The best superhero film since The Incredibles...
By Joseph McCabe
As a longtime fan of superhero comic books, I?ve lost count of the number of times I?ve been burned by Hollywood. I?ve also lost count of the ways in which film adaptations of my favorite costumed characters? adventures almost always get it wrong. That?s why it?s such a pleasant surprise to see how many things director Jon Favreau gets right in Iron Man, the first theatrical film based on Marvel Comics? red-and-gold armored avenger. (The character was created back in 1963 by Stan Lee, writer Larry Lieber and artist Don Heck, with an assist from legendary comic creator Jack Kirby.) Iron Man is the best superhero film since The Incredibles, and arguably the best live-action film the genre?s spawned since Christopher Reeve?s Superman first put on his cape and tights back in 1978.
In the title role of Favreau?s film, Robert Downey Jr. brings his unique brand of charisma to the character of wealthy industrialist/inventor Tony Stark (Iron Man?s alter ego, based in the comics on the legendary Howard Hughes). Stark is heir to a mega-successful weapons company founded by his father, a designer of the Manhattan Project; he?s also a self-absorbed, if witty and amusing, professional playboy. The film opens with Stark on a business trip in Afghanistan, pitching his latest missile to the U.S. military. But after a demonstration of his weapon?s might, the convoy in which Stark is traveling is attacked by ?insurgents? (the film?s political factions are never clearly defined, presumably so as not to limit its worldwide box-office prospects), and he?s taken prisoner. His problems are compounded when he finds a flotilla of shrapnel lodged near his heart, which a fellow prisoner (and inventor) saves with the help of an old car battery. When his captors demand that Stark build them a missile, the genius gazillionaire soon realizes his life?s work has fostered a culture of death.
This is weighty stuff for a comic-book film, and the fact that Favreau maintains a relatively light tone in spite of his tale?s premise may turn off some sensibilities. But like most superhero comics, Iron Man is, in the end, a male power fantasy, and most filmgoers will be sophisticated enough to smile when Stark eventually frees himself, by designing a high-tech suit of armor?equipped with flame throwers and outfitted for flight?out of metal scraps. Upon his return home, Stark transforms into a global do-gooder. The transformation, mirrored by the way in which he upgrades his suit, is made emotionally plausible by Downey, an actor best known for two things?his quirky charm and his highly publicized battle with drug addiction. Born to a life of privilege, celebrated for his undeniable talent, and forced to expose his personal demons to the world, Downey?s an even more appropriate choice for his flawed hero than Tobey Maguire was for Spider-Man. And Downey?s so much more fun than overly serious downbeats like Maguire and Christian Bale (whose latest Batman film will open later this season), that it?s no come-down when he cracks open Iron Man?s helmet to reveal his own world-weary-but-still-youthful face.
Downey?s ably supported by a multi-Oscar-nominated ensemble of actors?none of which are miscast. This could be a first for a live-action funnybook film. For as much as I love Superman, I must admit that a Lex Luthor less campy than Gene Hackman couldn?t have lessened it. Fortunately, here Jeff Bridges brings a marvelous understated menace, cast against type as Stark?s own bald-headed antagonist, mentor-turned-supervillain Obidiah Stane. Meanwhile Terrence Howard, of Crash and Hustle and Flow, finds a quiet, steady grace as Stark?s long-suffering friend and military liaison James Rhodes (in the comics, Rhodes would eventually don his own armor as War Machine, a move foreshadowed in one moment of the film). Favreau himself, an admitted fan of comics, appears in the small role of Stark?s chauffeur, Happy Hogan.
As his personal assistant Pepper Potts, Gwyneth Paltrow impresses the most. Not so much because of what she does, but because of what she?s not asked to do. Consider such past leading ladies as Katie Holmes, playing an assistant D.A. in Batman Begins, or Kate Bosworth, playing a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist in Superman Returns?good actresses who?ve done quality work, but seemed poor choices for their respective larger-than-life epics. In Iron Man, Paltrow is called upon to be no more and no less than Stark?s loyal secretary and conscience, and she projects just the right amount of intelligence and warmth to be believable. (Her experiences in the effects-driven Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow no doubt taught her how to strike the right tone for this sort of film.)
Equally appropriate is the film?s setting. For Iron Man?s world of gorgeous open California coastline befits his character as much as the urban east-coast climes of Gotham City and New York serve Batman and Spider-Man, and nicely distinguishes his story from those of these brooding champions. His color motif?red-and-gold like the Golden Gate Bridge instead of blue-black-and-gray like the Empire State Building?is also a perfect fit.
Iron Man won?t be for everyone?s taste, of course. Like any film detailing a superhero?s origin, the time it spends establishing backstory may prove too long for some. But, in its defense...superhero comics have no endings, forced as they are by corporate demands to continue their stories as long as they prove successful; so a film based on a superhero comic might as well make the most of the story it is given--the character's beginnings. Also, younger audiences may find Iron Man?s action sequences less turbo-charged than those of other recent tentpole films. But Favreau integrates them so well into the story, and moves that story at such a smart pace, that they never fall flat. (And there are plenty of in-jokes for comic-book fans, none of which are likely to confuse newcomers, and polished with Favreau?s customary wit. Look for creator Stan Lee?s cameo, for example?it?s his funniest appearance yet in a Marvel movie.)
No matter what it grosses, don?t be surprised if by summer?s end you?ve grown fondest of the hero you knew the least about?at least when compared with the likes of Batman, the Hulk and Indiana Jones. He just might be the character with the biggest heart. No wonder it?s armored.