Free of issues, ‘Iron Man’
rockets past superhero pack

“Iron Man” is a triumph of what can happen when a guy gets his priorities straight. For once we’ve got a superhero movie where the hero doesn’t have any issues, which is an odd thing to say about Robert Downey Jr.

Downey takes Tony Stark to the highest level any of these characters can be played and makes the recent superhero star turns by Tobey Maguire and Ben Affleck seem entirely mediocre (which they certainly were). Downey saves the script with the steady hand of Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark’s assistant, Pepper Potts. Together they’re significantly more compelling than Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, but don’t tell anyone, because when these franchises run dry in a few years the heroes will start being paired together in the same films.

The fact that Iron Man has no clear motivation and no real enemies doesn’t matter. Stark is appealing on a couple of levels. This is not a typical tormented hero forcing us to slog through his personal demons, an angle that works far better in the original comic books than on the big screen. Stark is happy-go-lucky, using brains to solve his problems, a MacGyver without the mullet. His personal enlightenment progresses more smoothly than many fine dramas. The time he spends in his various labs is fascinating. He’s got serious things to figure, and he has a blast doing it.

“Iron Man” has a distinct advantage over many other recent efforts of the superhero genre. It is not such a well-known story that the hero’s origins and powers must be totally faithful to the comic. The character must be named Tony Stark, he must have a heart condition, and he must appear in a red and gold costume. Anything beyond that does not need to be “true,” just good.

It’s hard to recall the character’s comic book origin, but it couldn’t have been set in the movie’s choice, Afghanistan. The attempt at modern relevance works early when Stark’s predicament is very clear and compelling (and a prisoner friend adds greatly to the drama). Then, the plot begins to explode quicker than boxes of Stark ammunition. Those suggesting that the film is a subtle critique at the White House should note that the Afghan factions are depicted extremely vaguely, probably so no one assumes the film is taking any sides, and that the action is set in the country of the U.N.-approved conflict rather than in a more dubious (and well-known) Middle Eastern war zone.

Director Jon Favreau, whose face is familiar in many other movies, seems to be feeling his way a bit with the special effects but knows where the real drama is. He does make the mistake of most other superhero film franchises by cramming an origin story with an action story, where the costumed hero’s action scenes and the quiet civilian’s personal drama fight for screen time with no clear winner. It’s usually true that a better approach with the first movie is to skip the origin, just do the mature hero and his villain(s) (think “Superman II,” which should’ve been “Superman I”), then in the second movie go back and give the origin a full two hours and barely see the hero.

In “Iron Man” the advantage is that civilian and alter ego are equally compelling, but the cramming problem still manifests itself early, when considerable time with murky Afghan rebels is required to launch both hero and villain. How the rebels fit into the ultimate conclusion isn’t worth trying to figure out. Same for Stark’s reactor project, which emerges in a too-convenient “oh yeah” moment.

Favreau relies on an opening crutch, a narrator at an event reading Stark’s biography, which probably wasn’t necessary. He also allows a few dreaded superhero cliches, the overly talkative bad guy and the absolutely dreadful white-tie event where the good guy meets the bad guy in tuxedoes and they deliver lines with double meanings about the battles yet to come. (At least there is a funny inside joke involving Hugh Hefner.) Favreau’s villain, though well-played by Jeff Bridges, who is one of at least two now-beyond-middle-age actors (Dennis Quaid) who gets better each film, is one of the weakest in these types of films, apparently motivated by money. His rapid rise from aging crooked businessman to arch-villain defies belief. The best villains are ones who relentlessly torment civilians until the hero can arrive; that isn’t even suggested here. Visually, Stark’s initial creation risks snickers by its resemblance to Robocop. There are also some spacy-ish scenes inside Stark’s helmet that are a little reminiscent of the dreaded “Astronaut Farmer.”

