Iron Man (2008) / Action-Sci Fi

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for partial nudity and innuendo
Running time: 126 min.

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard, Faran Tahib, Leslie Bibb, Shaun Toub, Sayed Badreya, Clark Gregg, Jon Favreau
Cameo: Stan Lee, Peter Billingsley, Samuel L. Jackson
Director: Jon Favreau

Screenplay: Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, Matt Holloway
Review published October 10, 2008

Multibillionaire Tony Stark (Downey, A Scanner Darkly) is the best in the world at what he does -- designing and selling high-powered weaponry to the world, literally changing the face of warfare through his ability to deliver massive destruction at a price worth the effort.  However, things are about to change now that he's been caught by Afghan terrorists while on a demonstration of his latest weapon to end all resistance, and these guys aren't going to let him off the hook until he builds one just for them.  Stark suspects that, even if he delivers on the deal, he's still a goner, so he devises the only sure way out for himself, a suit of armor impenetrable to their bullets and powerful enough to break through any door.  He makes his escape and is rescued, but he can no longer stand the thought of making billions in creating objects of mass murder.  

In a controversial move, he ceases production of all weaponry, causing his company's stock value to nosedive, and a power struggle ensues for control of the worldwide corporation.  Meanwhile, with seemingly unlimited resources and know-how to put together exactly whatever his mind desires, Stark begins to recreate his vision of a hi-tech suit of armor that will allow him to put a stop to the tyrannical practices of those who continue to use his weapons to further spread misery and death throughout the world.

After the Iron Man project had been kicked around for over a decade to no avail, Marvel finally decides that if anyone's going to finally do it right, they're going to have to do it themselves, as Iron Man becomes their first release they build from the ground up with their own production company.  Do it right they did, as Iron Man ranks right along with Superman, Spider-Man, and Batman Begins as the best of the now voluminous crop of superhero films.  However, unlike those other superhero films, the character of "Iron Man" isn't as popular among those who haven't read comic books, so their investment, reportedly budgeted at nearly $200 million, is a major risk for a first-time undertaking. 

As with Batman Begins, director Jon Favreau puts the building blocks in place that sees a man become a superhero, developing plausible motivations despite implausible situations.  Though it contains the fantastic special effects and action required to make Iron Man a remarkable eye-candy experience, it's the humanity behind the metal mask that ultimately keeps us reeled in to his plight.  Despite the questionable casting of Robert Downey Jr. as the playboy billionaire, it's my pleasure to state that he not only pulls off the role, but he now owns it, such that it's impossible to imagine anyone else successfully taking over should he prove unable or unwilling to continue on for the inevitable sequels (luckily, the stars have been signed on for two more entries).  Favreau's faith in his actors pays off, as consummate as-libbers like Downey Jr. and the heavy of the film, Jeff Bridges (Surf's Up, Stick It), are given carte blanche to breathe life into their roles, playing to their strengths without resorting to the artificial-sounding dialogue that plagues many others in the genre.

Interesting that Iron Man would break ranks with the rest of the Marvel stable of heroes to set the action in Los Angeles, where the glitz and glamour of Stark's celebrity, combined with the vapid nature of his decadent lifestyle, perfectly suits the egotistical nature of his character.  Also interesting that Favreau makes the wise-headed decision of not introducing arch nemesis Mandarin, who uses magic as the yang to Stark's technology yin, as the villain, opting for rival egotist Stane as a foil, with a finale akin to the "clash of the titans" robot battle in Robocop 2.  The difference between Iron Man and Robocop 2's climax happens to be our level of interest in seeing Stark succeed and Stane fail, as well as Favreau never getting too dark or violent with the material to the point of audience apathy.

Although a comic book fan most of my life, and having a love for superhero films, it's interesting to note that I've yet to consider any of them worthy of a 4-star rating, much less a five, and Iron Man, though it cuts it close, manages to stay just a hair away.  Part of the problem has to do with the limitations of the first-time film in a series, as we have to have an origin, not only for the hero, but for the villain as well, in addition to building up to a 20-minute climax befitting an action film of this magnitude.  Not to mention needing to pace just enough action at regular intervals to keep the action-heads rapt with attention.  Doing this in a film of roughly two hours is severely limiting for creativity, as shortcuts must be made, mostly in terms of leaps of logic.  Although Stark's motivation for creating the Iron Man suits are clearly presented, the notion that one man could not only plan, engineer and build the most advanced invention in the history of man, that he'd do it in such short order and without need of any assistance is a logic barrier that can't be breached, especially when you consider Stark has spent most of his life pursuing interests more carnal than scientific.  

Nevertheless, Iron Man may be hampered by standard first-in-a-series superhero limitations, but all things considered, this is about as good a debut as I could possibly have hoped for, and this is coming from someone who has long been indifferent to Iron Man in all of his previous incarnations in comic books and animated television.  I wasn't clamoring for an Iron Man film to be made, but now that it has, I'm not only anticipating the next chapter, but I'll be counting the days once it is announced.  The character of Iron Man is the outward appearance of futuristic technology which contains humanity inside, which is a befitting statement that can be applied to this film as to its successful audience-engaging formula.  

-- Followed by Iron Man 2 (2010), The Avengers (2012), and Iron Man 3 (2013)

Qwipster's rating:

©2008 Vince Leo