Did we really need another superhero movie? We seem to be inundated with them as of late, and while some do the job well (the Batman reboot, and the Spider-Man series), most have fallen pretty flat (Daredevil, Hulk, Fantastic Four and its sequel). I grew up reading my share of comics from the Marvel universe, but haven't been as excited about the latest villain-smasher as in previous years. When I heard that ol' Metal Head was coming to silver screen, I was mildly interested. When I discovered Robert Downey, Jr. was going to play lead Tony Stark, I was very interested. Fortunately, they really got it right this time--Iron Man is a very good movie in almost all categories.
Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) has it all. Brains, money, women, all the booze he can drink, and the most powerful weapons manufacturing corporation in the world. While showing off his latest creation in the Afgani desert, he is abruptly captured by a terrorist army armed with his products. Locked in a cave with the man who saved his life, he must build his latest missile from spare parts or face certain death. Stark has other plans, however, and learns that he must give back to all the lives he has indirectly taken over the years. He shuts down weapons production and creates a high-tech suit of armor that gives him super powers. But will his own company and partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) sit still for such radical action? Does Tony Stark care?
This is a great story that flies in the face of just about every rule we've been taught about movies of this ilk. Instead of already being a straight arrow type, Stark is a selfish man of the world, who has a change of heart. He's not a mutant of any kind, but creates his powers through the ability of his creative engineering chops--he's a DIY Superman. He even lacks the typical alliterative name that we usually associate with superheroes (personal assistant and love interest Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) does have one, however). The film carries this theme right down to the last line of dialogue which lets us know this ain't your mom's comic book movie. I love it.
All the characters are well-devleoped, but this is Downey, Jr.'s movie. He is so good here, bringing a snarky likability to the shallow-turned-deep Stark that you totally root for him. He fights not only the obvious baddies, but also the corporate America he helped create. A great script from the writers of Children of Men, fleshes Stark out and gives him lots of funny dialogue (As he gets in an Army vehicle: "I'll be here in the Funvee, while you're back in the hum-drumvee"). Who better to cast as Stark than a guy who himself has turned his life around?
There are three relationships in the movie, but two are critical and effective. Stark and Potts have several great moments, including a potential kiss on a balcony and another where she must perform impromptu surgery on him. It's funny, tender, intense, and perfect. The second involves Bridge's character and he is wonderfully sinister here. I've never seen him play someone this dastardly before, but he nails it. Every comic book movie needs a great villain, and Iron Man has one, thank you very much.
Of course you gotta have action, and director Jon Favreau (Zathura) gives us just enough to keep us happy. Iron Man flies, shoots repulsor beams from his palms, micro-missles from his forearm, and can take out hostage-holding bad guys with one shot. The CGI work really excels, looking realistic enough to suspend our disbelief and keep us in the movie. My only qualm is that while the action is good, it doesn't blow your socks off. Considering how high the bar was set by the rest of the film, I was hoping for more, but didn't really get it. This is just a minor knock on an otherwise excellent movie.
In my book, Iron Man ranks right up there with (but doesn't surpass) the very best of superhero cinema, the first Superman (1978). It's got a unique, well-acted character in Tony Stark, an engaging plot that never feels boring, good relationships, and decent action. It fulfills every requirement of the genre and then some. It sets a very high standard for the rest of the summer, and here's hoping that's a good omen rather than all downhill from here.