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Iron Man
Savant Blu-ray Review

Iron Man
2008 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic widescreen / 126 min. / Street Date September 30, 2008 /
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard, Shaun Toub
Cinematography Matthew Libatique
Production Design J. Michael Riva
Film Editor Dan Lebenthal
Original Music Ramin Djawadi
Written by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Macum, Matt Holloway
Produced by Avi Arad, Kevin Feige
Directed by Jon Favreau

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Fifteen years ago critics were griping that summer blockbuster movies were becoming as simpleminded as comic books. Today they are comic books, plain and simple. Bucking the trend is Paramount's Iron Man, which does more than its part to revive the notion of fun and adventure at the movies. The Marvel comics adaptation isn't a wheezing nostalgia-fest like the Indiana Jones movie, or yet another (yawn) "dark" journey into the troubled soul of a vigilante (Batman). The last twenty years have proven that anybody can play Batman: the costume, music and art direction do all the work, and the actor just needs a grim jaw to jut out of a rubber mask.

In the process of boosting Iron Man to the big screen, the filmmakers actually have an interesting character to play with. Tony Stark is a great representative for our times, an aggressively arrogant member of the money 'n' guns elite who decides to clean up his act. Of course, Stark discovers that his real enemies are not in Afghanistan but right back home in the corporate culture. A playboy arms dealer with a heart? Everybody likes this guy.

Robert Downey Jr., the good actor who has hopefully seen his last unpleasant courtroom penalty, is ideally cast. With fine play-it-straight support from Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeff Bridges, Downey Jr. gives the overworked cause of American Hero-dom a fine polish.

Paramount's new Iron Man Blu-ray combines a shiny transfer of the summer hit with enough extras to satisfy the most enthusiastic Marvel comics fan.


Zillionare arms manufacturer / ladies' man Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is captured by an Afghan warlord and forced to assemble one of his own devastating battlefield weapons. Fellow captive Yinsen (Shaun Toub) saves Tony's life with a heart operation. Together they assemble not the weapon but a battle armor suit that Tony's been working on, powered by a miniature reactor on his chest. After fighting his way to freedom, Tony announces that his corporation will turn away from arms development, a change of heart that troubles Tony's business partner Obediah Stane (Jeff Bridges) and his military liaison Col. Rhodey Rhodes (Terrence Howard). Tony's ever-faithful assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is pleased but perplexed when Tony abandons his jet set lifestyle to concentrate on a new personal project -- which he doesn't intend to sell to anyone.

Comic book movies are Good vs. Evil tales of noble heroes battling unregenerate enemies, a formula that can't help being interpreted as reactionary. Batman is a vigilante formed by a brutal life experience and dedicated to an inflexible idea of "absolute justice". The last attempt at Superman tried to "darken" the Man of Steel's personality as well. Iron Man is a Marvel creation based on a Cold War fantasy that pits a jaunty superhero against America's enemies. Vietnam is forty years in the past but we have plenty of new enemies to take its place. The surprise is that the new interpretation of the Tony Stark saga has an almost opposite message. Arms tycoon Stark turns a page and decides to be a do-gooder instead of a merchant of death. The clever script runs both political game plans at the same time. The military-industrial complex is represented by a good Hawk (Rhodey Rhodes) and a slimy profiteer (no spoilers here). The ultra-secret government snoop organization S.H.I.E.L.D. falsifies deaths and manufactures official lies, but is still perceived as benign. The supremely evil Afghan warlord Raza (Faran Tahir) sees himself as a new Genghis Khan, reducing the murky issues of the Middle East to the un-troubling level of Fu Manchu.

Iron Man's Get Out of Jail Card is the entertaining Tony Stark character, as personified by the deadpan-ironic, self-aware bad boy Robert Downey Jr.. Stark is supremely lovable and attractive; unlike the boorish new Bruce Wayne, we can see why Stark is so popular. Add a small group of admiring sidekicks (Rhodes, Potts, Obediah) and we'll side with Tony all the way. Unlike the new Batman, who suffers traumatic flashbacks on a daily basis, Tony Stark has no emotional baggage except a father he's not sure he really knew. No blasts of Wagnerian angst accompany Tony's consciousness readjustment. He just learns to be a bit more human, like C.C. Baxter's "mensch" in The Apartment. These days, even that much of a character improvement is a victory for the American spirit.

