"Iron Man? That's kinda catchy. It's got a nice ring to it."
Superhero movies wildly vary in quality. For every home run that successfully mixes emotional resonance with a thrill-ride payoff (Spider-Man 2 or X-Men), there are morose duds and woeful misfires (Fantastic Four, Elektra, or Hulk). With Jon Favreau's Iron Man, another superhero has been taken from the Marvel Comic stable and CGI'ed into a summer blockbuster. Thankfully, Iron Man can be placed on the short list of superhero movies done right. It's a refreshing blend of witty humour, solid characters, phenomenal special effects and exciting action. It's clear the creative team behind Iron Man actually cared during every step of the production process; working to make a superhero adventure with an eye towards characters and dialogue rather than senseless action. It's not as slapdash as The Incredible Hulk or as pretentious as The Dark Knight. Rather, it's a satisfying crowd-pleaser suited for fans of the source material as well as the uninitiated.
Robert Downey Jr. plays the title role of billionaire Tony Stark, who inherited his father's industry which specialises in producing high-tech weaponry for the United States Army. The story of Stark from the original Marvel comics has been modernised, with the character being placed in the more topical war zone of Afghanistan. During a trip to Afghanistan to demonstrate his latest weapon, Stark is ambushed and captured by a terrorist group who demand for him to build them a missile. Instead of complying with their demands, Stark constructs a deadly suit of armour to escape his captors. However, the traumatic experience in the Middle-East leaves Stark questioning his company's true role in peacekeeping, as he realises how easily his weapons can fall into the wrong hands and be used against the people they was built to protect. Opting to terminate his company's weapons division (enraging the board of directors), Stark concentrates on perfecting the armoured suit design, and this leads to the birth of Iron Man.
Those unfamiliar with the Iron Man comics need not be concerned about being unceremoniously dropped into a flick specifically tailored for the already-established fan-base. The flick has been carefully crafted by an ideal creative team to maximise the appeal and satiate both those steeped in Iron Man lore and those who've never heard of the Mighty Marvel Metal Man. In a way, this is similar to the accomplishments of Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins: the legend is gradually built up while plot and character development is used as the foundation. On the topic of Batman Begins, Iron Man does share similarities to the character of Batman. Both are superheroes without any actual powers - instead, they're well-funded men who rely upon gadgets.
Chief among the strengths of Iron Man is the well-told nature of the narrative, which is Favreau's forte as a mainstream filmmaker. Unlike other blockbuster directors like Michael Bay, Favreau seldom allows his characters and the narrative to get buried in an avalanche of over-the-top digital effects. As with most first instalments of a superhero franchise, the origin tale of Tony Stark/Iron Man had to be covered, and this production does a terrific job of it - more than an hour of the runtime is spent jumping back and forth through time to establish who Tony Stark is. Stark's crisis of conscience is also explored, and the developments in this area feel organic as opposed to contrived. Once Stark dons his armour and heads into action, a viewer will care about the man locked in combat, and this is a great asset in generating that hard-to-nail asset: tension. Many blockbuster movie-goers may find all the exposition and character development boring, yet this reviewer found it absorbing and fascinating - even more so than the action itself. Yes, Iron Man does have its share of amazing action, but these set-pieces are secondary to the drama. The only genuine setback of the narrative structure is its adherence to the "origin tale" formula - it feels like Spider-Man or Batman Begins with changed locations, different characters and a different mythology. For such a solid movie, it's never able to reinvent the origin tale format.
Considering Iron Man's origins as a big-budget summer spectacle, it should come as no surprise to learn that the film also benefits from magnificent digital effects. CGI is most effective when it's utilised by a filmmaker to enhance the plot without overwhelming the frame or drawing attention to the effects, and this is the case here. The digital wizards were visibly in synch with director Favreau, as they never attempted to show off or upstage the actors. Added to this, Matthew Libatique's cinematography is of a high standard. Rather than frenetic camerawork, Libatique and Favreau ensure total coherency of each action sequence (another area where Michael Bay should take notes). Meanwhile, fans of the comics should adore the design of Iron Man's suit - it's an insanely-detailed work of special effects mastery to be admired. With all these positives in mind, it's a shame that Iron Man is bogged down by a few faults. As the home stretch is nearing, the movie shifts gears and becomes a more conventional action movie; leaning on clichés and rote lines such as "But you'll die!" and "He's gone insane". This leads to the climactic showdown, which, while impressive, doesn't provoke the "I can't wait to see how they'll top that" feeling of other superhero movies. Thankfully, the film concludes on a high note.
Casting decisions make or break a superhero movie. While Christopher Reeve was an ideal Superman, Ben Affleck was a woeful Daredevil. Thankfully, Iron Man gets off on the right foot in this department because Robert Downey Jr. is Tony Stark. Downey's portrayal of the man in the metal suit is the backbone of the film - he provides a welcome amount of wit and charm not unlike his excellent work in the overlooked Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (which may be that film earned Downey the Iron Man gig). And the top-notch comedy isn't restricted to Downey's hilarious quips - Favreau has also included moments of clever slapstick humour which would make Charlie Chaplin proud.
The supporting cast is a mixed bag. Jeff Bridges exudes menace in his terrific performance as Stark's business partner and eventual nemesis, but Terrence Howard is tremendously underwhelming as Jim Rhodes. He's not in the least bit memorable and he's terribly wooden. Happily, for the sequel, Howard was replaced by Don Cheadle. Rounding out the cast is Gwyneth Paltrow, who's sweet and intelligent as Pepper Pots, but sorely lacks intensity.
In the end, Iron Man succeeds so well not because of the storyline (which is a standard-issue origin plot) but due to the way in which the storyline is presented by Jon Favreau and his team. The screenplay manages to develop characters effectively while at the same time tapping into one's inner child during the usually remarkable action sequences. Iron Man is, quite simply, a film done by a talented team who respect the source material. Be sure to keep watching until the end of the credits.