When the Spider-Man movie came out in 2002, I remember thinking, well, I'm really glad this happened. It was fun, it was obvious the film would be big, but it seemed flawed -- less in terms of organic web shooters than camp 1960s dialogue, like Aunt May's “Those eyes! Those horrible yellow eyes!” But I was happy that the movie was made and that it proved as strong as it was, because that meant comic fans could count on more big screen versions of our favorite characters. And now, six years later, I find myself thanking the original “Spider-Man” because it has led us to “Iron Man,” which is exactly what a superhero movie should be.
The concept remains simple, though in updating the origin for modern times it also gains significant timely relevance. Playboy billionaire and weapons mogul Tony Stark is ambushed and taken captive in Afghanistan, where he sees that the arms he developed to protect America are being used against his own country's soldiers. Upon escaping, Stark disbands the arms division of Stark Enterprises and crafts himself a suit of armor to personally hunt down and destroy the rogue weapons manufactured by his company. As Iron Man, Stark strives to atone for the damage he's caused.
Robert Downey, Jr. is perfect for the role of Tony Stark, which is strange considering that Stark has never behaved quite this way in the comics. But Downey's Stark is driven, reckless, a technological genius with ADD -- exactly what you'd expect of a man in Tony's position. Downey is unbelievably fun to watch, and the madness of his behavior lends Stark an air of danger even when he's meant to be the hero.
The romance between Stark and his assistant Pepper Potts, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, is beautifully understated. Very little screen time is given to their interaction, which makes each scene count. Their relationship is perhaps best explained in Tony Stark's first casual advance, when he dances with Pepper at a benefit gala. Though charmed, Potts breaks away, explaining that she must maintain a professional appearance in front of the other partygoers. “These are the people I work with,” she says, noting that Stark's reputation for womanizing would compromise her position if they were perceived to be too close. Yet she nearly allows it to happen anyway. Pepper Potts's scenes also regularly allude to a life outside of her dealings with the eccentric boss -- “I have plans on my birthday” -- a feature too often lacking even in movies that have the romance as their reason for being. I, for one, like that Pepper has something going on besides pining for the charismatic Mr. Stark.
There is nothing understated, however, about the action. Given Iron Man's origin, there is actually a bit of the war movie to this film. Stark spends a good amount of time held captive by Taliban fighters, during which time he develops the first grey Iron Man suit. When this armor comes to life, there is a definite power to it. Each footfall is a metallic thud, each henchman knocked aside by the steely fist is a bone-crunching KO. Later, Stark returns to Afghanistan, taking the red-and-yellow suit to war. And of course, by the end of the movie when two battle suits are beating the hell out of each other, the weight and impact of the fight is stunning. A machine that can casually toss cars about -- cars full of people, no less! -- is certainly a force to respect. The music is suitably loud throughout, opening the movie with AC/DC's “Back in Black” and continuing with new and classic hard rock anthems for each big scene.
It is quite a feat that the special effects team has made the Iron Man armor credible -- if the Golden Gladiator's suit were to exist, it would certainly have to be as complicated a piece of machinery as it's shown to be here. Further, it was good to see that Stark does not just strap up and become a super hero. He must test each component of the armor, and fails (humorously) several times before he gets it right.
Being that Iron Man does take place partly in a war zone, there are bound to be casualties. What's interesting is how director Jon Favreau has managed to sidestep the issue of whether Iron Man is a hero who kills. We see Stark igniting crates of explosives, we see him firing off a shot from his glove that knocks the bad guys clear through the air, and on some level we know this is fatal. But we don't see the bodies. Perhaps a blast of pressure to the face that sends a guy flying into a concrete wall with such force that he cracks the foundation will only serve to knock him out. Non-lethal force. It's not addressed, and perhaps it shouldn't be. But the ambiguity is slightly unsettling.
As with any superhero movie, there are several treats for fans of the “Iron Man” comic. The introduction of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a bit telegraphed, but nevertheless got a nice response from the screening audience. James Rhodes, played by Terence Howard, has a line that will resonate with “Iron Man” readers, and pretty much no one else -- it is a great line, though. And what Marvel film would be complete without a cameo from Stan Lee?
Unlike some other superhero movies, though, the dialogue is vibrant -- and believable -- for most of the film, likely a result of the constant and participatory script revisions that took place on set. Many of Downey's best lines are already famous (“I prefer the weapon you only need to fire once”), but there are a few others that have some punch. Stark's statement that his company has “become comfortable with a system of zero accountability” echoes real-world headlines about Blackwater and Haliburton, while, on a lighter note, we have a villain shouting at his beleaguered top scientist that “Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave! With scraps!” Where the dialogue fails, predictably, is in the final showdown, when the Big Bad taunts Iron Man by explaining why his suit is so much better, why Stark has no hope of winning, etc., etc., etc.
Favreau, a filmmaker whose previous credits include directing "Made,” “Elf,” “Zathura,” and writing the screenplay of "Swingers," has created in “Iron Man” a successful blend of indie wit and blockbuster action. With exactly the right cast, a strong team of writers, and top-notch special effects which serve the story rather than simple spectacle, “Iron Man” is a shiny golden example of how to do a superhero movie.
"Iron Man" opens this Friday, May 2nd, at theatres nationwide.