The last thing you’d think the world needs is another comic book movie franchise, and yet Jon Favreau’s Iron Man breathes fresh air into an otherwise stale summer blockbuster season. It has all the staples of a big summer hit (star power; grade A special effects; built in rock anthem) but it does feel, even if only in the tiniest way, that something like the comic book genre in large part has been rethought, and not a moment too soon.
The summer of 2007, the most successful on record, was riddled with sequels that helped solidify the studios’ ridiculous haul to the bank. The powers that be knew there would be only one way to come close to making ludicrous amounts of money this summer with nary a threequel in sight: go back to the drawing board and start up great new franchises. Iron Man is the first taste we have of this new season of grass-roots heroism, and it is a scorcher of a first look.
Let’s start with the on-again-off-again star of the pic, Robert Downey Jr. After laying low as a leading man for some time, he comes back to center stage with the full package of sexy stardom oozing off his brow. As is becoming the growing trend (see I Am Legend, Michael Clayton et al), gone is the youthful wide-eyed optimist weighing his decision to utilize ephemeral powers for the sake of the common good. Instead, Mr. Downey Jr. endows Tony Stark, the wunderkind of modern weaponry, with a liquored up bravado, an unapologetic complacency and ancillary understanding of the finer things in life (when asked if he’d buy an overpriced Jackson Pollack painting, he responds “I need it. Buy it. Store it.”). In other words, long ago, Mr. Stark found a way to fend off Jiminy Cricket and he has never looked back, which is what makes his story so compelling. Rather than watching the staid making of a hero, we actually witness the un-making of an anti-hero.
After his convoy in Afghanistan is hit by weapons his own company created, Mr. Stark is saved by fellow solder-iron geek and “Taliban” prisoner, Yansin, whose quick fix for shrapnel embedded in Tony’s bloodstream leaves our protagonist with a battery powered electromagnet in his chest. Forced to builld his latest weapon for a fill-in-the-blank Arab terrorist group, Stark sets to work on a suit of armor, powered by a generator he invented to run his heart. Far-fetched, yes, but when you’re in the moment it feels real enough. The rest should be obvious to any film goer: boy escapes, boy finds purpose in life, boy builds most powerful flight suit in the world, boy finds girl to equal out the harsh emotional whiplash a hero has to live with.
Gwyneth Paltrow provides a little bit of romance for our confused hero. As his adorably named assistant, Pepper Potts, she has spent much of her career as his personal assistant. Only after his return from Afghanistan does their relationship become extra personal. Ms. Paltrow doesn’t wear bitchy-organized-sweet redhead so well, but she is serviceable as the balancing factor in Stark’s life, even if the two lack the chemistry of his light-poweredÂ arc-engine chest.
Adding to the mix is the “Bic”-ed Jeff Bridges, whose Obadiah Stain is all the more formidable for his Grizzly Adams charm. Though I would have preferred to delve deeper into this father-figure-cum-villain, his ability to keep this character flowing from evil to friendly and back again makes him feel so damn scary. We know that he will stop at nothing to get his way, which is, uhhh, to have tons of money? To clear this up, Obadiah is double dealing Stark weapons to enemies of the U.S. A committed war profiteer and Machiavelli wannabe, he believes that the more he can keep the balance of death and destruction across the planet, the more people will be buying his weaponry.
Save for Charlie Wilson’s War, this is one of the only films that intellectualizes the current state of the world and actually gets people to the theaters to see it. Like Mike Nichols’ Christmas hit, Iron Man shows the ravages of war on the common man in the third world. This is not just a hero who will save the buxom babe at a bank robbery or little timmy from an oncoming subway; Mr. Stark finds himself compelled to actually stop terrorists where they live in an effort to stem the illegal arms sales his company has been comitting. While it never loses it’s flair for the tongue-in-cheek while travesing the mountainous Afghani deserts, the film provides to fairly gut-wrenching scenes of terrorism at work. As with Obadiah, our villainous Arab baddies are underdeveloped in their thirst for blood. Their leader, a younger, shinier, clean-shaven answer to Osama bin Laden, speaks english as though he were educated at Cambridge and has the wit to back it up, but his motivation to kill is never quite clear. No matter really, for it is not his story.
Mr. Favreau has come a long way since he directed the family hit Elf. He has hit a groove with this blockbuster, and audiences have opened their checkbooks to thank him. It stays true to comic lore without delving too deep into the emotional abyss of its characters’ souls a la Ang Lee’s Hulk. A great way to start off the summer of 2008…it’s going to be a doozy!