Wednesday, April 30, 2008

4 Color Cinema

Iron Man

In today's market, where the superhero has been thoroughly accepted by the masses as a great form of popcorn-munching entertainment, it's become not uncommon -- heck, almost commonplace -- for comic book fans to routinely be able to see the big screen adventures of their favorite 4 Color heroes. Even relatively minor characters like Blade (whose first film, I think, started this whole trend in the first place), Ghost Rider and Elektra have gotten in on the act, albeit not always with glowing success. But, in general, the output of the last decade or so of superhero films has been enjoyable, ranging from diverting entertainment to top-shelf blockbuster. So, when Marvel officially announced production of Iron Man, with an honest-to-God director and script, I was very happy. After all, it was my turn to see my favorite hero on the big screen.

After seeing the result, all I can say is that I should have been even more excited. By all that's holy in the realm of comics, this movie is excellent.

Now, admittedly, I am a little biased, being a dyed-in-the-wool Iron Fan. And admittedly, I was giddy just at the notion of seeing the film last night. But now, a little bit removed, I can sit down and objectively state that Iron Man is one of the best superhero films ever made, right up there with Superman: The Movie, Batman (1989), and X-Men 2 as shining examples of the superhero genre.

Before I go further, I should note that this review will contain minor SPOILERS. Nothing huge, but some general stuff, so you have been forewarned.

The film opens with Tony Stark in Afghanistan for a weapons demonstration, showing off his massively powerful Jericho missile system. Afterwards, his caravan is ambushed, and Tony finds himself a prisoner of an armed insurgent group, trapped in a cave with fellow prisoner Yinsen, who has saved Tony's life jury-rigging a magnet to keep pieces of shrapnel away from his heart. After the warlord demands that Stark build him a Jericho missile, Stark and Yinsen instead build a massive suit of armor, powerful enough to overcome their captors.

Tony eventually makes it back to the States, where having seen the results of his company's weapons, immediately announces that Stark Industries will no longer be in the munitions business. This seriously wrinkles his confidant, Obadiah Stane, a partner of Stark's late father, who manages the day-to-day operations of the company. Meanwhile, Stark, on a forced leave, tinkers in his garage with the armor, improving and expanding it, until he has a fully functional suit, making him capable of going into the world and doing some good for the benefit of all mankind. But such lofty goals never come easily.

One thing which strikes me about the film is it's maturity. The issues that are addressed -- mainly the socio-economic war machine (not War Machine) which profits from the continued existance of violence -- is a step of complexity above "Crime is bad" or "I'm Jesus from space." It's tackled in a pretty fair way, at that; Tony admonishes a reporter by asking her if she ever thought about the major advances in medical and agricultural technology brought about by military funding, but acknowledges that making the world safe is not the same as necessarily producing bigger and better guns. It's a central theme to the character of Iron Man, going back to the early 70s, and one which is brilliantly presented herein.

Helping that presentation is the delivery, and Robert Downey, Jr. owns the role of Tony Stark, billionaire industrialist playboy. He cracks wise, seems to always have a drink in his hand, and seduces women without even really trying (there's a scene on his private jet with Rhodey and some stewardesses which draws equal parts comedy and envy from the male audience). But beneath this grinning, unbuttoned-Armani skin is a conflicted man, one who has had his eyes opened to a painful reality in no small part of his own creation. There is a layered subtlety to Tony Stark which befits the complex nature of his character over the decades of his existance, and Downey delivers the goods.

The rest of the cast acquits themselves nicely as well. As Pepper Potts, I went in with doubts regarding Gweneth Paltrow: too tall, too pretty, too willowy to play the red-haired spitfire. But here I was proved dead wrong, as she brings a "gal Friday" attitude I have never seen from her before the role, really making Tony and Pepper's relationship seem believable. Similarly, Terence Howard's soft spoken Col. James Rhodes is equal parts Tony's conscience and best friend, and instantly credible. There's a scene with the two of them after Tony escapes the cave which nearly had me in tears, such was the strength of the fraternal bond between these men. And in a total throwaway role, director Jon Favreau plays a great Happy Hogan, scowling constantly, but with a familiar banter with Tony that rings true.

Jeff Bridges, nearly unrecognizable at first with his bald head and thick beard, is a different type of baddie than we typically get in such fare: smiling, charming, and slippery, he is not a cackling megalomaniac, but a calculating board room snake, lying right to Tony's face as he smiles at him and offers him a slice of pizza pie from New York. Bubbling beneath the surface is a boiling rage, but it is tempered by his intelligence and patience. And when he puts on his "power suit," he becomes a vision of pure mechanical terror, being equally CGI but utterly more realistic than the Decepticons in last year's Transformers. There's also a couple of little gags involving Stane's love of games and puzzles, a nice nod to the fanboys.

The effects which bring Shellhead and his world to life are breathtaking in their clarity. The armor, a mix of CGI and practical effects, has presence and mass, dominating the screen. But beyond the obvious, even the smaller touches like Stark's operating system and HOMER-esque rapid prototyping program are wonderfully designed, functional without sacrificing the needed sci-fi edge. And I am so happy to see, for once, a technical minded person in a Hollywood movie not using a Mac!

From top to bottom, Iron Man succeeds on all levels. It's exciting, it's funny, it's heart-rending, and even a little heart-warming. The star is magnetic, the action is compelling, and the effects are eye popping. What more could one ask from a superhero movie? Do yourself a favor and see this one. Even if you don't like Iron Man, you'll be glad you did.

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