Entertaining origin story proves heroes are built, not born
Directed by Jon Favreau
Cast: Robert Downey Jr. Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard
The problem with introducing moviegoing audiences to a new superhero franchise (something you can expect to be subjected to once or twice every summer for the foreseeable future) is that filmmakers are obliged to spend the first outing recounting the age-old “origin” myth. This introductory tale serves to inform viewers how our chosen hero became so damn super in the first place, and why he (or, in rare cases, she) felt obliged to pull on a pair of latex-enhanced tights and fight crime. Bruce Wayne watched his parents get killed, Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider, Bruce Banner built some big nuclear doohickey ... and so on. Detractors of the genre, and even the occasional imdb.com-
This misguided theory assumes, of course, that all comic books have to offer are fight scenes and lots of them. Heresy! As any True Believer knows, those four-color, staple-bound bastions of modern mythology are rich in drama, humor, pathos, character, morality and—yes—lots of epic, earth-shattering, “TWAKABOOM!”-filled fight scenes.
To give credit where credit is due, the makers of the first feature film adaptation of Marvel Comics’ venerable title Iron Man seem to understand this pretty darn well. The film doesn’t treat Tony Stark’s transformation into the Invincible Iron Man as the sermon before the soup. It respects the story as the same classic piece of American folklore it was when Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck and Jack Kirby dreamed it up back in 1963.
In this era of Green Zones, no-bid Halliburton contracts and a $70 billion war budget, it’s impossible not to steer Iron Man into semi-political territory. Following a major change of heart (literal and figurative), our man Stark decides it’s time to ditch his company’s long tradition of weapons-building and embark on more peaceful pursuits. This doesn’t sit so well with his military contact (Terrence Howard) or his business partner (Jeff Bridges), both of whom have a lot invested in Stark’s combative creations.
Audience members who did come looking for action can rest assured in the fact that circumstances will soon force Mr. Stark to upgrade his metallic creation and kick some sort of villainous booty. The action scenes, however, are confined to a trio of set-pieces (Stark’s skin-of-his-teeth escape from terrorists, a midpoint game of tag with a couple F-15 fighter jets and the expected WWE-inspired climax), leaving the rest of the film to flesh out its characters, throw in a little intrigue and tell a few jokes.
In fact, Iron Man displays a surprisingly sizable amount of humor, thanks mostly to Downey’s riotous millionaire playboy act. If Downey didn’t ad-lib a lot on set, it’s at least to his credit that his dialogue feels so off-the-cuff real. A flirty relationship with his gal Friday (Gwyneth Paltrow, another refreshing casting choice) ads one more layer of lightweight fun to the proceedings. Occasionally, the script does gets a bit flippant, but director Jon Favreau (Elf, Zathura: A Space Adventure) manages to keep things centered by focusing on the grounded performances and seamless special effects.
If you crave action over story, Iron Man is no Transformers. But if you like superheroes for who they are--not necessarily how much real estate they can blow up in 90 minutes--Iron Man makes for a heroic start to the summer movie season.