Friday, May 2, 2008

Iron Man Review

Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark
Terrence Howard as Jim Rhodes
Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane
Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts
Directed by Jon Favreau

2008 finally has a good event movie, thank God. Check that, it's not just good, it's tremendous. After suffering through the dregs of Vantage Point, 10,000 BC and Jumper, 2008's prior 'big guns', I was begining to lose faith in major action releases. Though I was excited for Iron Man my expectations weren't exactly through the roof, much to my surprise the director of Elf and Zathura has more than delivered.

In a lot of ways Iron Man is, to me, a far more interesting character than some of the comic book usual suspects. He isn't the angst ridden and guilt driven Spider-Man or Batman, he isn't the invincible Superman struggling with identity, heck he doesn't even really have a superpower. Tony Stark, Iron Man's human half, is a billionaire playboy, weapons manufacturer and science genius. At least initially far more concerned with his next drink and his next woman, Stark is a character quite unlike most other superheroes. The film tells his origin story (of course) and modernizes it quite effectively to see Stark inspired to fight the ill effects of his arms dealing by his capture at the hands of terrorists, though not of the fundamentalist variety (in the comics he was captured by communists in Vietnam).

The casting of this lead role is absolutely critical, moreso than in most any other comic book movie, as the actor needs to turn something of a womanizing billionaire into a likeable character for whom we can root. Jon Favreau and Marvel productions could not have conceivably come up with a better Tony Stark than Robert Downey Jr. Downey has a remarkable sense of comedic timing here and a manner of making a sarcastic and sardonic character seem so empathetic. What makes Downey all the more effective is his ability to deliver some truly mediocre lines with an incredible understated potency, when he tells his assisstant Pepper Potts (Paltrow) that she's all he has Downey manages to make it work on a base emotional level that the line, frankly, doesn't deserve.

Favreau made the wise decision to select highly skilled actors, as opposed to popular ones, for the supporting roles. Much to my shock Gwyneth Paltrow delivers easily her best performance this decade in the should've been thankless role as Stark's assisstant and potential girlfriend. Paltrow seems to have really gotten into the role and there is a wonderful crackle of energy and life to her interactions with Downey's Stark that really help propel the movie forward. Terrence Howard plays Jim Rhodes, Stark's best (only?) friend and a military man. Howard brings gravitas to the role and, as a remarkable facial actor, especially in his eyes, makes the best of a smaller part. I look forward to his increased role in the inevitable sequel. Jeff Bridges is cast wonderfully against type as Stark's business partner and the film's eventual villain. It comes as no surprise that Bridges character betrays Stark (one look at the film's poster should tell you that it's coming), but the wonderful lived-in nature of the interactions between the actors still make it emotionally effective

I have to give Jon Favreau immense amounts of credit. While his direction here is adequate but unspectacular, he has made the best possible design decision for this (or for that matter any) action movie: keep the special effects in check. Instead of a constant barrage of CGI, Favreau works with elaborate costumes to whatever extent possible. Obviously effects are a big part of a movie like this but Favreau manages to incorporate them subtlely and effective so the film mercifully lacks many grown inducing special f/x shots. While he doesn't always seem to know where or how to situation the camera I can certainly forgive and forget considering his smart use of CGI and the wonderful performances he's gotten from his cast.

Iron Man isn't perfect. As mentioned before the direction is good but not great. The soundtrack can be somewhat grating, both in the score and the alt-rock song selection. The writing is only mediocre and is large part saved from notice by the great performances. And Iron Man's climactic action scene is only decent, which is disheartening after some inspired earlier action. My last criticism is really praise, at 126 minutes I feel like Iron Man ran too short. When the film ended I was upset to see it finish and was hoping for a bit more resolution. I am already anticipating the sequel.

I have to give Iron Man credit for something else, it manages to subtlely set-up all the necessary elements for the sequel. As comic fans know Jim Rhodes will go on to become Iron Man-esque War Machine and Favreau gives us a little *wink wink* line towards the end of the movie to make sure the audience knows it's coming in the future. The terrorist group who abducts Stark is named Ten Rings which is a link to Iron Man's archnemesis, Mandarin. And, if you stay until the end of the credits you'll get another sequel/spin-off surprise.

As of right now, and obviously these things need some time to sink in, I'm inclined to rank Iron Man as one of the best comic book movies ever made. I put it only behind Batman Begins (for my money the best comic book movie ever made) and Spider-Man 2 and just ahead of Spider-Man, X2: X-Men United and Batman. I struggled with giving Iron Man an 8 or a 9, but in the end does it really matter all that much? Is the movie perfect? Not at all. But it may well be the best time I've had at a movie all year and for that I'm thankful.

Overall Score: 9/10

Teaser Trailer

Full Trailer

Robert Downey Jr. on Letterman

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