Iron Man

May, 2008, Thriller

Directed by:Jon Favreau

Starring:Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, Leslie Bibb, and Shaun Toub

Whatever possessed the people at Marvel Entertainment to gamble one of their leading comic book characters and over $100 million dollars in production costs on (1) a second-banana actor/director, (2) a screenwriting team responsible for the critically acclaimed but financially disastrous Children of Men and (3) a male lead with a rap sheet nearly as long as his screen credits? Can serious actors like Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard and Robert Downey Jr. work cinematic alchemy on male adolescent fantasies? Could anyone on the far side of puberty be even remotely interested in seeing the results? 

Fear not; despite the hokiest of material, director Jon Favreau (Elf) and the often-dissolute but never dull Robert Downey Jr. have taken a potential sow’s ear and transformed it into a first-rate piece of silk purse escapism, making it a solid contender for the year’s first breakout box-office winner. Sequels in the Batman, Incredible Hulk and Indiana Jones franchises, (coming later this summer) will find this one hard to beat. Much of the credit goes to the intersection between a deliciously clever script, Downey’s flippant star turn and Favreau’s ability to seamlessly blend razzle-dazzle technical gadgetry with solid performances from a cast that makes suspending disbelief great fun.  

When American munitions mogul Tony Stark (Downey) flies to Afghanistan to personally demonstrate his latest lethal rocket for the U.S. military, he’s kidnapped by terrorists who provide him with enough bootleg material in their mountain cave hideout and to permit the replication of his latest bomb. Faced with certain execution when he finishes this assignment, he fashions instead a crude suit of body armor equipped with enough ancillary fire power to take out a fair sized militia. His escape successfully completed, Stark returns to the U.S. a changed man, determined to put his genius for creative mechanics to peaceful use. Not surprisingly, this causes the price of Stark Industries stock to drop precipitously, causing its chief of operations, Obadiah Stane, (Bridges) to worry about Stark’s sanity. 

Tony retreats to his gear-laden private research facilities to refine the concepts he developed while in captivity, only to learn that Obadiah has his own vision for a new Stark Industry business plan. Having perfected a greatly enhanced version of his Iron Man suit, Stark enlists the aid of Virginia “Pepper” Potts, (Paltrow) his doggedly loyal secretary and Jim Rhodes, (Howard) a loyal air force colonel, to battle the forces of international terrorism and help discover who’s behind the efforts to sabotage his newly-minted role as a man of peace…

Downey, (Chaplin, Good Night & Good Luck, Zodiac)) wears self-destructive glibness like a bespoke suit; it’s easy to believe he’s simply playing himself here rather than a comic book character. But he creates a hero whose super powers derive from creative genius, not some physiological accident and the observant script by Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby provides ample proof of the inventor’s humorous failures as well as his outlandishly improbable successes. As quick with a soldering iron as he is with a quip, Downey’s enfant terrible emerges as a mixture of adolescent showoff and techno-geek who can charm the ladies as readily as he can use voice activated computers to act as his personal valet while helping him build the film’s sophisticated gadgets. Downey’s knowingly droll interpretation of a smartass turned superhero gives the actor a opportunity to embody this preposterous character while simultaneously mocking the audience’s willingness to accept him; a neat piece of self-reverential cinematic hubris if ever there was one. 

Paltrow plays her loyal assistant as though riffing on the Miss Moneypenny character in James Bond films; there’s the obligatory insistence on maintaining professional status of course, but here that comes with a sweetly-conveyed overlay of carnal appetite, which the screenwriters flesh out in witty innuendo and half-finished verbal parrying reminiscent of the best Cary Grant/Katherine Hepburn romantic comedies where the golden rule of dialogue is always: everything suggested, nothing consummated. The results provide bright tidbits of sophisticated banter where one would least expect to find them.  

Looking like an avuncular Daddy Warbucks, Jeff Bridges compensates for his shaved dome with a Van Dyke beard and the hail-fellow well-met manner of someone with big secrets to hide, the extent of which emerge obliquely over the course of Iron Man’s two-plus hour running time. There isn’t much more than the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” to his character, but Bridges successfully resists the temptation to chew the scenery and it’s always nice to see him in any role, however tangential it may be. (The same cannot be said of the thankless role assigned to Howard, the gifted actor who brought such visceral lowlife charm to Hustle & Flow; he deserves better than to be cast as a rather emasculated military cheerleader.)

Of course, this genre doesn’t rely principally on thespian skill to impress viewers; requisite amounts of technological wizardry and pyrotechnical destruction are necessary as well - - and Favreau delivers. But what makes Iron Man so interesting in that regard is the painstaking degree to which the director and his small army of special effects experts insert scene after scene of wondrously detailed technological trial and error as prelude to the mayhem; Tony Stark nearly kills himself time and again as he struggles to fashion the objects his fertile imagination conjures up and his persistence in doing so goes a long way in transforming the initially obnoxious elements of his personality into more likeable proportions. 

Yet perhaps the best surprise in Iron Man comes in its slickly delivered commentary on America’s role as a global supplier of munitions; what happens when the products of our lethal creativity find their way into the hands of those who use them to destroying the innocent civilians we ostensibly seek to protect? The screenplay provides a shrewdly crafted left-handed compliment to America’s patriotic military-industrial complex. 

The verdict? Though it may aspire to nothing more than Hollywood blockbuster status, Iron Man manages the neat trick of gently mocking its genre while positing some disturbing questions about our role in arming the world while providing quite a satisfying piece of warm-weather escapist entertainment.


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