I’ve been shamefully late on my movie reviews and essays- my annual January-April rundown is behind, and this puppy should’ve been written up Friday. But judging from the reaction the film received at the showing I went to last night, America’s already caught on to how damn good this flick is. Another solid review is merely icing on the cake at this point.
Superhero movies are at a transitional point. They’re an accepted part of the mainstream moviegoing experience, but there’s still a divide in quality, even among the big-ticket franchises. (How many people were really enamored with “Superman Returns?” And the third films in both the “X-Men” and “Spider-Man” franchises left many with a bad taste of sequelitis.) That might be part of the reason why Marvel Comics- the house that Spidey and X-Men built- decided to take control of their big-screen destiny, finding investors for Marvel Studios. (You would too after “Ghost Rider” and “Daredevil.”) The company would have final say on their own movies, with the studios basically acting as distribution for the films. This summer we see how the new business policy works with “Iron Man” and June’s reboot of the “Hulk” franchise.
So far so good- “Iron Man” is the new standard-bearer for Marvel movie excellence. OK, “Spider-Man 2” still mops the floor overall, but for a debut film from a Marvel comic, nothing can touch this bad boy.
And as heroes go, they don’t get badder than Tony Stark. The heir to weapons manufacturer Stark Enterprises, Tony Stark takes great pride in being able to bring forth destruction on America’s enemies with one foul swoop (as witnessed by the demonstration of his Jericho missle). A prodigal son in the arms business- he graduated with Honors from M.I.T. at 17- Stark and his business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges, all smiles and single-minded villainy) have built an empire of death through technological superiority, with Stark the movie star face of the industry, who can’t be bothered with interviews or questions of his moral standing when the possibility of boozing it up or getting laid is there. Not that he has anything to worry about- his military liasion Jim Rhodes (Terrance Howard, whose acting chops get to the heart of this odd couple friendship) will be there for spin control while his loyal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, never sexier, bubblier, or funnier, showing a sharp wit rarely displayed before) will be there to clean up the mess.
Too bad Pepper and Rhodes aren’t there for Tony when his army convoy is attacked by militants in Afghanistan after the Jericho demonstration, using his own weapons to deliver the boom. Stark next wakes up in a cave, his life saved by an experimental procedure done by fellow captive Yinsen (a touching, thoughtful performance by Shaun Toub) which leaves a hole in his chest where an electromagnet keeps stray shrapnel from entering his heart. His captors want him to build the Jericho for them, but Tony- his eyes opened by the experience (yours would be to if your legacy almost killed you)- has other plans.
I’ll let the film take it from there. Actor-turned-director Jon Favreau (whose smart script for the classic machismo comedy “Swingers” still is the gold standard of the genre) is so money in the role of director for “Iron Man,” bringing out the brash edge and action fireworks of the script worked on by four writers (usually a bad sign- not so here), including “Children of Men” co-scribes Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, that you forget the questions of giving the reins to the director of “Elf” and “Made” almost immediately (and don’t even think of questioning his motives of casting himself in the role of Stark’s driver Hogan). He and cinematographer Matthew Libatique (“The Fountain”) find just the right balance between light and dark to help visualize the character’s changing conscience. The action is electric, from Stark’s escape from the cave to the heroics of taking out militants in an Afghan village to a clear-skied dogfight Iron Man finds himself in with the Air Force that puts the standard-bearing aviation action in “Top Gun” to shame, Favreau’s storytelling instincts are as sharp as his hero’s wit, blending character and action with skill and savvy in a way that illuminates the underlying theme of the character itself, which- in a way- is the same as any other hero of this king- it’s action that defines character.
And there’s no other hero like Tony Stark. He’s not ashamed to admit that he’s not exactly the “hero type,” but that’s part of his appeal, right? Like Wolverine and Batman (sorry to mix comic companies folks), he’s more anti-hero than superhero, always looking to the good for himself as much as he’s looking to do the right thing.
That said, is there a better casting choice out there than Robert Downey Jr., the badboy star whose own off-screen troubles are impossible to separate from his onscreen persona? His star’s been on the rise again since he started building his career back up in small gems like “Good Night, and Good Luck.” and the criminally-underappreciated “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” or small roles in big movies like his maverick turn as San Francisco reporter Paul Avery in “Zodiac.” Consider Downey’s career restored- his Tony Stark may be his finest hour onscreen, and the role fits Downey Jr. like a pair of well-worn shoes. Stark is brilliant, inventive, and a bastard, qualities that come through beautifully in Downey’s performance. He makes no apologies for himself, and the fact is, we don’t care. His scenes with Pepper- so forgiving of Stark’s playboy lifestyle, it’s impossible not to see the love she has for her boss- show an unquestionable chemistry between Downey and Paltrow that is hard to believe given the two’s wildly different personas. And we see the change of heart in Stark’s view of himself; like the man who plays him, he’s not past redemption just yet. And you leave “Iron Man” dying to see both actor and character continue on down the road in future films.
P.S. Stay for after the end credits. Don’t ask, just trust me. If you already know what awaits, don’t say anything- let people see for themselves.