We were weeks late coming to the party and completely unable to get away from the hype in the media, but it didn't matter. Because when the Missus and I finally took our seats and saw IRON MAN, it was like I hadn't read a single review, hadn't seen a single commercial or trailer. Combining the big bang of summer spectacle with snappy dialog and terrific acting, IRON MAN manages to somehow be all things to all people: a fanboy's delight, a delicious serving of eye candy for the ladies, and most importantly (especially after the dearth of quality last year) a truly good summer film.
The Internet's strewn with hundreds of professional and amateur reviews, analysis, and theories as to what makes IRON MAN so great, and the vast majority seem to settle on two major points: the casting and performance of Robert Downey jr. and the inspired choice of Jon Favreau for the director's chair. Downey jr. brings a sense of his own history to the project as Tony Stark, the billionaire genius weapons manufacturer who is violently abducted by terrorists and forced to build a new super missile he was developing for the Army. Forced to confront the fact that his decisions in life have not only brought this situation upon himself, but that the very destruction going on in the world is made possible by his "contributions" to society, Stark's decision to become a superhero feels for the first time in a "superhero" movie earned. I love BATMAN BEGINS, and I love Christian Bale's performance, but where I think IRON MAN wins out (barely) is its ability to have you completely understand Stark's motivations and drive to turn from one life to another. Much of this success is attributable to Downey jr.'s performance - you get all the quirks, humor, and physicality that he's embodied in his best performances (CHAPLIN, KISS KISS BANG BANG, LESS THAN ZERO) but behind that lies the experiences of the first act of the movie, and the revelations that drive him to do what he now must do.
The rest of the cast succeeds in much the same way - instead of A-list celebrities you get consummate actors who can dive into their roles. After being slightly surprised at how high Terence Howard's voice was, his support role as Jim "Rhodey" Rhodes doesn't try to steal scenes or play a bigger part than it needs to - it's the very definition of support, and plays well for an inevitably larger role in the sequel. Jeff Bridges is always great - he gets my vote for best fictional President (in THE CONTENDER). His is another functional part, and he plays it with relish, never quite going over the line. You have no doubt as to where his path will eventually go, but when it does it still manages to surprise and bring some substance rather than typical scenery chewing. And color me crazy, but this has been the best thing I've seen Gwenneth Paltrow do in forever. The chemistry between Pepper Potts and Tony is ridiculously palpable, and their banter and relationship feels like it's been going on for years. The choices made as to what's seen on screen and what's implied work wonderfully, and you hav to feel that had this been handled by lesser hands, we would have had a much less believeable romance.
So let's talk about those hands. Despite having his biggest directing success with Wil Ferrel and ELF, my fondest image of Favreau's directing work is the robot attack in the underrated ZATHURA. In that one sequence all doubts and issues about how he could handle a film like this should have been put aside. He's got the character cred from movies like SWINGERS and MADE, and has consistently gone on record about preferring to go practical over CGI as much as possible so long as it serves the film. It's these choices that make the effects in IRON MAN so great, and also what make those effects and sequences blend so nicely with the character-driven moments.
And when he does pull out all the stops and let the action do the talking, it's breath taking. The scenes of Tony Stark perfecting his MKII suit are hilarious until the moment the suit stands ready and visible for the first time, and everyone on the audience gasps. It's incredible, and one of my favorite moments in the movie. But it still pales to the first time we see the suit with its familiar paint job. Iron Man lands in the middle of a village where the people are in the process of being victimized by the very terrorists who originally abducted Tony. Iron Man's landing, and subsequent rising up for the fist time as a hero is one of the best comic book movie images since Christopher Reeve flew onto the scene in that red cape.
This appears to be the Summer of the Superhero (THE INCREDIBLE HULK, THE DARK KNIGHT, HELLBOY II and WANTED all come out in the next few months), and the first time Marvel has taken the reins on its properties. IRON MAN proves to be a pretty high benchmark for the others to reach - let's hope they get there.