Iron Man (2008)

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) prepares to be a superhero, and hopes that someday he'll costar with a Hulk. "Iron Man."

Directed  by Jon Favreau. Screenplay by Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum & Matt Holloway; based upon characters created by Stan Lee, Don Heck, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby and published in Marvel Comics. Produced by Avi Arad, Kevin Feige. Music by Ramin Djawadi. Photographed by Matthew Libatique. Edited by Dan Lebental. Production designed by J. Michael Riva. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, Leslie Bibb, Shaun Toub, Faran Tahir, Clark Gregg.

On the list of superhero movies that catalogs everything from 1978’s Superman to the present, Iron Man ranks pretty high. It’s a daunting list of movies, ranging from the brilliant (The Dark Knight), to the decent (The Phantom) to the downright lousy (Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Elektra, Green Lantern, et al), but Iron Man surpasses the lower grades and sits comfortably in the highest echelon, alongside not just The Dark Knight and Superman, but Spider-Man 2, The Incredibles, and other rare examples. That isn’t just due to impressive production values or perfect  casting, but also solid craftsmanship that follows larger principles than what’s going to excite a Friday night action audience. Atypical for a Hollywood blockbuster action film, Iron Man has moments of contemplation, and even has things it gently wants to say.

In fact, Iron Man is surprisingly low on action sequences, favoring instead scenes of dialogue and interaction. That’s good, because we come to care about the characters so that when the film lands on a setpiece, we’re ready for it. And it might very well be an unconscious reaction to where an audience is coming from in regards to Iron Man. He lacks the iconic quality of Superman, the film noir grit of Batman, or the broad coming-of-age appeal of Spider-Man. As a general audience who is presumably not familiar with the comic book, we have to be sold on him. Most superhero origin films hurry past the formative moments and into the action, but Iron Man stops for a lengthy sequence where Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) is imprisoned by Afghanistan terrorists and must use his smarts to escape. And later, he molds himself into Iron Man carefully, over time, in sequences that engage in delight and discovery.

Iron Man is a character from Marvel comics—we know that because he is troubled, lives in a real-life city, and because his altar ego as Tony Stark pretty much overpowers the character of Iron Man. That isn’t a criticism, but is instead an attempt to note how different superhero brands tell their stories. In DC Comics, the human characters are filtered through the prism of their superheroics- Clark Kent is Superman first, mild mannered reporter second. Batman’s identity as Bruce Wayne is subservient to his true role as the Dark Knight, and similar fates befall The Flash, Green Lantern, etc. In Marvel’s world, the personalities are more complex. And the superpowers are less of a gift and more a burden, because they’re consistent reminders of the characters’ faults: Spider-Man is a rebuke to the weaknesses of Peter Parker, The Hulk is unleashed when Bruce Banner is angry, and the X-Men are split between camps because some use their powers for good and others for evil.

Iron Man is cut from the same cloth. Tony Stark, CEO of a major weapons firm, is amoral and flippant, and the movie steps confidently through early passages that explore just how damn fun it would be to be a billionaire with a gorgeous Malibu house, dozens of cars, an artificially intelligent butler, and the charisma to get any woman he wants to share his bed. But when he’s captured by a group of rebels in the desert mountains of Afghanistan and asked to build a weapon out of spare Stark Technologies equipment, Stark digs deep underneath himself and discovers (a) that there’s an underneath after all and (b) it contains a conscience. So he engineers an escape by rigging those spare parts into a suit of armor—becoming, yes, an Iron Man.

There are complications – a nasty piece of Stark technology has left shrapnel embedded in his chest, and the only thing that keeps them from burrowing into his heart is the consistent activity of a mini-electromagnet, the wunderkind Stark’s own personal design. Fair enough in the deplorable conditions of captivity, but why does he refuse medical attention when he comes home, opting instead to fine tune his invention that barely keeps him alive? I think because the shrapnel is his perverse badge of honor: a memento of the damage he’s done as a weapons manufacturer, and would rather force himself to live on the edge then let health push him back into complacency. Like a recovering alcoholic (which Stark also is, minus the “recovering” part), he fears a relapse that would turn him back into the man he was.

So instead he builds himself into man he wants to be, refining his prototype into a crimson-and-gold supersuit that is so loaded with defensive weaponry that I could be the ultimate deterrent.  He flies into action as Iron Man, but not before learning to use the controls and his armor in concert together, in scenes that capture the joy of someone inventing something in his basement that could be truly amazing, with just the right level of care. Eventually, he fights some villains, including the nefarious Obediah Stane (Jeff Bridges), but they’re not really important—which might explain why a concluding battle feels kinda perfunctory. Despite the ideological differences between Stane and Stark that are made manifest by combat, the picture is mostly about Tony Stark becoming Iron Man: not since Richard Donner’s original Superman has a comic book movie so enthusiastically thrown its focus to the sheer pleasures of its title character—a gutsy move, since most of the time these films are marketed entirely upon who the super villain is.

That’s all what makes Iron Man good. What makes it terrific is its cast, starting with Robert Downey Jr. It’s hard to remember now that there was once a serious time in Downey’s life (1996-2001, after over a decade of early acclaim) when he was geared to lose big: not just movie roles, but his life, thanks to drug addiction. But after rehab he slowly started to build an impressive resume with small parts in interesting films: Good Night and Good Luck, A Scanner Darkly, etc. Then he moved closer to the fore with the delightful comedy of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and his depressed newspaper reporter in David Fincher’s brilliant Zodiac. He was primed for a comeback, and Iron Man was it.

