“I’m just not the hero type. Clearly.”
Legend has it that during the height of Marvel Comics’ popularity in the 1960s, writer Stan Lee felt that any comic with the Marvel name would be an instant best-seller, so he challenged himself to come up with concepts that were guaranteed to flop, which he would then craft into compelling stories and characters. These included whacked-out concepts like a superhero god (The Mighty Thor) and crazy-sounding titles (Sgt. Nick Fury and His Howling Commandoes).
Another of these concepts was that of the unlikable protagonist. Lee dreamt up a “hero” who was a billionaire genius weapons manufacturer who flies around in a high-tech armored battle suit. This type of character was usually the villain when facing Spider-Man or the Hulk, but under Lee’s writing, as well as the work of several writers and artists who followed, Iron Man was a different kind of hero, one with a messed-up personal life beneath his jet setting public image, and a fragile heart underneath his invincible armor.
Now, in 2008, Marvel’s unlikely iron-clad hero burst onto the big screen thanks to a couple of other unlikely heroes — director Jon Favreau (Elf), whose previous credits include mostly indie comedies and family films, and star Robert Downey Jr. (Zodiac), known mostly for dramatic roles and his tabloid fodder personal life. Like the titular hero, the pair rose above expectations and turned out one of the most successful and well-liked films of summer 2008.
Meet Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), a billionaire weapons manufacturer whose high-tech devices and lucrative deals with the U.S. military have made him famous — though some might say infamous — worldwide. He lives the high life of swanky parties, private jets, fast cars, and the luxury of not caring about anyone but himself.
During an especially hubris-intensive weapons demonstration in Afghanistan, Tony’s military escorts are attacked, and he is kidnapped by a group of multinational war profiteers called the Ten Rings. They confine Tony to a cave, forcing him to create weapons for them. Tony has other ideas, though, such as building himself a suit of iron armor to escape.
Back in the U.S., Tony is reunited with his longtime business partner, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges, The Big Lebowski), and his always loyal personal assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, Shakespeare in Love). Wishing to make something of his second chance on life, Tony decides to shut down the weapons manufacturing operations of his company. This displeases Stane, who, it turns out, has other plans for the company, most of which involve taking Tony out of the picture.
With Stane up to no good and the Ten Rings still raising havoc on the other side of the world, Tony redesigns his iron armor into a tougher, sleeker, red and gold model, in the hopes that it — and he — can save the day.
Bringing Iron Man to the big screen must have been tough. Sure, the high-tech armor and all the explosions are no-brainers, but the character behind the armor is tougher to pin down. Superman and Spider-Man are likable everymen, Batman is a brooding (and therefore cool) loner, and the Hulk and the X-Men are sympathetic, misunderstood monsters. But Tony Stark? He’s an obnoxious bastard. He rubs people the wrong way, he makes bad decisions, and he often puts his own needs and wants above others. If you were to meet him, you’d probably think, “What a rich jerk.”
So how do you make this guy a hero for audiences to root for? One option would have been to toss out the character as originally written and go in some other direction. Another option would to have made his change of heart — so to speak — in the movie a “night and day” juxtaposition, where’s he’s only a jerkwad before he becomes Iron Man, and then he’s a newly stalwart Tony afterward. Favreau and the screenwriters, however, take the path less traveled, by sticking with an unlikable protagonist throughout. Sure, Tony sees life in a new light after his Afghanistan escape, and he’s newly devoted to doing the right thing, but he’s still Tony. He still loves the parties and the hot cars, and he still doesn’t give a damn what anyone else thinks of him. Funny thing about unlikable protagonists — when written well, we do end up liking them in a way, simply because they’re fascinating characters.
Shouldering the burden of this performance — and the entire film, really — is Robert Downey Jr. Some have said that Downey Jr. is merely playing himself in the movie, and others have drawn parallels between the actor and the fictional character. I won’t disagree, but if that’s what he needs to inform his performance, than why not? Downey Jr. carries the movie with loads of cocky swagger, but there’s just enough of a glimpse to Tony’s underlying humanity seen here and there to let us know that he’s not really that bad of a guy.
Rumor has it that both Tom Cruise and Nicholas Cage were considered for Tony during the movie’s preproduction. If I may theorize, I can’t help but think that the image-conscious Cruise would have played Tony as too nice, while the unpredictable Cage would have played Tony as too off-the-wall. Downey Jr., however, finds the middle ground between these two halves. He’s quirky and edgy, which is what the character needs, but he never lets us forget that he’s the hero, which is what the audience needs. In short, the man simply is Tony Stark.
