Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Iron Man: A Surprisingly Substantive Superhero Blockbuster!

The Good: Acting, Character, Surprisingly decent effects, Moments of soundtrack
The Bad: Very basic plot, Pacing
The Basics: Following Tony Stark's abduction and return to the United States, the billionaire weapons developer reforms into a vigilante determined to destroy the weapons he once produced.

[As today finds the 2010 summer blockbuster Iron Man 2 (click here for my review!) hitting shelves on DVD and Blu-Ray, I thought it might be fun to check out the first Iron Man. This review was originally published on opening day and I found it was pretty true still, so I opted not to change the language of the review; it’s fun to see the enthusiasm from the first present in the review! Enjoy!]

Iron Man opens the summer blockbuster season and it starts it off with a surprisingly substantive superhero film that makes one sit up and remember that there are still stories to be told about heroic people making changes in their lives. Iron Man largely follows Tony Stark on his redemptive journey through the creation of an alter ego used to right some of the biggest wrongs in the world; mostly ones perpetrated by him. Stark is not a superhero through any special ability, rather his ingenuity and financial resources allow him to excel and that makes for one of the more interesting superheroes; for he has his weaknesses and flaws.

Tony Stark, having won a meaningless award and had an equally meaningless sexual encounter with a reporter, visits Afghanistan to illustrate the power of his latest missile system. After arrogantly blowing up a hillside for the U.S. military, Stark and his convoy are ambushed and Stark is taken captive by Raza, a dissident who wants Stark's newest weapon for his own arsenal. Raza, in possession of a pretty significant Stark Industry arsenal as it is, provides Tony with the materials and an English-speaking assistant he will need in order to accomplish the goal. Plugged into a car battery to keep shrapnel from hitting his heart, Tony first creates a tiny arc reactor - a power source of significant capacity - and embeds that in his chest. While keeping up the appearance of working on the missile system, Stark instead designs a suit of armor which ought to allow him to repel attacks long enough to escape and after three months in captivity, he succeeds.

Returning to the United States and Stark Industries, Tony is something of a changed man. Having watched U.S. soldiers slaughtered by his weapons and witnessing Raza's local reign of terror in Afghanistan, Stark wants to divest Stark Industries of the weapon's manufacturing and he sets about rededicating his life to undoing much of what he has done in the past, namely hunting down weapons from Stark Industries that may have fallen into the hands of undesirable elements and destroying them. This greatly upsets his business partner and mentor, Obadiah Stane, who works to keep the company viable and stop Stark from gutting the empire they had created together.

What sets Iron Man apart from a lot of superhero origin films is that it takes its time to develop. Director Jon Favreau develops the story with an awkward slowness wherein he includes scene after scene of Stark working on the prototype suit of armor and the process is experimental and disastrous. The suit that Stark is building uses repulsors on the feet and hands to allow Stark to fly and attack using - essentially - force fields. Getting them to work properly is a matter of adjusting thrust, power and that sort of thing. Iron Man illustrates the trial and error process Tony Stark goes through in ironing out the kinks in his ultimate defensive system. This is especially smart, intellectually necessary, and yet tiresome to watch. It drags the pace of the film down some and the viewer is left feeling that this is a bit longer than the two hours, six minutes it actually is.

That said, most of the film works. Wonderfully. Sure, the plot has been done ad nauseam and Iron Man is best likened in its structure and concept to the recent Batman Begins. Tony Stark, like Bruce Wayne, is a man whose only advantages are intelligence and billions of dollars at his disposal. He does not possess mutant abilities or any biological difference to most any other human being. He is a hero based on his actions. Moreover, the villains are pretty obvious and somewhat generic villains who will be obvious to anyone who is a fan of super hero films. It also ought to be noted that I've never read an Iron Man comic in my life, so my take on this film is just on the movie.