The solution lies in that red and gold suit, Stark’s ability to develop it, and Pepper’s steady hand. Stark’s medical problem is unlike any in the Superman/Batman/Spider-Man series and a welcome diversion. It does seem like Tony looks a bit too healthy for someone with his condition, and how anyone could have such a complex procedure performed successfully in a Third World cave stretches reason, but it’s a unique vulnerability that neatly fits into the movie. (There is a joke about “having a heart” that doesn’t make much sense.)

A lot of spring/summer blockbusters overpromise and underdeliver. (This was more or less the case with “Indiana Jones.”) “Iron Man” is the opposite. Satisfying, likable, not perfect, but a worthwhile way to blow $10 at the megaplex, have a good time and not feel robbed.

The inevitable “Iron Man” sequel faces a serious challenge. Stark has already come of age as a person in this film, so the next one will need a serious villain inflicting serious harm. Iron Man’s ability to fly and shoot bullets and flames will seem passe if it’s not superseded by extra skills. There is room to grow in Movie 2, but the margin for error is dwindling.

3 stars
(May 2008)

“Iron Man” (2008)
Starring Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man ♦ Terrence Howard as Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes ♦ Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane/Iron Monger ♦ Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts ♦ Leslie Bibb as Christine Everhart ♦ Shaun Toub as Yinsen ♦ Faran Tahir as Raza ♦ Sayed Badreya as Abu Bakaar ♦ Bill Smitrovich as General Gabriel ♦ Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson ♦ Tim Guinee as Major Allen ♦ Will Lyman as Award Ceremony Film Narrator (voice) ♦ Marco Khan as Insurgent #4 ♦ Kevin Foster as Jimmy ♦ Garret Noel as Pratt ♦ Eileen Weisinger as Ramirez ♦ Ahmed Ahmed as Ahmed ♦ Fahim Fazli as Omar ♦ Tom Morello as Insurgent #5 ♦ Gerard Sanders as Howard Stark ♦ Tim Rigby as Viper #1 ♦ Russell Richardson as Viper #2 ♦ Jon Favreau as Hogan ♦ Nazanin Boniadi as FBX Reporter ♦ Thomas Craig Plumer as Colonel Craig ♦ Robert Berkman as Dealer at Craps Table ♦ Stacy Stas as Woman at Craps Table #1 ♦ Lauren Scyphers as Woman at Craps Table #2 ♦ Dr. Frank Nyi as Engineer ♦ Marvin Jordan as Air Force Officer ♦ Jim Cramer as Himself ♦ Reid Harper as Kid in SUV #1 ♦ Summer Kylie Remington as Kid in SUV #2 ♦ Ava Rose Williams as Kid in SUV #2 ♦ Vladimir Kubr as Kid in SUV #3 ♦ Callie Marie Croughwell as Kid in SUV #4 ♦ Donna Evans Merlo as Woman in SUV ♦ Javan Tahir as Gulmira Kid ♦ Sahar Bibiyan as Gulmira Mom ♦ Patrick O'Connell as Press Reporter #1 ♦ Adam Harrington as Press Reporter #2 ♦ Meera Simhan as Press Reporter #3 ♦ Ben Newmark as Press Reporter #4 ♦ Ricki Noel Lander as Hot Stewardess #1 ♦ Jeannine Kaspar as Hot Stewardess #2 ♦ Sarah Cahill as Hot Stewardess #3 ♦ Peter Billingsley as William ♦ Justin Rex as Air Force Lieutenant ♦ Zorianna Kit as Herself ♦ Lana Kinnear as Stan’s Girl #1 ♦ Nicole Lindeblad as Stan’s Girl #2 ♦ Masha Lund as Stan’s Girl #3 ♦ Gabrielle Tuite as Stan’s Girl #4 ♦ Tim Griffin as CAOC Analyst #1 ♦ Joshua Harto as CAOC Analyst #2 ♦ Micah Hauptman as CAOC Analyst #3 ♦ James Bethea as CAOC Analyst #4 ♦ Daston Kalili as Screaming Insurgent #1 ♦ Ido Ezra as Screaming Insurgent #2 ♦ Paul Bettany as Jarvis (voice) ♦ Stan Lee as Himself ♦ Jeffrey Ashkin as Photographer ♦ Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury ♦ David Allen Kramer as Whiplash One (voice) ♦ Laura Liguori as Dancer in Ballroom ♦ America Olivo as Dubai Beauty #1 ♦ Brett Padelford as Journalist ♦ Chris Reid as Reporter ♦ George F. Watson as Rooftop Fireman

