2008 // USA // Jon Favreau // May 4, 2008 // Theatrical Print
B - Entries in the superhero genre have been coming fast and furious lately. Lamentably, for every adaptation that conveys thrills, humor, and heart in an artful way, a slug of forgettable nonsense or outright dreck comes down the studio pipe. Arriving at the bleeding edge of a densely packed summer action film season, Jon Favreau's Iron Man is the latest attempt to breathe twenty-first century cinematic life to a seminal character. The film certainly hits all the right notes for its source material, but it occasionally stumbles into the usual action film sins: predictability, ridiculous dialog, and trite character development. Yet despite these flaws, Iron Man emerges as a delicious work of modern techno-fantasy, and reveals Favreau as an action director of generous skill.
>I never read the Iron Man books back in my hardcore comic fandom days, but the story is familiar to anyone devoted to the Marvel Universe. Anthony Stark, wealthy defense industrialist, constructs a wondrous metallic suit that gives him the ability to soar like a fighter jet, withstand bullets, and unleash a dizzying arsenal of weapons. Fortunately for the residents of the Marvelverse, Stark uses his power armor to serve goodness and justice. It's hard not recognize the archetype-bending appeal of such a character for the Popular Mechanics set. The Smith forges the Sword and, rather than bestowing it on the Hero, becomes the Hero himself. Stark is both a brilliant engineer and fabulously rich. In other words, he is just the sort of eccentric with the talent and resources to turn himself into a superhero as an act of sheer will.
Unlike the wealthy, technology-dependent superhero from that other comic universe, however, Stark's Road-to-Damascus moment is less about personal grief than a humanitarian epiphany, at least as envisioned by Favreau. When Iron Man opens, Stark is already settled into an adolescent-minded middle age. He leads a charmed life filled with computerized comfort and an endless succession of beautiful women. While the Tony Stark of the comics might have been an asshole prior to taking up the superhero mantle, Robert Downey Jr. also adds plenty of his trademark lightning-witted charm. It's a vital and perceptive addition to the character. We want to see the spoiled, negligent Stark receive his comeuppance for his years of bloody war profiteering, but Downey's charisma also ensures that we long for his conversion to heroism.
While demonstrating his company's new missile in Afghanistan, Stark is caught in a convoy ambush and captured by a local warlord. The attack leaves Stark with shrapnel embedded in his chest, fragments that will work their way into his heart over time. That is, they would without the powerful electro-magnet—powered by a car battery—that was hastily installed in his chest by his doctor cellmate, Yinsen (Shaun Toub). Stark's reputation has preceded him to the mountains of Afghanistan. The warlord, Raza (Faran Tahir), knows exactly who he has captured, and he orders Stark to construct a duplicate of his company's new missile using spare parts and scrap.
This is roughly where any lingering believability goes out the window. This is a comic book movie, however, and Favreau and Downey both display a talent for rendering absurdities in a giddy, compelling way. Using missile parts, Stark recreates his company's "arc-reactor" in miniature, a sort of perpetual motion energy source to replace his crude life-sustaining device. He and Yinsen then labor to build a means of escape, a suit of robotic armor powered by that same arc-reactor. Makes sense, right? It's the sort of ludicrous leap that seems perfectly sensible within a comic book reality.
I'm not spoiling much by revealing that Stark eventually flees the Afghanistan caves with the aid of his prototype suit. His captivity has changed him. Publicly, Stark abandons his flippant jingoism, resolving that he is morally culpable for the destruction wreaked by his company's weapons. The rest of the film mainly revolves around Stark's ambition to develop a refined version of the suit in his engineering lab, and the complications and opposition he encounters when he deploys it in the service of a private, righteous war. He is forced to fend off concern and suspicion from his allies: capable personal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow), friend and Air Force liaison Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard), and Stark Industries executive Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges).
Favreau mostly sticks to the established superhero origin formula. He doesn't do much that's surprising with it, but he often does it with a kind of high-octane grace that's enviable. What he does exceptionally well is shoot and edit his action sequences with an eye for beauty, coherence, and drama. It's an all-too-rare skill, and to see a comedy director like Favreau rise to the occasion is... well, impressive isn't the right word. It's thrilling. Not momentous, mind your, in the sense of an auteur's breakout film, but it nonetheless inspires excitement about the future of action cinema under Favreau's hand.
Iron Man's visual effects are quite remarkable, and they expertly serve to suck the viewer into its glossy reality. It's easy to accept the film's technological hand-waving when old school effects and computer wizardry blend together so seamlessly. Favreau expertly taps into the visual wonder of his story's science fiction foundation, never gaping with his camera, but coaxing the viewer to gape. This is a vital distinction.
Although Favreau generally raises the stakes in terms of the action, he works by the numbers in most other respects. There's a blossoming love interest, a secret betrayal, a climax dependent on vague technological tension, and so on. The dialogue is fairly groan-worthy in places, although to his credit, Downey works his wry magic on all of his lines, no matter how silly. The supporting cast is really in place to convey broadly drawn personas, and they're serviceable enough in this respect. Unfortunately Favreau commits other screenwriting offenses, such as introducing plot points and then abandoning them, and going adorable when he has no right to.
Iron Man feels like a middling superhero movie in some ways, but it's hard to disregard the ways that it is exceptional. Favreau strikes a careful balance between gleeful, engrossing action sequences and an empathic exploration of his protagonist's transformation. The filmmakers never fully explore the intriguing themes that the story begs, particularly the righteous elitism and technocrat-warrior impulses in Stark's character. These elements just sort of glide beneath the surface of the film, acknowledged but never truly engaged. Still, such subtle nods seem like virtues when I imagine the soulless exercise that Iron Man could have been in the hands of a lesser director. And, to be fair, the story of Iron Man doesn't require the operatic intensity of, say, Batman. Rather, it taps into the technophile's lust for powerful and shiny toys, accented with twinges of American guilt and compassion. Favreau—and Downey—accomplish this tone so precisely, I can't quibble too much with the film's tendency to stick to superhero movie conventions.