Iron Man plays out the heroic man who changes his life brilliantly on the character front. Tony Stark is characterized initially as a fairly carefree and careless cad who does what he wants when he wants it with whomever he wants to. He is enabled personally by his assistant Pepper Potts and professionally by his military liaison, Jim Rhodes. When he has his epiphany, that as a leader of Stark Industries he has created chaos and bloodshed, he works to reform and his resolve in aiding the world in disarmament seems as ingrained as his freespirited nature was before. This plays out well in that it leads to natural skepticism from Potts and disappointment from Rhodes.

It is worth mentioning that Stark and Potts have a rather dynamic relationship, based in no small part on their sublimated sexual chemistry. They have an easy style between them that allows one to trust the other in a very loving and real way, despite the many problems that plague both of their lives. Potts is not a simpleton, nor a damsel in distress and her ability to keep Stark leashed in when she wants makes for an interesting dynamic to watch in the film.

But at least as significant is the idea that Stark actually has changed. He has his wisecracking moments, but for the most part, he is a man that was broken by the experience of being captured and tormented. He grows attached to his fellow captive, Yinsen, and that relationship seems to cement his desire to reform himself. He sincerely seeks to change the world for the better as a result and that commitment - from the moment he declares it - does not diminish. That level of character is admirable and compelling, especially because it is a choice he makes rather than any innate ability he possesses.

This would have been impossible to pull off convincingly were it not for the strength of the cast. Gwyneth Paltrow embodies Pepper with a strength not seen in many of her characters. She lends a quiet elegance to the role and a sense of grace in her bearing, establishing Potts as a woman who clearly disapproves of some of her employers' decisions, but accepts the man regardless. She has a wonderful ability throughout the film to alter her body language to speak in nuance what too many films would clutter up with dialogue.

Terrence Howard and Jeff Bridges give memorable supporting performances as Rhodes and Obadiah Stane. Clark Gregg, apparently typecast from his appearances as Agent Casper on The West Wing, is also notable for his role as Agent Coulson in this film, though he plays more to the type he is familiar with than establishes anything new here. Similarly, Faran Tahir plays Raza with a fairly generic villainous quality that fits the story but does not do anything extraordinary for the character.

But the one to watch is Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark. Downey comes to the film after a pretty long and public series of attempts to reform himself (after winning awards for his work on Ally McBeal, for example, he had an unfortunate relapse and it was hard not to feel for him at that point) and there is little to say other than he was perfectly cast as Tony Stark. Downey has the ability to play wry and sardonic opposite moments of deep humanity and he does that in Iron Man convincingly. From the freewheeling attitude he takes with soldiers prior to his capture to delighting in a cheeseburger after being freed to explaining to Potts why he feels he must do what he is going, Downey employs the full range of his abilities to embody and enhance the dual playboy and serious industrialist roles of his character.

Downey finds an intriguing balance in the latter half of the film balancing comments delivered with a sense of wit with the longer bits of dialogue where he implores those around him to accept that he truly has reformed. It is his performance, watching the intensity with which Downey works with objects that are clearly not real - or functional - to reach his character's goals that sell us on the reality of the character and the world he occupies. Given how many superhero films manage to establish a truly just cause for their characters, this is refreshing and worth sacrificing some moments of speed for. The film makes sense because the character comes to make a great deal of sense to the viewer.

And for a big-budget special effects summer blockbuster, the effects are reasonably good. It is only late in the film when Iron Man takes on his ultimate villain that the effects tread toward the cartoonish and unreal. But prior to that, the film takes care to keep the suit of metal a real and practical-looking effect and they are largely successful with that.

On DVD and Blu-Ray, Iron Man comes loaded with deleted scenes, featurettes on the special effects and casting and a commentary track.
Iron Man will satisfy anyone looking for a decent action-adventure story and anyone who wants it to be smarter than the average with character development and quality acting. This has both. It also has a little bonus after the closing credits, making it worth it to stay in your seat! It's not the most high brow movie and the plot has been done before, of course, but it is decent and worth watching. And at the end of the day, it's fun. Sometimes, we need summer to remind us that that ought to be a priority, too.

For other superhero or action-adventure movies, please check out my reviews of:
The Dark Knight
Robert A. Heinlein's The Puppet Masters
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles


For other movie reviews, please check out my index page!

© 2010, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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