed by the auto-shop assemblage of the suit onto Tony's body whenever he wants to put it on, and Iron Man soaring through a buildup of ice in the sky had me muttering "very cool."

Truth be told, I'm reticent to even call this a "superhero movie," because it's much more of a personal character piece than anything else. Though Stark learns to care about helping other people, and has a sequence where he saves innocents from brutality, this story is chiefly about him and his control for his multi-billion dollar weapons company. We don't see much "heroics" per se on display here, and where a lot of movies seem like expository, dull build-up to the crime-fighting, this is more about Stark's re-awakening and fighting for what's right in his own life. Where in a lot of these movies, you just can't wait for the boring Peter to throw on the Spidey suit, I think "Iron Man" gets away with what it does because we're more invested, and more interested, in Tony Stark than Iron Man. It's to the movie's benefit that we like spending time with the guy, and the action scenes are more the icing on the cake than the whole show.

As for the reason we like spending time with the guy, all the credit has to go to the effortless brilliance of Robert Downey Jr. Whoever fought for him to play Tony Stark, you deserve two gold stars; if there's one thing above all else that makes the movie work, it's him. In a terrific, unexpected merging of character and actor, recalling Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow in the first "Pirates" film, it becomes virtually impossible to imagine anyone else in the role-- not an easy feat for the oft-bland character type of 'superhero dude'. From the little way he banters with machines, gets off quick one-liners (whether calling a non-talking soldier "Forrest" or mentioning "I got caught doing a piece for Vanity Fair" after sleeping with a journalist) and deflects anything leveled at him, he's snarky, he's hilarious, he's perfect. He's also completely believable in his embodiment of Stark as a human being more than just a clever, funny guy. Perhaps it's because of the audience's personal knowledge of Downey's baggage, but there's something about him playing an alcoholic, sex-addict egomaniac that just fits. It may be reading too much into things, but as a guy prone to destructive behavior who acknowledges he needs to start going in a new direction, he resonates.

Considering everyone in the main ensemble has at least been nominated for an Oscar, it's a little disappointing that the supporting cast is sort of just there to prop up Downey. Pepper is an insubstantial, underdeveloped role, mostly existing as 'hero's babe,' but it's hard to remember when Paltrow last looked this lovely and seemed this charming. There may not be much to the character, but more than anything in the supporting cast, she seems to be enjoying herself here, and gets off a few funny lines. As the bald-headed, segue-riding eventual nemesis Obediah (equipped with an unexplained Amish name and Amish beard), Bridges doesn't become fun to watch until he reveals his full-blown villainy 3/4 of the way through. I appreciated the friends/enemies "stab you in the front" dynamic between Stark and Stane, but for most of the film, I couldn't help but notice that Bridges barely seemed awake; though to be fair, he is enjoyable to behold once he starts chewing scenery. Howard as Rhodes, on the other hand, is completely worthless. I really want to have him back in my favor again, but he's made bad decision after bad decision since "Hustle & Flow" (his uninspired turn in the all-black Broadway "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" didn't help matters). He's not so much bad here as much as he gets absolutely nothing to do, and thus, doesn't do anything with it. Maybe he was just dispirited by finally joining the ranks of black actors who've made a movie where they're forced to say "Dayum" upon seeing something cool, but you can sense his lack of passion.

There's nothing on Jon Favreau's directorial resume ("Made," "Elf," "Zathura") to indicate he could handle something on this scale, but he proves to be perfectly capable. Though no one could accuse his direction of being flashy, he makes some clever decisions-- the repeated use of heavy metal music when Iron Man appears is a subtle pun in and of itself-- and his obvious affinity for the source material radiates throughout. However, while he infuses it with enough passion and originality to make it clear this isn't a hack job, he fails to give the movie a particularly distinctive feel. The direction never falters, and I would say this is an impressive step in the right direction for Favreau (cameo-ing as one of Stark's security guys), but he doesn't necessary make "Iron Man" feel like something "special."

It must be said right here and now that I have never read an Iron Man comic book in my life, so I can't speak to accuracy, detail, adaptation, in-jokes, etc. From my minimal understanding, Iron Man is not considered an A-list comic hero. He never quite had Superman or Batman or Spider-man's fanbase, so the expectation level for the movie version might not be as gargantuan as it was for those franchises. Yet, it is worth noting that among the attendees at my screening I spoke to after, the comic book geeks seemed to be the most passionate about the film; I have a feeling the fans will be really pleased with what Favreau's done here. As opposed to, say, "Spider-Man" or "Hulk," "Iron Man" doesn't go for comic-book-inspired stylization-- everything feels fairly grounded in reality-- but it's clear from little details made evident to me that the filmmakers refreshingly had the fan base in mind. Stan Lee's requisite cameo is significantly less lame than it was the last time around, and there are specific in-jokes referring to S.H.I.E.L.D. agents (maybe hammered home one time too many), tiny hints foreshadowing Iron Man's arch-nemesis Mandarin, and a surprisingly clever whetting of fans' appetite for Rhodes becoming War Machine in future installments.

In the pantheon of superhero movies, "Iron Man" falls short of the great ones (e.g: "Batman Begins," "Spider-Man 2," "X2"), but will likely be regarded by most as a definitively good one. Tonally, it comes off as a cross between "Batman Begins's" more adult-skewing realism, and "Hellboy's" sense of quirk and whimsy. Though not as serious as the former, and not as odd/outlandish as the latter, the movie strikes a nice balance of fun and groundedness. It doesn't take itself too seriously (Stark is able to talk his private plane's stewardesses into pole-dancing and cocktails in the back of the plane), but avoids becoming too jokey. It's shrewdly set in the modern-day real world, with the acknowledgment of terrorism and the dangers of our times. The Mideast baddies' shenanigans are appropriately brutal, and when Stane embraces his villainy in the third act, the effects are rougher than I expected. I also was a bit alarmed, though pleased, with Iron/Stark's willingness to kill people when he needs to; while other heroes have a strict moral code when it comes to this, Stark has no qualms with destroying those he deems bad.

Though the superhero origin film has become a formula of its own, and "Iron Man" will likely bear the brunt of some peoples' fatigue with it, Favreau's crack at it manages to play that tune one more time without feeling like it's going through the motions. I personally was refreshed that the movie was two hours of fast-paced, easy-going fun and not steeped in darkness or goofiness, the two planes upon which such films have a tendency to operate on. While the checklist of successes starts with Downey Jr., fans of both the comic books and superhero fare in general should be pleased that "Iron Man" gets mostly everything right. A good time will be had, but I can't imagine anyone being severely disappointed, nor having their world rocked. That'll have to wait for the sequel.


Anonymous patrick said...

Iron Man was practically flawless as a super hero flick; it drops pretty obvious hints that would indicate a sequel as well... i'm thinking the next one should be equally great

12:11 AM  

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