Gwyneth Paltrow gets to show some spunk in her role, to show that she’s more than just the mousy female subordinate. Tony might be her boss, but she doesn’t put up with any crap from him, either. The “operation” scene is her best work in the movie, in which her character is way out of her element but does what’s needed to save Tony’s life. With the bald-head-and-bushy-beard combo, there’s no hiding the fact that Jeff Bridges’ Stane is the villain, no matter how chummy he acts during the start of the movie. He does just what is needed for the role, first being sneaky and then going into full-on psycho mode during the finale. Terrence Howard (Hustle and Flow) does a similarly nice job as Tony’s friend and military contact, setting his character up for a bigger role in future sequels. And although it could be argued that the character is a stereotype, Faran Tahir (Charlie Wilson’s War) brings some delicious intensity to the screen as Raza, the leader of the Ten Rings.
OK, enough boring talk about characters and acting. This is a Marvel Comics summer superhero blockbuster, so how’s the action? Honestly, it’s a little more low-key than what you’d expect from a movie like this. There are three major action scenes, the Afghanistan escape, the village rescue/airplane chase, and the finale. Each one provides some sweet action, but by the time your adrenaline really starts pumping, the scene is over. What’s missing is a signature set piece, such as the train fight from Spider-Man 2, the Batmobile chase in Batman Begins, or (still the all-time best) the truck scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Hopefully, this is merely a symptom of “origin story” syndrome, and the filmmakers can think bigger and better for the sequel now that all the introductions have been made.
Iron Man blasts onto DVD on this A.I.M.-approved two-disc set. (Raise your hand if you get that reference!) With most major Hollywood releases being made with DVDs and high-def releases in mind, it’s a given that the video and audio are excellent. The colors are bright and vivid, practically leaping off the screen. The audio impresses as well, especially during the flying scenes. There was one moment near the start of the movie where the music drowned out the actors’ dialogue, but this was a party scene, so maybe that was intentional on the part of the filmmakers.
This set comes with enough bonus features to give M.O.D.O.K. a headache (another obscure reference! I could do this all day). Disc One contains a collection of deleted and extended scenes. It’s easy to see why these were cut, as they would have seriously hurt the flow of the movie. They do, however, contain some nice character moments and small expository bits that enhance the main feature. The only other extra on Disc One is a trailer for the upcoming Iron Man animated series, in which Tony looks like he’s about 10 years old.
Continuing on to Disc Two, the main extras are two lengthy documentaries, one about the making of the film, and one about the character’s history in the comics. The former is the better one, taking viewers along for the ride from early preproduction, to casting, to rehearsal, to the complications of location shooting, to the construction and filming of the sets, all the way to one month before the movie’s release, as Favreau and company can sense the public’s anticipation for the film, and they wonder what audiences will think of it. The most fun parts of this are seeing the creation of the actual Iron Man suits, along with hearing from the late Stan Winston about the movie, which ended up his last. The second doc, about Iron Man’s comic book history, was a little uneven. It covers the basis of the character’s creation, but then it only barely mentions some of the more famous tales, including the powerful “Demon in a Bottle” story. Iron Man’s controversial role in the superhero Civil War (he was basically the bad guy) only gets a fleeting mention, as does the time Rhodey took over the armor for a while — and the laughable “teenage Tony Stark” thing is ignored. On the other hand, the recent “Extremis” story gets an enormous of screen time. Simply put, this is not as balanced of a look at Iron Man as it could be. Other extra features on Disc Two are some rehearsal and screen test footage, a special effects breakdown, some still galleries and an Onion comedy sketch poking fun at the movie’s internet hype. Sure, a commentary would have been nice, but this is nonetheless a solid set of extras.
HUGE SPOILERS in this next section.
For as well-made and fun as this movie is, it made some serious narrative missteps during its climax, just slightly tainting the enjoyment of the overall film. As noted above, the finale does offer some action, but it’s not really the big, larger-than-life set piece the movie needs at this point. The finale starts with Iron Man not at full strength, with his suit’s automated system already telling him he’s losing power. Wouldn’t it have been more exciting to Iron Man cut loose with all his firepower, instead of being in a weakened state for the whole fight?
Even worse, it’s here that the movie falls into cheesy superhero clichés, giving Paltrow embarrassing lines like “He’s gone insane!” and “But you’ll dieeee!!!” Likewise, Stane has an awkward line about his targeting system, which will give all the Star Wars haters nightmare flashbacks to that whole “I’ve got the high ground” thing. With all the careful thought and planning that went into this movie, it’s too bad they couldn’t go the extra mile for the finale.
Iron Man is definitely worth seeing. It might not be hardcore balls-to-the-wall action, but great character work, especially Robert Downey Jr.’s performance, make this one a cut above the average Hollywood popcorn flick.