Directed by: Jon Favreau

Written by: Mark Fergus
Written by: Hawk Ostby
Written by: Art Marcum
Written by: Matt Holloway
Written by: Stan Lee (comic characters)
Written by: Don Heck (comic characters)
Written by: Larry Lieber (comic characters)
Written by: Jack Kirby (comic characters)

Executive producer: Ari Arad
Executive producer: Peter Billingsley
Executive producer: Louis D’Esposito
Executive producer: Jon Favreau
Executive producer: Michael A. Helfant
Executive producer: Stan Lee
Producer: Avi Arad
Producer: Kevin Feige
Co-producer: Victoria Alonso
Associate producer: Eric Heffron
Associate producer: Jeremy Latcham

Original music: Ramin Djawadi
Cinematography: Matthew Libatique
Editing: Dan Lebental
Casting: Sarah Finn ♦ Randi Hiller
Production design: J. Michael Riva
Art direction: Richard F. Mays ♦ Suzan Wexler
Set decoration: Lauri Gaffin
Costume design: Rebecca Bentjen ♦ Laura Jean Shannon
Makeup: Deborah La Mia Denaver ♦ Kate Biscoe ♦ Jamie Kelman ♦ Allan A. Apone ♦ Ruth Haney ♦ Tracey Henton ♦ Maryann Marchetti ♦ Bart Mixon ♦ Keith Sayer ♦ Teressa Hill ♦ Nina Paskowitz ♦ Pierce Austin ♦ Katherine Rees ♦ Colette Slattery ♦ Katherine Distefano
Stunts: Robert Alonzo ♦ Greg Anthony ♦ Tammie Rae Baird ♦ Gianni Biasetti ♦ Freddy Bouciegues ♦ Jon Braver ♦ Brian Brown ♦ Joe Bucaro III ♦ Richard Bucher ♦ Chris Carnel ♦ David Castillo ♦ Loyd Catlett ♦ Richard Cetrone ♦ Mark Chavarria ♦ Geovanny Corvera ♦ Max Daniels ♦ Keith Davis ♦ Vince Deadrick Jr. ♦ Kevin Derr ♦ Dino Dos Santos ♦ Andy Dylan ♦ Eyad Elbitar ♦ Paul Eliopoulos ♦ Annie Ellis ♦ Donna Evans ♦ Eddie J. Fernandez ♦ Greg Fitzpatrick ♦ Christian J. Fletcher ♦ Richie Gaona ♦ Glenn Goldstein ♦ James M. Halty ♦ Reid Harper ♦ Riley Harper ♦ Thomas Robinson Harper ♦ Gene Hartline ♦ Rosine 'Ace' Hatem ♦ Michael Hilow ♦ Michael Hugghins ♦ Ross A. Jordan ♦ Mike Justus ♦ Kristian Kery ♦ Hannah Kozak ♦ Mark Kubr ♦ Vladimir Kubr ♦ Theo Kypri ♦ Luke LaFontaine ♦ Nito Larioza ♦ Oakley Lehman ♦ Matt Leonard ♦ Brian Machleit ♦ Anderson Martin ♦ Anthony Martins ♦ Damien Moreno ♦ David Ott ♦ J.J. Perry ♦ Rex Reddick ♦ Darryl Reeves ♦ Tim Rigby ♦ Larry Rippenkroeger ♦ Jason Rodriguez ♦ Craig Rondell ♦ Mike Rufino ♦ David Schultz ♦ Kevin Scott ♦ Ray Siegle ♦ Daniel Stevens ♦ Mark Aaron Wagner ♦ Danielle Wait ♦ Tim Walkey ♦ Todd Warren ♦ Ava Rose Williams ♦ Keith Woulard
Special thanks: Philip M. Strub


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