An Iron-clad start to blockbuster season

by Glen Baity

If you caught a whiff of the last few films adapted from Marvel Comics, you’d be forgiven for thinking the company was scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Elektra? Ghost Rider? The Silver Surfer? Every character has its fan base, I guess, but none of those people/demons/galactic heralds really has the real-world relatability of Peter Parker. Accordingly, the film versions of these C-listers have been, if we’re being generous, instantly forgettable. Even X-men and Spider-man, at least on celluloid, have lost most of their original magic as they’ve trudged through their respective three-quels.

In Iron Man, however, we have something special, a new read on a classic character that feels, at its best moments, every bit as good as the most enduring superhero movies.

The film is great, not just because Iron Man is a great character, but because director John Favreau has taken great care in building his legend. For the purposes of the film, it goes like this: Billionaire arms dealer Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has a crisis of conscience when he learns firsthand that his company’s weapons are being used against US troops in Afghanistan. Undercutting his business associates and shareholders, he mounts a public crusade against illegal weapons trafficking. In private, he builds a hot-rod colored suit of armor, which he intends to use to destroy the stockpile of the Taliban-like terrorist organization.

It has to be said that casting Downey in the lead was a stroke of genius. Stark is a lonely guy with a drinking problem (though this aspect of his character is underplayed in the film), but he’s also a fundamentally decent person who has a wit to match his ego. That last point is crucial to the script, which is whip-smart even when the story takes some missteps in the second half. Downey frequently gets the best lines, and his delivery is perfect every time, but he also captures the sadness and restrained warmth in his character. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that his own personal struggles have given him an insight into Stark that another actor might not have.

He has a strong supporting cast in Terrence Howard, his flyboy best friend; Gwyneth Paltrow, his personal assistant who is equal parts big sister and reluctant love interest; and Jeff Bridges, his fellow executive with designs on the Stark throne.

The film only falters when its conflicts start coming to a boil. Without saying too much, there are a few showdowns here that reek of shoddy staging, and at least one character who is obviously meant for a dramatic death from his first moments onscreen.

Despite all that, it should be noted that Iron Man has some really fantastic action sequences, among the best in any superhero movie I can recall. But the beauty here is in the set-up, and how Favreau relishes the process by which a vainglorious billionaire becomes a masked crime fighter. In this, the director’s instincts are dead-on. What made the first two Spider-man and X-men films so great were the little moments Sam Raimi and Bryan Singer gave the audience, like Peter Parker eating a piece of cake with his landlord’s daughter, or a young Iceman “coming out” about his mutant powers to his parents, only two of a number of quiet scenes designed to give giant personalities some garden-variety humanity.

Favreau accomplishes the same feat by showing the lengthy process of building the Iron Man suits (Stark builds the first, a steampunk wrecking ball that is awesome to behold, to escape from captivity in Afghanistan). In fact, most of the film unfolds while Iron Man is being constructed, and until ­- mild spoiler alert – Bridges emerges as the too-obvious Iago character, it’s a pitch perfect superhero movie, at turns hilarious and nostalgic in all the right places.

Even when it trends toward the conventional, Iron Man is a cut above, thanks largely to Downey’s excellent performance. The last time character and actor were paired this well in a blockbuster, audiences got Jack Sparrow out of the deal. If they give Iron Man the attention it deserves, Downey just might a little more time in the suit, which is as close to a sure bet as a summer movie can get.

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