Director Jon Favreau shows excellent judgment throughout Iron Man. The opening battle scene improves on most of the Iraq-style combat we've seen lately. The film doesn't go out of its way to demonize the enemy (the setup is enough) and the story turns are played straight and clear -- no inside jokes or imposed ironies; no Global Warming references or slams at public figures, as with Transformers' image of President Bush as a junk food junkie. Favreau also gives himself a non-speaking role as (Happy) Hogan, Stark's chauffeur.

Iron Man is so in balance that its CGI scenes don't overpower the character story; in fact, the rock 'em sock 'em robot finale is the least interesting part of the movie. The brilliant inventor Stark fashions his armored flight suit costume in a virtual computer space ("How about a pilot without a plane?"), and the robotic factory in his self-cleaning Malibu rec room handles the petty details of fabrication. The completed suit is a wonder -- a fantasy construction for sure, but not so complicated that it induces a visual headache, as do the juggernauts of Transformers.

The opening's rocket sales pitch encapsules all that is worthy in the Nicholas Cage vehicle Lord of War, setting up Tony's credentials as an A-Number One jerk. The script then goes through a humorous R&D phase heavily reminiscent of the underappreciated Joe Johnston movie Rocketeer. Tony's robotic helpers are good for a few solid laughs. Much of the rest of the plot structure seems to be lifted from RoboCop and RoboCop 2. Tony's corporate power battle reminds us of the intrigues back at OCP, as do the robotic tune-ups of the Iron Man suit. When the power-mad bad guy becomes the newer, nastier Iron Monger, the parallel to RoboCop 2 is complete. Finally, Tony's declaration of identity is handled identically to the finish of the original RoboCop, where Officer Murphy answers the question, "Nice shooting, son. What's your name?" Both movies hard-cut to credits as soon as their heroes identify themselves.

For fans interested in resonance with the classics, Iron Man's super-powered "heart" is a neat referencing of the magical pentagram that animates the original 1920 Der Golem. Pull out the Golem's heart, and he also stops functioning. Of such appealing details -- a man with a nuclear reactor plugged into his chest -- are great myths made. Let's hope that the inevitable franchise sequel can maintain the fun and freshness of this initial home run.

Paramount's Blu-ray of Iron Man is a lean movie machine that gets down to solid entertainment with a minimum of fuss. The transfer is dazzling, replicating the snazzy look of Stark's red & gold fighting armor. We appreciate the production's clean lines -- Tony's ultra-impressive home and Derek Flint lifestyle sell the story. The audio belts out as strongly as it did in the theaters, with a choice of several languages.

Disc one carries a pack of deleted and extended scenes, all interesting and all wisely dropped from the final cut. The main HD docu is a multi-part examination of the life and times of the Marvel Comics character, related by Stan Lee and the writers and artists who brought him to life. We learn that Lee was forever altering Iron Man's looks, and that Tony Stark received the bulk of fan mail from Marvel's female audience.

A pleasing feature for design-oriented viewers will be the Hall of Armor, a gallery of the four main Iron Man iterations: the cave prototype, two main suits and the larger, man-amplifier -like Iron Monger. Interactive controls allow one to choose a design detail and then make the illustration rotate a full 360º. The Hall of Armor and a feature called BD Live Iron Man I.Q. are Blu-ray exclusives.

The second disc contains a pair of exhaustive documentaries. I Am Iron Man is a feature length making-of that piles on the interviews and video to the point that you'll believe you were an on-set observer. We've been seeing a lot of BTS shows that appear to be specially scripted but this one convinces us of its sincerity -- not everything on the set always appears to be rosy. Equally gratifying for fans wanting More of Everything is Wired, a special effects docu that analyzes the formulation and execution of the film's fantastic visuals. At some point all the detail may go beyond "exhaustive" to "exhausting," but this reviewer was entertained and amused all the way through.

Other extras include screen tests and trial scene run-throughs, and the amusing Onion spoof about the Iron Man trailer. Also on board are the requisite galleries of art and ad concepts.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Iron Man Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Three long form docus, "Hall of Armor" design study, BD Live extra, deleted scenes, art galleries, pre-prod screen tests.
Packaging: Keep case in card sleeve.
Reviewed: September 21, 2008

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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