Iron Man (review)

Recommended Daily Dose of Iron

He’s not Batman or Superman. He’s not in the public consciousness the way the Dark Knight or the Caped Crusader Man of Steel are. (He’s beloved by legions of comic fans, but they’re a far more select crowd.) Our pop-culture lobes aren’t cluttered with the faces of half a dozen different actors who’ve played him over the last half century, or with the memories of the earnest 50s black-and-white TV dramas or the campy candy-colored 60s sitcoms in which he fought evil and embodied the spirit of the era.
No, there’s just this movie, now, and what a doozy of a popcorn-a-licious introduction to Iron Man it is. It spells certain ruin for future incarnations unless they are very, very good indeed, for when someone makes Iron Man: The Web Series in 2026 and someone else reboots Iron Man for 3D sensesurround movies in 2043, everyone will be all, Oh, but Robert Downey Jr. will always be Iron Man for me, and, Oh, but no one can do it like Jon Favreau did.

This might well be the perfect comic book movie, actually. It’s just pertinent enough to feel like it’s set in something like the real world and just tongue-in-cheek enough not to get too heavy about it, but it’s got enough self-respect to be sincere. It manages to be funny in more places than you might imagine without winking at itself, like it doesn’t know it’s a comic book movie, and that all sorts of smirking and jabs in the ribs are supposed to go along with movie adaptations from that medium. Oh, sure, there’s no question that this is Iron Man — the spirit of the character is absolutely intact, and though there’s been some shuffling around, the faces and names and situations will be completely familiar to fans of the comic series, and will pay off in ways they’ll be able to predict. (I’m not one of those fans. I’ve never read the comic book, but after seeing the film, I read some histories of the universe and biographies of the character, and it all looks pretty kosher to me. Of course, your mileage may vary if you’re a dedicated fan of the comic.) But the key thing is: Tony Stark doesn’t think he’s a “superhero.”

And he isn’t. He has no superpowers, unless genius and a preternatural ability to charm the ladies count. Nope: Stark is just your run-of-the-mill billionaire playboy geek — he’s Bill Gates with Austin Powers’ mojo. He heads up Stark Industries, a weapons contractor with sidelines in a few more philanthropical arenas for the PR value, but he’s not just a businessman: he actually designs and builds his deadly toys. He’s a brilliant engineer and inventor… as well as an inveterate party animal who just so happens to be as gorgeous and charismatic (if in a slightly smarmy way) as Robert Downey Jr.

The funny stuff? It’s all Downey (Charlie Bartlett, Lucky You) and the easygoing, reflexive snark that is his trademark. Which isn’t to say that he’s not a vital part of the whole self-respecting sincerity of Iron Man: his snark is, as it always is, his way of armoring a character with deep and intriguing flaws against having to acknowledge those flaws. (One recurring joke about how Stark treats the robotics in his private lab, the kind of robots you might see in an automobile factory, like pet dogs or even sentient creatures, is layered with poignancy because he probably does count these machines as among his very few close relationships.) And when Stark is angry? Downey is nuclear with it — like a slow meltdown, not like a mushroom cloud. But whether Downey is gearing Stark toward funny or mad or somewhere in between — his relationship with his human assistant, Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow: Running with Scissors, Infamous), is fraught with all sorts of interpersonal landmines that make for some of the movie’s best moments — Downey exudes a sense of effortlessness, as if he were just making it all up as he goes. Some of Stark’s offhandedness was apparently adlibbed by Downey, but surely the four credited screenwriters — Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby (both of whom worked on Children of Men and First Snow), and newcomers Art Marcum and Matt Holloway — contributed their fair share. Downey can’t have done it all on his own: it just feels that way.

Director Jon Favreau (Elf, Made) knows to just stay the hell out of Downey’s way and let him run with a story so deceptively simple that it really does seem as if it’s Faveau’s star doing all the embellishing. On a trip to Afghanistan to push a new weapons system on the U.S. army, Stark is injured and kidnapped by cave-dwelling terrorists, and it’s a full hour into the movie — not that it drags or anything — before Stark has whipped up his first flying suit of armor as a way to escape. Refinements to the suit come later, but there’s relatively little of the crimefighting you’d expect from this kind of superhero origin story. Stark goes, well, ballistic when he discovers what uses his company’s weapons are being put to, and engages in a bit of do-goodery to right that, but still: Stark emphatically isn’t a superhero — a few snide Downey asides about what his life would be like if he were a superhero are well played, and only underline the non-comic-booky vibe here, which plays much more in the science-fiction sandbox. Think Robocop meets Transformers, not “Batman with metal armor.”

But this is, of course, deep down, a superhero origin, and the very funny final line of the film leaves no doubt that there will be a sequel. It’s a nice feeling for a movie to leave you with the sense that that’s a promise, not a threat.

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