Iron Man (2008)
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard, Shaun Toub, Leslie Bibb, Faran Tahir, Sayed Badreya, Clark Gregg
Directed by: Jon Favreau
Thank you Marvel Studios. Thank you Jon Favreau. Thank you Robert Downey Jr. Thank you for not only making the first good comic book superhero movie since 2005’s Batman Begins, but also for restoring my dormant enthusiasm for what had become a favourite sub-genre of mine. I grew up reading comic books, so once they started coming out with quality adaptations of comic book heroes, beginning with 2000’s X-Men, I generally had a few movies a year to get geeked up about in anticipation.
I loved the first two X-Men films, the first two Spider-Man films, and even the underappreciated Hulk film. But following the triumphant Batman Begins, the genre spit out three years of dreck, beginning with the mediocre-but-fun Fantastic Four, followed by the abysmal X-Men: The Last Stand, the bloodless Superman Returns, the embarrassing Ghost Rider, and the disappointing Spider-Man 3, which became a microcosm of the genre as a bloated mess that drowned in its own excesses.
The result was that I no longer greeted the announcement of a new superhero adaptation with excitement, but instead dreaded what Hollywood had in store (with the lone exception being this summer’s The Dark Knight). If they could screw up the Spider-Man franchise with the same players in place from the earlier two films, there wasn’t much reason to suspect that they’d get new franchises right, particularly since the properties were being handed over to hacks like Brett Ratner and Mark Steven Johnson, and roles being populated by affordable non-stars like Brandon Routh.
So when the early news of the Iron Man film started filtering in, I mostly met it with indifference. Jon Favreau to direct? Sure, I liked him as an actor well enough, and felt that Elf was a decent comedic vehicle for Will Ferrell, but getting the director of Zathura to helm a new blockbuster sounded like getting the director of Barbershop to helm a franchise (oh wait, that happened). But then they casted Downey Jr as Tony Stark, and suddenly, in spite of myself, I was intrigued. It was such an inspired casting choice that I had to take notice, and it only got better when the filled out the cast with Terrence Howard as Jim “Rhodey” Rhodes, Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, and Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane. That’s a surprisingly A-list cast for a film of a character who was second-tier in terms of popularity throughout his career.
My next problem was getting psyched for a character that I never cared all that much for. For me, Iron Man was always a cool looking costume, but I never read many of his comics (maybe 4-5 Iron Man issues and another dozen or so Avengers comics featuring Stark). Then the trailers started popping up, and I was forced to admit that it looked pretty good. Then the favourable buzz started filtering out of Comic-Con and suddenly, after a few years of indifference and bitter disappointment, I found myself looking forward to the theatrical debut of Iron Man almost as much as I was the theatrical reboot of the Joker.
I’m thrilled to report that Iron Man meets all the anticipation and hype, kicking off the blockbuster season of 2008 with a bang. It’s big and brassy in the best traditions of the action blockbuster, without having to insult the intelligence of its audience to pull off the big thrills and effects of the genre. It captures the spirit and energy of the genre of my youth while adding enough maturity through its cast (the youngest principle cast member is Paltrow at 36) to engage an adult audience. Favreau expertly weaves physical effects with CGI, giving the action scenes a sense of realism one wouldn’t expect from a movie about a guy in a high-tech suit of armour, while infusing the film with a smart sense of humour that keeps the origin-heavy story engaging.
The biggest reason for the film’s success is Downey Jr, who makes the Howard Hughes-esque Tony Stark more interesting than his armoured-clad alter-ego. Which is essential, since the movie spends more time with Stark out of his armour than it does with him in it. Usually, the extended origin story portion of superhero movies threaten to drag down the action, but Downey Jr’s smug portrayal of the billionaire industrialist keeps it lively, while the weight and humanity he injects into the role builds the necessary pathos before the pyrotechnics begin.
In fact, one of the few flaws of the film is how the big action set-pieces feel a bit rushed and less impactful than the earlier character development moments. Normally, this would be a dealbreaker for such a film, but Iron Man is able to invest the audience in its hero so thoroughly that its climax still satisfies while leaving room for improvement.
Along with Downey Jr, credit must go to Gwyneth Paltrow as Starks’ assistant and all-around Girl Friday Pepper Potts. I haven’t been interested in anything the actress has done since 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums, and she usually comes off as unnecessarily cold. But in Iron Man, she exhibits a natural chemistry with Downey Jr while exhibiting a relaxed sexuality and intelligence, bringing more to the character than what I suspect was on the page. When the cast was announced, she was the principle I cared the least about, so I was pleasantly surprised when she turned out to be such an asset to the film. The love interest character is usually the weakest element of any super hero film (including the otherwise superb Batman Begins), so it’s a testament to Paltrow and the film as a whole that this isn’t the case with Iron Man.
So comic book fans, let your geek flag fly and rejoice that after three years, a movie has come worthy of your obsessive devotion. My enthusiasm has now been restored, leaving me not only desperate to see The Dark Knight, but also more excited to see The Incredible Hulk, and especially excited at the prospect for a sequel to Iron Man (to that end, make sure you hang around until the end of the credits for a bonus scene). If Favreau, Downey Jr and Marvel were able to generate this much excitement with an origin story, I can’t wait to see what they can do with that out of the way.