The 2008 summer movie season might as well be dubbed the Summer of Superheroes. Several of this year's flicks are based on or inspired by comic books and cartoon characters, all releasing within weeks of each other, beginning with Iron Man. He's a classic that dates back to 1963, nearly as old as Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, yet this is the first attempt to bring ole Shell Head—one of my all-time favorites—to the big screen.
What makes Iron Man so special? Much like Batman, he doesn't really have any mutant superpowers or radioactive accidents to speak of. Tony Stark is a middle-aged, self-made hero with nothing more than his brilliant mind and seemingly endless wealth to combat evil. Part Howard Hughes, part James Bond, his stories offer complex themes of psychological scars and atonement as Stark wrestles with character flaws and personal demons to become a better man. And as a billionaire weapons industrialist, the Iron Man series offers a timely subject concerning capitalism and the ethical use of weapons to keep the peace.
Ah, who am I kidding? It's the armor.
Iron Man has got to be the sleekest looking superhero ever—the stylish sports car of the Marvel Comics universe, with as many gadgets as a walking, cybernetic Swiss Army knife. When he first appears on screen in his trademark red-and-gold suit, the 10-year-old boy in me was thrilled to see his hero come to life. As both a fan and a critic, I'm happy to say that actor-turned-director Jon Favreau (Elf, Zathura) adapts the story into a successful film—one that translates well to our present world climate.
Robert Downey Jr. plays Stark, the wealthy inventor in charge of Stark Industries, a weapons development corporation started by his late father that earns billions through contracts with the U.S. military. Though a brilliant mind and an international celebrity with a suave personality and handsome looks, Stark is also a reckless playboy with a reputation for boozing and womanizing. He has no surviving family, no stable relationships, no passionate causes beyond his own selfish ambition. As one character in the film puts it, Stark is a man with everything and yet nothing.
Indeed, Stark nearly loses it all on a fateful trip to Afghanistan (Vietnam in the original comic) for a military demonstration. When his convoy is attacked by terrorists, Stark is mortally wounded from the blast of one of his own rockets. The terrorists take him prisoner, and a fellow captive scientist saves his life with a makeshift electromagnetic implant that keeps the deeply embedded shrapnel from destroying his heart.
Stark witnesses the lives destroyed by weapons of his own creation after they fall into the hands of evil men. Moreover, the leader of the terrorists wants Stark to build the same missile that he designed for the American military. Instead, Stark turns the tables on his captors by designing a new miniature power source that stabilizes his heart while also fueling a suit of armor that helps him break free. (Take that, MacGyver.)
His eyes opened, Stark returns to America and announces plans to shut down his company's weapons division with intentions of finding peaceable alternatives for his technological advances. The noble-but-hasty decision doesn't go over well with the board of directors or Stark's number two head honcho, Obadiah Stane (a much older-looking Jeff Bridges). Corporate unrest grows as Stark secludes himself in his lab to design an improved version of his armor, in an effort to better serve mankind while also combating those who misuse weapons.
Downey absolutely owns this role. He's pitch perfect as Stark, though he infuses the character with more hipster personality and comedic one-liners than there ever were in the comics. That actually helps keep him from becoming a stoic bore on the screen. Stark may be a flawed hero, but he's still likeable and charming enough to root for. Downey also looks the part, from the stylish suits to the neatly trimmed goatee.
He's also good at playing the rich brat. He begins with irresponsible, bad-boy swagger, only to become more serious and heroic after his life is shaken to the core—you truly believe that Stark has returned from Afghanistan a new man. (And since future films will inevitably deal with Stark's infamous battle with alcoholism, Downey makes an interesting choice, having overcome addictions of his own.)
