The summer movie season arrives with a clang as Iron Man, a second-tier superhero from the mighty Marvel Comics universe, receives a first-rate film adaptation courtesy of director Jon Favreau (Elf, Zathura) and his perfectly-cast leading man, Robert Downey Jr.
A standard origin story, Iron Man stays faithful to its comic-book roots while making necessary upgrades that enhance the characters rich history. Favreau and his screenwriters follow shortcuts instituted by the superior Batman Begins and the inferior Spider-Man. The first half establishes our hero outside of his costume. The second half ramps up the action as it confronts a central villain and lays groundwork for potential sequels.
Iron Man’s true identity is Tony Stark (Downey), the genius son of a renowned weapons manufacturer whose family business, Stark Industries, provides cutting-edge technologies for our military’s defense systems. In the comics, Stark was wounded while attending an armed-forces demonstration in Vietnam. Favreau comments on our current political landscape by shifting his action to Afghanistan, but he keeps the outcome the same. When Stark’s convoy is attacked, he catches a near-fatal chunk of shrapnel with his chest. While detained by terrorists, the inventor builds an armor-plated suit that simultaneously keeps the metal away from his heart as it assists in his escape.
Casting makes or breaks a superhero movie — Christopher Reeve embodied Superman’s hopeful ideals, but Ben Affleck made for a dull Daredevil. Iron Man gets off on the right foot because Downey is Stark. The actor comes equipped with a billionaire’s unchecked self-confidence. And while Downey hedges when conveying the role’s heroics, that uncertainty actually reflects Stark’s own hesitancy embracing his newfound calling.
Only true sadists hope for an actual performance in a superhero movie, and we celebrate whenever we’re rewarded with a Downey, Hugh Jackman, or Christian Bale. Summer crowds crave spectacle, and Iron Man packs enough to satisfy. The highlight is Stark’s sleek suit, a streamlined piece of geek pop art. Imagine the offspring of a Terminator-Transformer love affair and you’re on the right track.
Oscar winners and nominees supplement the special effects. Chrome-domed Jeff Bridges is Obadiah Stane, Stark’s business partner who maintains the company’s focus on advancing weapon technologies. His resemblance to Dick Cheney, both in look and action, can’t be coincidental.
Stark’s pal Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard), a pilot in the United States Air Force, reaps the benefits of Stark’s destructive inventions. Iron Man fans know this character one day dons his own suit of armor as War Machine, and Howard tosses off a clever line that hints at his role in future installments.
Finally, uber-secretary Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) keeps Stark’s extracurricular affairs in order. Paltrow brings the right mix of bravery and vulnerability, though the film’s repeated attempts at forging a love connection with Downey fizzle.
Favreau’s Iron Man doesn’t redefine the genre the way Christopher Nolan’s Batman did, but it’s a solid, well-crafted launch for what should be a lucrative franchise.
The DVD includes two discs of goodies, plenty of deleted scenes on disc one, and a full set of making-of documentaries and featurettes on disc two.
OK, we got it. You’re Iron Man.