Entertaining origin story proves heroes are built, not born
By Devin D. O’Leary
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-message-board-trolling fanboy with a DSL connection, tend to denounce these “first in the trilogy” films as a necessary evil. Since so much time must be spent on backstory and character-building, there's not much left for what people came to the theater for in the first place: bulging dudes in Spandex beating the crud out of sneering villains over a CGI recreation of the New York City skyline. All you can do is hope the film performs well enough at the box office that somebody greenlights a second one and you get your recommended daily allowance of superhero action. (See for reference: Spider-Man 2, X2: X-Men United, etc.)
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.
With ripped-from-the-headlines expediency, the film updates Marvel’s Korean War-set tale, thrusting it right into the modern era. Tony Stark (played here by wild card Robert Downey Jr.) is a notorious military contractor, a technical genius with a weakness for booze and women. Shipped over to Afghanistan to demonstrate his newest missile system, Stark soon finds himself kidnapped by a group of terrorists who have made quite a living sponging off the war profiteer’s high-tech, death-dealing largesse. Gravely wounded and forced to build a weapons system from scratch, Stark rebels against his kidnappers and creates a hulking suit of armor that he uses to dispatch the baddies.
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.
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