Downey's not the only inspired casting. Bridges is both business-friendly and coldly corporate in a part that might have seemed more appropriate for someone like Ian McKellen or Patrick Stewart. It's also nice to see Gwyneth Paltrow return to the screen in a relatively small role as Stark's personal assistant and potential romantic interest, Pepper Potts—sort of a younger Moneypenny to Stark's Bond. If anyone feels a little out of place, it's Terrence Howard as Stark's friend and military liaison Jim Rhodes. He seems too wet-behind-the-ears in an underutilized part, though anyone familiar with the character knows how important Rhodey will become in future Iron Man films.
The strongest co-star to Downey's performance is ILM's special effects, which include both CGI and practical versions of the power armor. Iron Man is like a combination of Robocop and Disney's Rocketeer, with thunderous mechanized footsteps, an arsenal of hidden weapons, and a thrilling chase sequence involving a pair of jet fighters. Stark's lab is also neatly tricked out with a cool holographic interface for his technological designs, as well as some robotic arms that assist him in his work with just enough personality in their movements to recall R2D2 (or this General Motors ad). This film is nearly as funny as it is exciting.
Unfortunately, the movie's storytelling is imperfect. A flashback sequence at the beginning seems unnecessary, and since it takes a while to design the final Iron Man suit, we never get quite enough action scenes beyond what we've seen in the commercials. Also, the film's big finale feels more like a requisite mano y mano showdown that never lives up to everything preceding it. And origin stories are a lot like pilot episodes on TV—they're often the weakest entry in the series (with the probable exception of Batman Begins and its mythic scope).
Spider-Man's tale of teen angst and insecurity carries a lot of heart and romance. The X-Men are young outsiders looking for acceptance. None of us are billionaire geniuses and CEOs, and I suppose Iron Man seems colder and less relatable on the surface, but that's partly the point. Underneath the emotionless exterior is a man with a beating heart. Strip away the layers of toys and gadgetry, and there's a hero who learns the hard way to do the right thing.
Iron Man works very well as a film and makes an overall strong entry in the superhero genre—one that'll likely play well with kids, but even better with adults. He's a grown-up's superhero, saving the world not from mutated super-villains or space aliens, but global terrorists and corporate greed. In this way, Iron Man plays closer to Batman Begins than Spider-Man or X-Men—a reformed egotist who bears the scars from his self-absorbed mistakes, changing his life by seeking to do the right thing in the world around him.
Oh, and that power armor's pretty cool too.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- Tony Stark starts off justifying the need for weapons to keep the peace in the world. Is there truth to what he's saying? Would America have been better off if it had never developed the atomic bomb? Are weapons ever justified, and if so, to what extent?
- Iron Man never politicizes its story, but it does open up a moral discussion about America's present role as world superpower. When is the United States justified to take action in world affairs, and when must the country remain neutral? Does it all come down to saving lives, or is it more complicated?
- One character describes Stark as a man who has everything and yet nothing. What does he mean? How is Stark's legacy relevant to Matthew 16:25-27?
- We see Stark experience a change of heart, literally and figuratively. Why do you believe he changes his business philosophy and overall worldview? Is it because he faced his own mortality? Because he witnesses injustice firsthand? Something more? In what ways have experiences shaken your own personal convictions more than words?
- As Iron Man, is Stark merely using violence to fight violence—"an eye for an eye"? Is he a vigilante enforcing justice by taking matters into his own hands, or is he justified in seeking redemption and righting his past wrongs?
- Would you say Stark becomes a totally changed man after his experience? How has he changed for the better? If he's still a work in progress, in what ways does he still show a need for growth and responsibility?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Iron Man is rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and brief suggestive content. Though there's some profanity in the film, it's relatively light and kept to a minimum. The suggestive content refers to some mild innuendo and a brief scene of Tony Stark enjoying (clothed) foreplay with a reporter. The violence is appropriately comic book action, with very little blood. Some people are shot, but it's usually off-screen. And there are some ooky moments involving the hole in Stark's chest, but nothing bloody or graphic; the movie rightfully compares it to the game Operation. Also, Stark and other characters are seen drinking throughout the film, which is something that will play a more prominent role in future films with serious consequences.
Photos © Copyright Marvel Entertainment/Paramount Pictures
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