Iron Man opens with Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) traveling in a military convoy that's attacked in Afghanistan. Stark is injured and captured. Then we flashback to 36 hours earlier. Stark is living the high life, thoroughly unconcerned about the impact his military weapons might have on the world. He even jokes that he'd be out of a job if there was peace on earth. Obviously he's someone who hasn't seen war up close. Without spilling his drink, he demonstrates his latest mega weapon the Jericho. He explains that like his father -- who helped build the atomic bomb -- his weapons are designed to be used only once. The theory being that its destructive power will be so overwhelming that your enemies will immediately retreat.
The first Iron Man suit proves to be a little clunky. (Marvel/Paramount)
But after this demonstration, Stark's convoy is attacked. He sees people killed up close and with his own weapons turned against him and the U.S. soldiers. It seems that his weapons are as popular with the terrorists as with the U.S. military. The assault leaves Stark with shrapnel embedded in his chest and moving toward his heart. His life is saved by Yinsen (a wonderfully understated Shaun Toub), a fellow prisoner and a medical doctor. Together they design a magnet set in Stark's chest that will keep the shrapnel from moving any closer to his heart. And if that's not enough to deal with, Stark's captor wants him to build a Jericho missile for the insurgents to use. But Stark, with Yinsen's help, instead builds a suit of armor that allows him to escape. Once back in the U.S., Stark decides to take Stark Industries in a new direction, one that will no longer provide weapons to the world. While morally sound, the decision proves to be financially reckless. The company loses half its worth and this annoys Obadiah Stane (a bald and grizzly bearded Jeff Bridges), his dad's former partner and a top executive at Stark Industries. As Stark perfects his Iron Man suit, he sees a need to use it to help protect people and fight evil. And some of that evil proves to be very close to home.
Do you think I can get through the metal detector at the airport with this? (Marvel/Paramount)
On a certain level, Iron Man can't overcome the feeling that it's merely the set up for the real film that's coming up next. It's almost as if this were all expository info that we have to get through now in order to get to the good stuff later. So a lot of basic material is quickly set up: Stark's long list of female conquestsis established to define his lifestyle; his trusty assistant Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow in a rather thankless role) is introduced; a villain is hastily thrown in and disposed of; and we end with everything in place for a sequel. Now this might prove annoying if it weren't for the fact that Robert Downey, Jr. is such a blast to watch as both Stark and Iron Man. The actor who's known for his real life substance abuse problem dives into this superhero alcoholic playboy character with energizing gusto. He makes us completely buy into Stark's and Iron Man's stor, making the character vivid and fun. Downey manages the tricky balancing act of not taking the proceedings too seriously yet playing it real enough to make us gladly suspend our disbelief. He also seems to be genuinely happy to be flying around in a summer blockbuster, and you don't get the feeling that he's condescended to accept such a role. He's having fun and that makes it easy for the audience to have fun as well.
He's surrounded by some top talent. In addition to Paltrow and Bridges, there's Terence Howard (of Hustle and Flow and Pride ). All three play it straight but with a twinkle in their eye. Paltrow, however, has the least rewarding of the roles. Although she and the filmmakers try to endow her with intelligence and spunk, she's essentially an update on the loyal secretary role, and that's a bit hard to sell to contemporary females.
Pepper Potts attends to her boss Anthony Stark in Iron Man (Marvel/Paramount)
The film is aided by director Jon Favreau - a smart and unexpected choice to helm this summer blockbuster. Favreau wrote the sleeper hit Swingers , hosted the cable show Dinner for Five and starred in one of my all time favorite nasty films Very Bad Things . He keeps the pace brisk without coping out to MTV style flash cutting. He lacks a flair for action but he compensates by making the dialogue scenes zing with snappy repartee that comes at you fast with actors stepping on each other's lines. Favreau has been quoted as saying the film is like a "Robert Altman-directed Superman ." That's actually fairly accurate. It's an unexpected approach to adapting a comic book but one that's actually quite well suited to the tone of Stan Lee's smart-alecky superheroes.
