May 03, 2008
Iron Man (2008)
In the early 60s, writer Stan Lee was assigned to create new superhero stories for Marvel Comics, at a time when a renewed interest in superheroes was on the rise. Together with talented artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, Lee revolutionized the superhero genre with flawed, more human and somewhat realistic characters, that despite having extraordinary powers were still plagued by everyday problems. With this fresh style, Lee and his team created most of Marvel Comics' most famous icons, such as Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and the X-Men, and transformed the company into an industry giant. Ever since 2000, many of the superheroes Lee created for Marvel in the 60s have made the jump to the silver screen, reaching even more audiences than before as some have become successful franchises. In 2008, Iron-Man, another of Lee's projects (developed by Larry Lieber, Kirby and artist Don Heck), joins the list of superhero adaptations in a movie directed by Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. in the lead role.
"Iron Man" is the story of wealthy industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) whom is the head of the biggest developer of weapons in the world. Despite being a genius, Stark is an irresponsible playboy who enjoys a life of excess and leisure, until one day, after demonstrating his new weapons in Afghanistan, he is kidnapped by a terrorist organization who forces him to work for them. During the attack, Stark is wounded by a missile, and while in captivity, he and another captured scientist, Yinsen (Shaun Toub), create a device to save his life. With Yinsen's assistance, Stark takes his technology further and creates a full body armor in order to escape from the terrorists. After returning to the U.S., Stark realizes that just like he has used his genius to create technology used to destroy, he can also use it to protect, so he decides to improve his armor and use it to fight for a good cause. But the Iron-Man won't have it easy.
After spending many years in development, "Iron Man" was finally written by two teams of writers, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby on one side, and Art Marcum and Matt Holloway on the other, with director Favreau combining both. As expected, the movie is basically the story of the origin of Iron Man as a superhero, introducing the main characters, the villains, and the main themes; however, it must be noticed that Favreau remained as faithful to the source as possible while at the same time keeping everything easy to understand to people unfamiliar with the comic book. While hardly an original story, the screenplay is very well balanced, with the obvious emphasis on action scenes but without forgetting to develop the characters. This is specially important in Iron Man, as Tony Stark is not exactly a simple superhero character, as his personality is quite complex and atypical. An example of this is the good dose of black comedy that comes thanks to the character's cynicism.
While he has done two relatively good films in the past, director Jon Favreau is definitely not the person one imagines directing a big budget comic book adaptation like this one, specially when one considers that he is probably better known as an actor than as a director. But against all odds, Favreau makes what's probably one of the most enjoyable superhero movies of the last years, and even when in great measure this is possible thanks to the very solid screenplay and the inspired casting of Downey Jr., it is commendable the way Favreau lets the movie flow without losing control of it. But even when his directing style is hardly original (I would even say it's formulaic), Favreau seems to know how to hit the right notes, and while following the pattern of the superhero film to the letter, he makes a movie that feels all around like fresh and fun retelling of the origin of a classic hero. The realistic style he employs in the film truly helps it to form an identity of its own.
As written above, it is definitely Robert Downey Jr. whom is the main highlight of the film, as his performance as the egocentric genius truly carries the film thanks to Downey's great talent and charm. It is always difficult to have someone who's basically a jerk as main character, but Downey Jr. makes him likable, and maybe most importantly, very realistic, as while naturally Stark begins to change his priorities, he never loses his personalities as he becomes more heroic. As Obadiah Stan, Stark's second-in-command at Stark Industries, Jeff Bridges is simply excellent, creating a very human portrait of the corruption in business from what could had easily been just a two dimensional caricature. Gwyneth Paltrow appears as Pepper Potts, Stark's main assistant, and while not really bad, her performance is not one of her best, although to be fair, her character doesn't receive as much exposure as Stark, and exactly the same could be said of Terrence Howard, who plays Stark's best friend, Jim Rhodes.
The rest of the cast ranges from good to truly excellent (Shaun Toub), making this cast one of the best in recent superhero films. Still, since the focus is completely on Downey Jr. the screen time of the rest of the cast is pretty short, and there are couple of characters whom may seem pointless (Leslie Bibb's character for example). However, this is not completely a bad thing, as it allows the audience to know the heroic industrialist more and, like any good origins story, it introduces the world of the film. The problem of this is that the film feels pretty formulaic at several parts of the film, as it includes every typical scene from this kind of stories; but as written above, Favreau makes those clichés work by giving them a slight spin using Stark's irresponsible personality. Finally, I must say that the special effects team did an excellent job at combining practical effects with digital ones, as sometimes the mix is imperceptible, making it one of the best looking films of 2008.
"Iron Man" may not exactly be a deep, thought provoking film, but it must be said that Favreau makes the film rise above other similar superhero films despite its problems. Sure, at its core this is nothing more than a tale of action and adventure meant to be entertaining (and it truly delivers), but Favreau makes not only an enjoyably thrilling ride out of it, but also an intelligent one, as despite being based on science fiction, the whole thing never feels like too much of a fantasy. It is pretty obvious that sequels will be made (naturally, the movie hints this quite explicitly too), but if they manage to be at least as good and entertaining as this one, I'm sure will have an excellent series of movies, probably even better than the "Spider-Man" ones. It may not be original, but it's pretty good.