Review: Iron Man
4.5 stars (out of 5)
by R. Kurt Osenlund
When casting the title role of Iron Man, director Jon Favreau surely had a handful of hot, leading males of the moment to choose from. It's a part that has the blockbuster potential of making or advancing any actor's career. Basically, it has the likes of Christian Bale or Hugh Jackman written all over it. It's a good thing those two stars were busy playing Batman and Wolverine, respectively, and Favreau opted to go with 43-year-old Robert Downey Jr. instead. The formerly controversial golden boy is dynamite here, as is the rest of this sleek and mature superhero flick.
Billionaire genius Tony Stark lives a fabulous life, indeed. He's the face and CEO of military weapons manufacturer Stark Industries, whose deadly products are ensuring that the U.S.A. remains the world's foremost superpower. He's got a hilltop resort of a home in Malibu that has state-of-the-art computer screens built into its beach front windows. He's slept with all twelve of last year's Maxim cover girls (well, eleven, if you're interested in technicalities), and the flight attendants on his private jet don't just serve cocktails, they dance on poles. Stark's fear-funded, posh existence takes a - dare I say - stark turn when Afghani terrorists kidnap him during the testing of a new missile in one of the country's deserts. In order to save his life (and to avoid the request of creating one of his killing machines for the enemy), Stark uses his technical wizardry to construct a bio-mechanical, bulletproof, metal suit, powered by an electromagnetic core that is also pumping his heart at a superhuman rate and keeping his shrapnel wounds at bay. He uses it to bust out of his spider hole prison, torch his enemies and the weapons they confiscated, and even rocket himself into the sky. Upon returning to the states, he streamlines his invention; and with his newfound state of mind, he attempts to redirect his aspirations into waging peace rather than fueling war.
Iron Man is an origin film, as are most of the best superhero pictures. Like Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man and Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, it humanizes its lead character by presenting him as an ordinary man capable of extraordinary things. What makes Tony Stark stand apart from Peter Parker and even Bruce Wayne, to a degree, is that he's a filthy rich, press-craving, hard-living prick. Sound familiar? It should. Downey Jr. is an actor who's overcome quite a bit, both personally and professionally, tackling substance abuse, jail time, and career slumps – all under an ever-watchful public eye. Now, he seems to be channeling all of his chemically dependent, skirt-chasing characteristics into his work. He recently played an alcoholic in both Zodiac and Charlie Bartlett, and his performance as Stark/Iron Man could even be viewed as a metaphor of his own life. Tragedy showed him the error of his ways, and he responded by using his talents for good rather than destruction. Thinking about it in that respect, it may be the best role of Downey Jr.'s career.
And he's got backup. One of the things that has plagued some of the entries in the recent onslaught of comic character movies is the casting of bright young things rather than seasoned artists (think Brandon Routh and Kate Bosworth in Bryan Singer's good but lightweight Superman Returns). Favreau wisely took the road that is too often less traveled. All of his four leads are either Academy Award winners or nominees, boasting one win and seven nominations among them. There's Downey Jr., who received a nod for his lead role in Chaplin in 1992. There's also four-time nominee Jeff Bridges, who plays Stark's colleague-turned-enemy Obadiah Stane, and Terrence Howard, a 2005 Best Actor nominee for Hustle & Flow who shows up as Stark's confidant and government insider Jim Rhodes. Finally, 1998 Best Actress winner Gwyneth Paltrow (Shakespeare in Love) plays Pepper Potts, Starks loyal and well-paid assistant who, naturally, veers closer and closer into love interest territory.
The caliber of performers in Iron Man raises its quality level significantly, and those filmmakers interested in adapting the next superhero franchise should take note. The script - which according to iMDb, was penned by eight (!) people, including Mark Fergus, Hawk Otsby, and Marvel king Stan Lee – is also a cut above, shaping a fluid narrative that's as fantastic as it is believable. The visuals are truly awesome, giving Iron Man's suit-up processes and flights to multi-thousand-foot altitudes a visual pow that's unmatched by anything currently showing in theaters. If a day ever comes when Hollywood has run out of comic book films to bring to the screen, Iron Man may just stand tall as one of the best.