The 2008 summer movie season kicks into gear with the release of “Iron Man,” Hollywood’s newest attempt to drum up interest in superheroes not named after bats or spiders. To counter the character’s relatively low Q-rating among the non-fanboy masses, Paramount has jacked up the f/x budget and made some interesting casting choices, with mixed – though mostly positive – results.
Director Jon Favreau and multiple screenwriters have stayed largely true to the character’s comic origins, updated though they might be (Vietnam is now Afghanistan and Yin Sen is now… Yinsen). Tony Stark, billionaire inventor and arms magnate, is on a trip to Afghanistan to promote Stark Industries’ new Jericho missile system when he is snatched by a mysterious organization called the Ten Rings. Mortally wounded in the attack, he is saved by a fellow prisoner named Yinsen, who informs him that not only are there several pieces of shrapnel lodged near his heart held at bay by a crudely assembled electromagnet, but that the group wants Stark to build a version of the Jericho missile for them (to be used, no doubt, in the pursuit of greater religious freedom and women’s rights throughout Central Asia).
Knowing he will be killed by the group’s leader Raza (Faran Tahir) when he completes his assignment, Stark instead creates a primitive suit of mechanized armor and escapes, causing a great deal of enjoyable mayhem in the process (and the unfortunate death of Yinsen). Now free, the formerly callow industrialist takes on a new mission: halt Stark Industries’ arms production and – as his new armored alter-ego – seek out and destroy all of his weapons presently in the hands of “unauthorized” entities.
Where Stark draws the line on this is unclear. It’s demonstrated early on that the U.S. military is an eager user of his armaments. The new Iron Man’s first mission, on the other hand, is the wholesale destruction of Raza’s base camp. Stark ruffles the Air Force’s feathers in short order, however, so while Iron Man’s role in this film makes him seem like an enforcer of U.S. hegemony, that probably won’t last.
Naturally, Stark’s business associates are less than thrilled with his unilateral decision to stop producing weapons. Fellow executive Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) takes particular umbrage, and decides upon some drastic steps to ensure the company’s continued profitability. The freshly shorn Bridges is capably sinister in this role, and reinforces Favreau’s apparent prejudice against bald guys.
Paramount and Favreau knew they were taking a risk on a movie about a marginally popular superhero, and so made a couple of sensible decisions. One of which was using ILM for the visual effects, the other was casting smug, perpetually substance abusing gadfly Robert Downey, Jr. as smug, perpetually alcoholic gadfly Tony Stark. Okay, fine; Downey has been clean for a while now, and this movie’s Stark is not yet the boozehound he will become, and it may merely be a throwaway to the comic geeks, but Downey absolutely nails the character.
And since all the work is done by the armor, he doesn’t need to be ridiculously bulked up.
Gwyneth Paltrow also strays a bit out of character as Pepper Potts, Stark’s loyal assistant/potential love interest. The role itself isn’t a stretch, but it’s interesting to see Paltrow as the damsel in distress. Finally, Terrence Howard is Stark’s best friend Jim Rhodes, who learns his buddy’s secret and displays enough envy to ensure a War Machine appearance in a sequel.
Of course, the origin sequence is the necessary evil of every superhero movie, and while its unavoidable, Favreau still takes his sweet a*s time with the first act. Similarly, the climactic battle between Stark and Stane doesn’t just go against the ridiculously elastic laws of movie physics, but manages to violate those established by the movie itself in the span of a few seconds. And yet as comic book movies go, “Iron Man” is a solid entry. Downey and company help drag Favreau out of the genre holes he digs, making for a decent experience.