June 2024

Iron Man (2008)

DIRECTOR: Jon Favreau


Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, Shaun Toub, Faran Tahir, Jon Favreau, Paul Bettany (voice)


Along with Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, Jon Favreau’s Iron Man is a member of the next generation of comic book movies that make their stories seem almost (not quite, but almost) plausible by playing it straight. Positive audience response is clear; Iron Man was the second highest-grossing film of 2008 before being overshadowed by the arguable crowned king of ‘comic book movies’, The Dark Knight , within a couple months. While Iron Man doesn’t pose a serious rival to The Dark Knight, in my opinion, the two franchises have a fair bit in common in the way they make their source material a little more down-to-earth and gritty than many of their predecessors.

Our initially-less-than-heroic protagonist is Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), one of the world’s most prominent weapons manufacturers, a brilliant engineer, and a hedonistic playboy with his own private plane and a fleet of sports cars who leaves long lines of one-night-stands in his wake and is a no-show at his own press conference because he’s gambling in Las Vegas, leaving his more level-headed inner circle, principally his faithful personal assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and his friend Colonel Jim ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes (Terrence Howard), to try to rein him in. Tony’s glamorous lifestyle takes an abrupt downturn when his caravan visiting Afghanistan for a weapons demonstration is ambushed by terrorists (led by Faran Tahir), who take him hostage and force him to build one of his new missiles for their use. But Tony has other ideas, eventually emerging in an indestructible metal suit and making his escape. But Tony returns home a changed man. Having seen firsthand the death and destruction his weapons can wreak, he is shocked into an idealistic awakening, vowing to stop making weapons and devoting Stark Industries to more peaceful purposes, a decision that sends stocks into a nosedive and his business partner, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), scrambling to do damage control. Meanwhile, Tony sets to work refining and upgrading his suit to serve his newfound purpose defending the people he’s put in harm’s way.

Iron Man has a bit in common with Batman Begins ; both center around hedonistic, fabulously wealthy playboys (although Bruce Wayne’s lifestyle is more a façade than Tony Stark’s) who find a new purpose, both are origin stories that spend the bulk of the movie developing the fledgling superhero before eventually getting to the expected 11th hour climactic mano-a-mano with the chief villain, and both employ a bit of misdirection about who exactly the chief villain turns out to be. Iron Man’s tone is more lighthearted, not least because Tony Stark is a livelier and more irreverent superhero than the dour, brooding Bruce Wayne, but both attempt to place their superheroes in pseudo-realistic. For a while, especially early on, Iron Man barely even feels like a superhero movie, in the same way that it takes a while for Batman Begins to feel like what we expect from a Batman movie. Iron Man sets its goals a hair more modestly, but Jon Favreau brings a lot of freshness, humor, and energy to the proceedings, and seems entirely comfortable helming a summer blockbuster comic book movie where some may have thought him an odd choice.

With all due respect to Favreau, however, it’s the casting of someone as quirky, irreverent, and seemingly unlikely superhero material as Robert Downey Jr. that goes the longest way toward making Iron Man seem as fresh and lively as it does. Tony Stark is quite possibly the only superhero who’s cooler as himself than as his alter ego, and Downey plays it with just the right demeanor- endlessly cool, with a sardonic sense of humor and a hint of an edge courtesy of Downey’s ever-present twitchy energy, yet not so fatuous or over-the-top that we can’t believe him in the occasional more serious moment. Tony may start out hedonistic and blissfully apathetic, but he’s never helpless; no sooner has he found himself in captivity than we see his brains and resourcefulness rise to the surface. No one else has nearly as much to work with, and the supporting cast basically revolves around Downey, but there are nice touches here and there. No one is likely to consider this one of Gwyneth Paltrow’s standout roles, but she gets a couple moments of interplay with Downey as Pepper and Tony dance around each other like James Bond and Moneypenny: always close, but no cigar. Jeff Bridges, almost unrecognizable with a bald head and beard, plays the kind of corporate executive-type whose jolly smile doesn’t quite thaw the ice in his eyes; some might be fleetingly reminded of Rutger Hauer’s character in Batman Begins. Terrence Howard makes minimal impression as Rhodes, but then he’s not given anything substantial to do; few are likely to mind his replacement with Don Cheadle in the upcoming sequel (hopefully his role won’t be quite as thankless). Like Cillian Murphy in Batman Begins, Faran Tahir is set up as a villain who may not be as significant as he seems. Jon Favreau steps in front of the camera a couple times in a small role as Stark’s bodyguard. And if the voice of Stark’s personal computer Jarvis sounds familiar, that’s because it’s provided by Paul Bettany.

Despite the freshness injected by Favreau and Downey in the execution, Iron Man’s plot very much follows the standard comic book superhero origin story. Talented but idle man finds a new sense of purpose after a harrowing personal experience, develops superhero alter ego through his own ingenuity, technological savvy, and occasional help from faithful and discreet sidekicks, eventually uncovers the plot of Bad Guy Numero Uno, and takes him on in a climactic mano-a-mano.  In fact, the closer the movie gets to its climax, the less interesting it gets, especially when we reach the somewhat over-the-top and silly climactic smackdown, like it’s ticking off an obligatory superhero movie checklist, and loses some of the irreverent wit it started out with.  The movie remains faithful to the basics of the comic series, if not the details (the war onhand is updated from Vietnam to Afghanistan, for example). Along the way, there are plenty of amusing quips and wisecracks, mostly from Downey, although late in the movie Jeff Bridges starts getting into the one-liners, and a few action sequences, although Iron Man doesn’t really have a standout fight scene. Tony Stark’s entertaining personality is more memorable than his superhero exploits, and that makes Iron Man a little more character-oriented than some comic book flicks. There is an after-credits scene featuring a surprise cameo that directly sets up the sequel (due in May 2010), and Iron Man is enjoyable enough to make that a welcome prospect instead of a dreaded one. Iron Man does not impress on the level of Batman Begins or The Dark Knight, but it can be considered a member of the same pack.