While I can complain about the script providing a lot of set up and character introductions, it's displays some solid craft. As I mentioned, the dialogue is snappy and the general flow is smooth. Just as the Spider-Man franchise turned to a real screenwriter (Oscar-winner Alvin Sargeant) to pen a pair of its films, Iron Man has at least two of its four writers boasting an artistic hit under their belt. Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby were the writers on the award-winning Children of Men , a film that showed an understanding for how to mix sci-fi elements with socially conscious ideas and make it all entertaining. But you also get the feeling that Downey may have helped them out by contributing some of Stark's lines. & When a sexy woman says, "Remember me?" and Stark, without missing a beat or a step says, "Sure don't;" or when ordering a drink he says, "Give me a Scotch, I'm starving." You can imagine Downey tossing those out. Maybe they were scripted but at the very least Downey delivers them like he just made them up.
There are some small annoyances in the script. Stark doesn't have to make any hard choices when it comes to escaping from his captors. Yinsen essentially gives him permission to leave him behind so Stark can be free of any responsibility for his fellow prisoner. There are a few little things - like why would a womanizer like Stark have a male British voice for his computer? Is it because he doesn't want to be distracted? You don't get that impression from everything else in his life that that would be the case. And it was a letdown to not hear the Black Sabbath song Iron Man at the end. The band received acknowledgement in the end credits and I heard a few bars of the music but never any lyrics, and the end music seemed to cut to an instrumental cover of the song. Maybe I missed it... but I did feel a distinct sense of disappointment to not hear Ozzy Osbourne growl out "I am Iron Man" to wrap up the film.
Robert Downey, Jr. as Anthony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man (Marvel/Paramount)
The effects and production design are all top notch. But I wish they had kicked up the action. There were only a couple of fights, an escape, and a few explosions, which could suffice if any one of them were truly kick ass. But Favreau and company don't exhibit a flair for action. They don't seem to get high off it and that prevents the film from delivering the action goods. What's here is all well enough handled. The opening insurgent attack is fittingly chaotic, and Iron Man looks decidedly cool quickly disposing of bad guys. But when Iron Man comes to fight the final battle, it plays out more like that old rock 'em sock 'em robots game rather than a superhero action film. Favreau should have watched some Japanese anime with gundums (robots) to get inspired for what he could have done with a pair of men in robot suits. Although it's funny to see Stark try to learn how to use the suit, there's a point at which he should start to feel comfortable in it and be able to move well. But he never finds a good way to take off and land, and ends up doing this prissy thing with his hands to jettison off. It just looks uncool.
But there are some nice touches. Stark keeps a cell phone accessible in his Iron Man suit and he takes a call from his military pal (played by Terence Howard) as he tries to evade a couple of jets on his tail. Stark's workroom is a nice mix of high and low tech, organization and chaos. You feel like he could really work in that environment. Stark also develops an amusing relationship with his robot helpers that move around his lab/office and keep trying to foam him down when he catches fire.
Iron Man (rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and brief suggestive content) is lots of fun, and it provides a showcase for Robert Downey, Jr. This may not be what the Academy has in mind when it's considering the Oscar worthy performances but Downey finds the reality of being a superhero and makes us buy into that. And with his upcoming role in blackface for the outlandish comedy Tropic Thunder , this might just be his year. Final verdict: Iron Man is cool and Downey is hot.
For those looking for Stan Lee's cameo - he plays a Hugh Hefner-like playboy on the red carpet for one of Stark's charity events. Favreau also makes a cameo appearance early on as one of Starks security team.
Companion viewing: Spider-Man, Hellboy, Blade, Very Bad Things, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
POST SCRIPT: Two things I want to add. One, Iron Man did more than $100 mil at the box office. Hopefully that will give Robert Downey, Jr. more clout, I've always liked him as an actor and would like to see him valued more highly. Two, I just found out that the print of the film the studio screened for critics in San Diego was missing the post end credit scene with Samuel L. Jackson. What's up with that? I stayed until the last credit rolled in hopes of a kicker and was disappointed not to get one. Now I find out the press wasn't worthy of getting the full film. That sucks. I'm just glad Iron Man was a good movie and I won't mind seeing it again so I can see Jackson as Marvel's Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. Although I've heard some people say the uncredited cameo was too over the top. I'll have to check it out for myself.