Movie Review: Iron Man 1

Best in breed of recent superhero movies __ 6.5/10

Iron ManVirginia ‘Pepper’ Potts: Tony, you know that I would help you with anything, but I cannot help you if you’re going to start all this again.
Tony Stark: There is nothing except this. There’s no art opening, no charity, nothing to sign. There’s the next mission, and nothing else.
Virginia ‘Pepper’ Potts: Is that so? Well, then I quit.
Tony Stark: You stood by my side all these years while I reaped the benefits of destruction. Now that I’m trying to protect the people I’ve put in harm’s way, you’re going to walk out?
Virginia ‘Pepper’ Potts: You’re going to kill yourself, Tony. I’m not going to be a part of it.
Tony Stark: I shouldn’t be alive… unless it was for a reason. I’m not crazy, Pepper. I just finally know what I have to do. And I know in my heart that it’s right.

Directed by Jon Favreau
Screenplay by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby,
Art Marcum, Matt Holloway

Robert Downey Jr. … Tony Stark
Terrence Howard … Rhodey
Jeff Bridges … Obadiah Stane
Gwyneth Paltrow … Pepper Potts
Leslie Bibb … Christine Everhart
Shaun Toub … Yinsen
Faran Tahir … Raza
Clark Gregg … Agent Coulson

So why is this film superhero one better than the rest? [Actually, except maybe for the early Superman movies.] Several things: a) the writers go to great lengths to make the Iron Man technology believable and in context, b) Robert Downey, Jr., is a believable heroic character whether or not he’s wearing the gear, c) Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper, Tony Stark’s secretary- extraordinaire more than fulfills her cleverly conceived role, d) Jeff Bridges as Stark Enterprises #2 Man is exactly the sort of super-villain a leading war-industry company would produce, and e) the humor in the movie is sharp and fresh.

Iron Man is entertaining with a capital E. For all ages and temperaments. For instance, I don’t generally like any of the comic-book superhero movies, even the ones where existential angst comes into play, such as the critically celebrated Batman: Dark Knight or Spiderman 2. But, in Iron Man, the wit, charm, and ingenuity of the lead character, combined with some crisp dialog and a reasonable—not wholly inconceivable—plot, make up for the lack of reality that normally accompanies these youth-targeted comic works. The main distinction between Iron Man and the others is Tony Stark doesn’t actually acquire superhuman powers… it’s all technology.[1]

Something I did not know until I Binged it: Iron Man comes from back in 1963 from the pen of Stan Lee. It would have been difficult, one imagines, to provide the technical credibility for Stark’s attributes in those days. These abilities require sophisticated, compact power supplies and propulsion systems; exotic materials; special aerodynamics; and molecular-level technology. The writers had to have incredible imagination to fashion such awesome wherewithal from the materials around in the era of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. They make the slick gadgetry of James Bond—just then coming alive in film in the early ’60s—look quite ordinary.

The plot, loosely, of Iron Man is brilliant prodigy son of war-industry tycoon creates extreme weapons for American military in Mideast wars—a generic Afghanistan/Pakistan/Iraq environment with caves full of sleazy, murderous Muslim Arabs—that fall into the hands of some really bad guys. The bad guys not only go on a rampage against the upstanding, life-affirming, presumably non-Muslim, Arabs; they capture said brilliant prodigy son (Stark) and try to force him to make another super-weapon system for them. This action takes place in a cave network replete with running water, electricity, raised-floor data centers, dust-free laboratories and operating rooms, several bars and restaurants, and a 12-theater movie metroplex. I mean, terrorists have it all!

Well, I don’t want to spoil things, but it’s here in these high-tech caves that Stark has to rely on his incredible intelligence—with the help of a Good-Arab whizbang doctor physicist—to design and build a special artificial heart to keep him alive. The Iron Man armor plating and arsenal of guns and bombs, then come along naturally as tools for escaping his evil captors. Stark gets back to his California or Nevada—I forget which—highly robotized machine shop, where he gives the Iron Man apparatus several important enhancements, particularly the ability to fly.

The fun starts. For one thing, Downey Jr. and the director are good with the pratfalls and the general humor for learning a complicated skill like flying. Then the banter with the robots: At one point Stark says to his main automaton, “If you spray me with that fire extinguisher one more time, I’m going to donate you to the community college.” So, yes, even when the villains are set upon Stark, he’s full of quips, like a James Bond fresh from the Comedy Castle. That funloving quality infuses Iron Man, you really feel Downey Jr., Paltrow, and the others are having a good time. Despite the world being imperiled, everyone conveys a benevolent sense of life… missing from some of the other “serious” comic-book movies.

And the villain guy, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges with a shaved head) is perfect, a cross between the powerlusting menace of Dick Cheney and the jovial sadism of Karl Rove. He’s well-written, too. Here’s a revealing statement:

Obadiah Stane: [to Stark] When I ordered the hit on you, I was worried that I was killing the golden goose. But, you see, it was just fate that you survived it, leaving one last golden egg to give. You really think that just because you have an idea, it belongs to you? Your father, he helped give us the atomic bomb. Now what kind of world would it be today if he was as selfish as you?

Which leads us to the subtext of Iron Man: a peculiar anti-war orientation, where the hero, Tony Stark, is so largely because he sees the errors of his ways as the prodigal genius supporting the war machine and tries to redeem himself. But get this: the US War Machine isn’t bad per se, rather it’s bad because insiders like Stane secretly deliver horrific weapons used to indiscriminately wipe out people all over the world to those real scumballs we’re actually trying to wipe out.

Stark is a heroic character because he insists that weapons of mass destruction remain in the hands of righteous US government officials and their approved list of customers? Okay, well, I would call that feeble imagination on the part of the writers if it weren’t totally SunFLOWermorally and intellectually pathetic. Oddly enough, I’ve become so inured to what passes for heroism in the movies these days, I don’t let Stark’s characterization bother me. Also, the special effects machinery goes absurd toward the end. But, hey, who cares? It’s fun.

[1] I guess Batman doesn’t have supernatural powers either, or Spiderman, but the technical reasons why they can do what they do seem farfetched… not that Iron Man’s abilities aren’t farfetched, when you think of it.

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