To see Downey in the role is to love Downey in the role. He’s a perfect fit; in much the same way that Christopher Reeve is Superman, Robert Downey Jr. is Tony Stark. Glib, sarcastic, quick, Downey is highly entertaining as the playboy turned do-gooder Stark, possessing the dry brilliance that would befit a genius inventor. His zingers feel unrehearsed and real, especially in the way they jimmy in between the straight-men supporting players. We’re even charmed by Stark’s initial apathy and avarice, because Tony Stark, despite his faults, would never be a boring dinner guest. So strong is Stark’s presence that even if this movie ended up not being about a superhero, we wouldn’t really mind: a rare measure of richness in a blockbuster.

And when Stark finally develops empathy and remorse, it feels genuine, coming from a wounded place, and very likely informed by Downey’s humbling stint in rehab (in the same way that his history with drugs provides an all-too-recognizable subtext to the early scenes of hedonistic excess and arrogance). There’s even a nod to that history, when Pepper bursts in on Tony struggling in the Iron Man suit. Tony: “Let’s face it, this is not the worst thing you’ve ever caught me doing.” His ongoing conversation with others drive the deeper underpinnings of Iron Man— not just the arguments with Stane and the burgeoning relationship with Pepper, but with his fellow captive Yinsen (Shaun Toub). The two prisoners share a bond tinged with loss and regret, and Yinsen’s ultimate exit from the picture is sentimental without being mawkish.

And yet, all that subtext and sweet stuff never really get in the way, either: the one thing I love most about Iron Man is how funny—and fun—it is. Not just Downey’s lines (which are uniformly great), but the way he bounces off the supporting players—there’s one key scene between Tony and his assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), in which he talks through a little minor surgery, that is downright hilarious—in a perverse and cute way. The movie even resorts to a little slapstick every once in a while, and the film is so in command of its tone that it actually works.

Paltrow is an actress who does little for me, typically. But I’ll confess she is deeply charming here: a freckled Girl Friday for Stark; independent but also suitable as a traditional love interest, and the two have an easy rapport. One of my favorite things about the way the movie handles their relationship is the way it gradually works its way up to the implication of romance, and in fact no other superhero movies has had the guts to make its love story as understated as it is here: instead of depicting two people falling in love, Iron Man shows Pepper and Tony realizing that—hey, maybe, sorta—they could fall in love, someday, if they worked at it a little bit. A major theme of the Iron Man mythos is that of a powerful man learning selflessness, and the subdued romance becomes part of that effect, because Stark learns to respect and care for Pepper far too much to reduce her into an object. It’s a little touching, in fact. The rest of the cast is very good, as well, especially Bridges’ Obediah Stane: he is a believable corporate weasel who hides his flaws in plain sight—he never wears a label that says “I’m the villain,” that’s just the way things turn out.

Iron Man is, of course, the first piece of a larger puzzle, one that has extended from 2008 until May 4, which is when Marvel releases The Avengers. It’s never been done before. To make five movies that are a part of a single universe about unrelated characters, culminating with a showcase for all of them in one movie? Highly ambitious. Also threatening, because each movie falls under the danger of being more about setup than being a movie. I think that malady is true of Iron Man’s sequel, and to an extent the other films in the lineup (The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America). But Iron Man captures a perfect balance in telling a self-contained story that gives nods to a larger continuity, like when Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) flashes a card for the “Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division.” “You gotta get a better name of that,” deadpans Stark. Coulson: “We’re working on it.” Fun, and not intrusive.

The Marvel movies have always had a good line in choosing the right director for the right project. Well, perhaps not Barbershop director Tim Story for Fantastic Four, but look at their roster. Sam Raimi for the quirky Spider-Man? Of course! Bryan Singer and Matthew Vaughn for the moody pop heroism of X-Men? Yes! Kenneth Branagh to harness the Shakespearean dimensions of Thor, the thunder god? Naturally. Joe “Rocketeer” Johnston to bring us the period origin of Captain America? Absolutely. Joss Whedon for handling the ensemble that is The Avengers?  Brilliant. Iron Man and its sequel were directed by Jon Favreau, who made Elf and Zathura (and also entered Hollywood as an actor co-starring in Swingers). This film is not his directorial debut, but is definitely more expansive than his previous ones, and here he delights in what he’s been given, like a kid handed a new toybox stuffed with goodies. He shows a director’s love and control with the material, favoring shots that do several things at once instead of frames that are edited to the millisecond, like some of his contemporaries. There’s craft here.

And there’s a bit of substance, too. Stark’s ultimate move to turn his weapons corporation into a twisted olive branch may not be a million miles removed from the hippie-dippy motivations that propelled Superman IV (the one where Supes throws all nuclear missles into the sun, while everyone at the UN cheers, because nukes are bad!). But it feels more tortured here, and more understandable given Stark’s descent into confronting his own demons and hypocricy. I think there’s even room to disagree with Stark’s intentions while liking him as a hero. Say what you will about Tony Stark, the person, but isn’t it just plain interesting to see a superhero who has serious problems, likes a good scotch, and ultimately wants to fix the world through disarmament?

Of course, not everyone thinks that’s a smart idea. And thank goodness, folks. Because we have a lot of sequels and spin-offs to make.

GRADE: B+

NOTES/AVENGERS CONNECTIONS: First appearances of Tony Stark, Iron Man, Pepper Potts, Agent Coulson, S.H.I.E.L.D. Samuel L. Jackson shows up in the end as Nick Fury, who wants to enlist Tony Stark for “The Avengers Initiative.”

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