In case some of you haven't figured it out, staying true to the original source material is only one part of successfully adapting comic books to film. The other key factor is knowing that the superhero himself (or herself, as the case may be) sometimes is just not that interesting, and that the real character is the person who puts on the suit. Spider-Man is not nearly as interesting as Peter Parker, the poor sap who puts on the costume and does his best to do the right thing, even though it seems like life is always conspiring against him. Basically, if the guy who puts on the ridiculous looking outfit is dull, then the superhero is doomed to be a boring lunkhead. This is especially true of Marvel Comics' Iron Man, a hero that would be about as boring as you could possibly imagine, accept for the guy who climbs into the metal suit to save the day.
Iron Man is the latest comic book icon to make the transition to film, and though the film itself is far from perfect, it is a solid example of how to do a superhero movie correctly. Robert Downey, Jr. stars as multi-billionaire, and consummate playboy Tony Stark, a gifted genius who inherited his father's arms manufacturing business, and has reaped untold fortunes making weapons. The film starts with Stark being escorted by a military caravan in Afghanistan that is ambushed, and then flashes back 36 hours earlier to establish the wealthy industrialist as an insensitive prick with little concern for others. We see Stark going about his whirlwind routine of gambling, boozing and chasing women, all in the hours leading up to the demonstration of Stark Industries' latest weapon of mass destruction, the Jericho Missile, in the desert of Afghanistan, where he is to shortly fall victim to the ambush that opened the film.
Taken prisoner by a multi-national cadre of ruthless mercenaries that want to rule much of Asia, Stark finds himself in a precarious situation. During the ambush he took shrapnel to the chest, but thanks to the ingenious invention of a scientist being held captive by the bad guys, Stark has some sort of preposterous mechanical device implanted in his chest that keeps his heart beating and the shrapnel from tearing it apart. (Hey, this is based on a comic book after all.) It seems that the bad guys are keeping Stark alive so that he can build them a Jericho Missile system of their own. Realizing that they will use the weapon for truly nefarious things (or at least things deemed un-American), Stark instead builds a suit of armor that he uses to escape the dastardly villains. Given a new lease on life, Stark realizes he must use his wealth and mechanical genius to help the human race, which leads him to build a new suit of armor that he then uses to fight for justice.
As a superhero, Iron Man has always been one of the more boring characters out there--he is after all, nothing more than a giant tin can. But what always made this particular hero interesting was Tony Stark, an incredible flawed character that always gave Iron Man depth. In the comics, Stark was revealed to be an alcoholic, and in recent years he has become an ever increasing jackass. Granted, it took over twenty years for Iron Man/Tony Stark to really become interesting, but over the last twenty-five or so years he has really developed into a compelling character. And it is the combination of the character originally created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Don Heck, along with the groundbreaking storyline in the 1980s that developed Stark as an alcoholic, that comes in to play in Iron Man the movie.
Although Stark's alcoholism is not developed in the film, his hardcore partying lifestyle is explored, and his boozing is established enough that is likely to come in to play in the inevitable sequel (and there will be a sequel to Iron Man, on that we can all be rest assured, because this movie is going to clean up at the box office). Despite never fully exploring the one character trait that most made Iron Man compelling, the film still manages to present him as a complex and interesting character. This is due in no small part to the performance of Robert Downey, Jr., who plays Stark with just the right mix of macho bravado, comedic swagger, and heroic seriousness. For the lead character in what is essentially a silly popcorn film, Downey plays a surprisingly complex character in a role that could have easily fallen apart with another actor incapable of hitting the both the serious and comedic notes, often in the same scene. Ultimately, the success of the film is based on the fact that it is about Tony Stark, not Iron Man, and focuses its attention accordingly. What is truly interesting is that while other costumed heroes have dual identities, there is no separate identity for Iron Man, just Tony Stark in a suit of metal.
Director Jon Favreau, best known for his comedic touch, delivers a film that has a light-hearted tone, some truly great laughs, but never degenerates into a comedy. He is helped, no doubt by a team of screenwriters, including the scribes of Children of Men, who are wise to not stray too far from the mythology developed over the last 45 years. Thankfully, Favreau and the writers actually understand Tony Stark/Iron Man, as opposed to the "creative" team responsible for Fantastic Four, a film of pure ineptitude that managed to border on being painful to endure. But for every way Fantastic Four got things wrong, Iron Man gets things right, providing enough inside jokes to appease fans of the comic books series, and even poking fun at some of the conventions that have been established within the superhero film genre. We know that at some point in the heat of battle our hero will lose his mask, revealing the anguished face of the lead actor, just as we know that a love interest will ruin things (if not in the first film, then certainly in one of the sequels). And Iron Man knows this as well, but still makes the two most tired clichés work to its advantage.
There are problems with Iron Man, to be sure. For one thing, the climactic battle between Iron Man and the film's villain is a bit too much like the something out of Robocop. Granted, the special effects sequences are solid, and the final showdown is more satisfying than those in Spider-Man 3, Batman Begins or Superman Returns, but the film builds to a climax that could have been served by something a bit more original. And while the film is more than entertaining, it doesn't end with the "I can't wait to see how they top that" feeling that the first X-Men or Spider-Man movies had. But that is not a bad thing, and it does not change the fact that Iron Man serves its purpose as an entertaining film that can be added to the list of comic book movies that "got it right."
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]