Iron Man has never achieved the kind of mass popularity that other Marvel superheroes like Spider-Man or the X-Men have, yet those of us who love Iron Man love him. I still remember playing with my Iron Man action figure as a kid. The costume was so cool that I was always drawn to him, and we had many adventures together. As an adult (or, depending on your point of view, a man-child), I appreciate this Marvel hero as much for his humanity and complexity as for his duds. This is probably why comic book movies are often so wildly popular: you can enjoy them on two totally different levels. The long-awaited Iron Man movie is certainly going to please fans both youthful and mature, as it easily ranks among the top tier of comic book adaptations.
A superhero is only as interesting as his alter ago, and Iron Man always had one of the best. Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey, Jr. in a casting choice that can only be called brilliant) is a narcissistic, womanizing, billionaire industrialist. His company, Stark Enterprises, manufactures devastating military weapons. Tony inherited the biz from his late father and, in the opening scenes, we see him proudly plugging a new missile defense system in the Middle East. While there, terrorists ambush his cavalcade; the resulting explosion leaves him with shrapnel lodged dangerously close to his heart. The terrorists throw him in a cave and force him to make one of those new missiles for them. Thankfully, he's in there with an assistant who helps him build an electromagnetic device to wear that prevents the shrapnel from getting into his heart. It is a device he will have to wear for the rest of his life.
Instead of building the missile, Tony secretly constructs a crude but high-powered iron suit, complete with a flamethrower and rocket boots. He uses the suit to escape his captors and return home. Knowing that his products can be inadvertently responsible for killing American soldiers, Tony has a change of heart about what his company makes. His very public declaration of this does not please his board of directors, led by longtime family friend Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges). But Tony is insistent. He begins creating a newer, more sophisticated version of the suit so that he can return to the Middle East and prevent the terrorist organization from misusing other Stark Industry weapons they have procured. Backing him up are his longtime personal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and his military officer best friend James "Rhodey" Rhodes (Terrence Howard).
Iron Man, like the comic series on which it's based, is a little different than some of the other superhero tales. It is not a typical story of a super-powered human taking on a comparatively powerful supervillain (i.e. Spider-Man vs. Green Goblin, Fantastic Four vs. Dr. Doom, Batman vs. Joker, etc.). Instead, this is pure origin story, showing us how this money-hungry hipster billionaire develops a conscience and builds a high-tech suit that allows him to follow it. In fact, it takes almost a full hour before Tony Stark puts on the official, more familiar Iron Man costume. This emphasis on plot is what I liked most about the film. When the action scenes do come, they are spectacular because they truly serve the story.
Similarly, the special effects are first-rate without ever overtaking anything else. Because we get so invested in Tony Stark's moral transformation, it's even more badass when he puts on that cool suit and starts fighting bad guys. (Check out that amazing climax between Iron Man and a similarly-armed baddie.) In its own way, the suit is another character here. A lot of scenes show us how the suit operates: how it's designed, how Stark puts it on and removes it, the challenges it presents. I recall being impressed by how Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins worked so effectively because it took the idea of becoming a superhero seriously, imagining how it might go down if such things were at all realistic. Iron Man shares that desire to approach the subject matter in a grounded manner. You can't really build a super-suit like this, but if you could, it would doubtlessly go something like this.
Thank goodness Robert Downey, Jr. has gotten his act together. Long one of the most talented actors of his generation, it seemed for a while as though he would either be in jail for the rest of his life or dead, thanks to some well-publicized drug problems. Seeing him appear healthy over the last few years has felt good, and he's back to giving us great performances. As he always does, Downey brings something unusual and unexpected to the role. He has a way of delivering the simplest of lines in a way you don't anticipate, making them sound not like dialogue but rather like real conversation. There is no other actor I can think of who is better to carry off the multi-faceted personality of Tony Stark. Downey also has some nice chemistry with Paltrow, who (for the first time in a long time) appears to be having some fun on screen.
A lot of superhero movies are just escapist fun, while a select few are escapist fun combined with a bit of substance. Iron Man definitely falls into the latter category. Although by no means trying to beat us over the head with any sort of message, the film (solidly directed by Jon Favreau) nevertheless makes the crucial decision to set its story in the real world, to have its characters face real moral decisions with real consequences.
And then, when Iron Man does show up for battle, this flick just soars.
( 1/2 out of four)
Note: Sit all the way through the end credits for a bonus scene that, if you're a comic book fan, will blow you away. It's not the rumored Hulk cameo that early internet buzz hinted at, but it does feature another Marvel character played by an actor whose casting is inspired.
Iron Man is rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and brief suggestive content. The running time is 2 hours and 6 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: Iron Man
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