I Saw Iron Man

After congratulating myself for thinking of a brilliant title for this review, “Stark Raving”, I remembered that Newsarama beat me to it. I considered a more boastful “I Am Iron Man”, but of all the adjectives that could describe me, “Iron” doesn't share space with “fleshy”, “hairy”, or “lazy”. So, I settled on a bland but descriptive variation. If I seem like I'm rambling, it's just to allow adequate SPOILER SPACE before I get into specifics about the recent theatrical adaptation of Iron Man. I'm not going to ruin the biggest surprise, but I'll probably mention other specifics that people might want to avoid before seeing the movie for themselves. With an opening weekend over $100 million domestic, and over $200 million worldwide, I doubt there are many readers who haven't seen the thing, but better to err on the side of caution.

Iron Man is the first film from Marvel Studios, and in adapting their own property for a change, they've delivered possibly their most faithful translation from panel to screen since Spider-Man. Iron Man's greatest strength is its focus on one man's evolution and, like Batman Begins, tells the tale of a self-made superhero, spending more time on the making than the heroics. As with Batman Begins, with the right person playing the part and a strong enough story, we don't mind taking this journey. It takes about an hour to build the hero in his most recognizable form, and its well worth it. The sequels, which the success of the first one guaranteed, can dazzle us with a lot more popcorn munching action and explosions.

Jon Favreau has a lot more acting credits than directorial endeavors. Indeed, Elf is the only other one of the nine or so he's directed than I can say I've seen. His only other connection to this comic book universe was his role as Foggy Nelson in Daredevil. He was well cast in that role, and it was as though the character stepped off the page. Here, he does play a small role as chauffeur Happy Hogan, but his directing and more importantly, choice of a leading man are what shines. Make no mistake, Iron Man is the Robert Downey Jr. show. Except...it's not.

From the moment he's on screen, Robert Downey Jr. is Tony Stark, and I doubt any other comic fans were thinking otherwise. But who is Tony Stark? Like Bruce Wayne, he's another billionaire playboy, living a life we all dream of. But where Wayne's drinking and player ways with the ladies are often a facade to conceal his darker persona as the Batman, Tony Stark really is the guy flirting with supermodels and constantly sipping expensive alcoholic beverages. Wayne's destiny was set at an early age when his parents were murdered, leaving behind an orphan set on vengeance. Stark had it considerably easier, going to fancy schools and traveling the world, and ultimately inheriting the family business by the time his own parents left this world. So what changes to make someone like this a selfless hero?

In the original comic, Stark was caught in an explosion in Vietnam and held prisoner, dying from the shrapnel which pierced his chest and threatened his heart. He first built a chestplate to magnetically keep the shrapnel in place, then went on to build an entire bulky suit of gray armor to escape his captors. Once back in the United States, he refined the armor, and in the nearly 50 years the character has been around, he's never stopped improving and refining his designs. The classic red and gold design is the one I first discovered reading my cousins old comics from the ‘70s. By the time I was in high school and collecting my own comics, he had moved on to a bulkier red and silver design, but he soon went back to his red and gold colors with a modular design.

The movie updates this story only slightly, placing us in Afghanistan rather than Vietnam. Stark, a weapons designer, proudly shows off a new missile design to the troops. He's on top of the world. He's joking with soldiers, enjoying a drink, and even flirting with a female soldier. Then they're ambushed. He sees young Americans he was laughing with moments earlier cut down trying to protect him. He staggers through a frightful mess of explosions and, in a bit of iron-y, sees his name on the side of one explosive in a Raimi-esque zoom shot moments before it detonates. He's taken to a terrorist camp where he's forced to build a missile alongside another prisoner. Seeing weapons he designed used first hand, seeing them in the hands of such men and the damage they can do, his evolution begins. By the time he builds that first suit and makes his escape, he's not the same man he was before the experience.

Downey, no stranger to substance abuse himself, seems very comfortable as Stark. Once you see his conscience exposed, you realize that perhaps some aspects of his personality are as much a facade as Wayne's. He's still joking and drinking and flirting, but there's something in his eyes that makes you realize he's also in pain, emotional as well as the physical pain of the shrapnel now held at bay by a device rooted in his chest. Obsessed, he shuns human contact for a good portion of the film as he works on developing a more advanced version of his armor. Sharing screentime and dialogue only with mechanical arm robots and an artificial intelligence named after his butler Jarvis from the comics, we get some of the funniest moments in the movie as well as the most intense. I almost wanted to go home to my own basement and build a suit of armor.

As much as Downey dominates, he's surrounded by a solid cast. Jeff Bridges is almost unrecognizable as his business partner and rival Obidiah Stane. Gwyneth Paltrow is as lovely and witty as ever as Stark's assistant/love interest Pepper Potts, and she has some great banter with our hero. Terrence Howard gives a solid performance as Stark's best friend and military contact Jim Rhodes, and definitely gets a moment that will have comics fans giddy about his potential role in the sequels. I will say no more.

In the end, we have all the ingredients for a perfect comic book movie. Solid lead? Check. Beautiful and intelligent leading lady? Check. Good supporting cast? Check. Faithful adaptation and/or updating of source material? Check. Believable special effects and exciting action sequences? Check and Check. Good use of humor? Check. Stan Lee? ‘nuff said. The movie clocks in at slightly over two hours but it goes by very quickly. Just when you think it's over, there's one more scene and one more cast member that promises this movie universe is just getting started. These people clearly paid attention to the same comics I did, and it shows. Downey reportedly asked for everything in researching the role, from comics to toys, lunch boxes, and anything else Iron Man related. If the new Hulk movie is one-third as good as Iron Man was, 2008 is going to be a great year for Marvel. I can’t wait to see what they Assemble next...


Anonymous Scott said...

Nice work.

5/06/2008 9:33 AM  
Blogger Ali said...

Very well written. I got to see Iron Man this weekend and I definitely felt the same way you described in your post.

Well, except the part about building a suit in my basement. Florida doesn't have basements. :-(


5/06/2008 4:17 PM  
Blogger SwanShadow said...

I experienced a moment of unexpected hilarity during the sequence when Downey as Stark is being robotically encapsulated in the completed Shellhead suit for the first time.

Seeing how perfectly that scene worked reminded me that, in the '60s, Tony often carried his Iron Man armor in his attaché case...

...and I laughed out loud.

Excellent review of an excellent movie.

5/09/2008 2:45 PM  
Blogger MCF said...

When I was but a wee toddler in the '70s, I caught some Marvel cartoons that were probably reruns from the 60s, and I remember this one where this businessman with a briefcase gets knocked off a pier and the narrator(likely Stan Lee) asked the viewers how this guy would get out of the predicament. After the commercial break, he got this suit of red and gold armor out of the case and flew out of the water as Iron Man.

I'm pretty sure THAT was my first exposure to 'ol Shellhead, that or my Marvel Superheroes lunch box but I didn't get that until elementary school so I'm pretty sure the cartoon was first. I'm sure he'll be improving and minimizing the armor in the next movie so he doesn't need that whole big crane workup, but it probably would be silly if he got it back down to fold up into the attache. Like the bodyguard cover story from the comics, which they managed to both acknowledge and then go down a more believable route.

5/10/2008 12:00 AM  
Blogger Lorna said...

It kills me that you were a toddler in the 70s. In the 70s, I was in my second marriage, my 4th career and my 36th residence. I had two kids, two cars and an Amex card. Nonetheless, I am dying to see Iron Man, and hope it is as good as you say. I have all kinds of confidence in the acting skill of R D Jr.

5/10/2008 9:56 PM  

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