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No, seriously. Iron Man is really good.
I wasn't sure either. Jon Favreau directing a movie adaptation of a comic book character I was ambivalent about didn't really sound like it was going to be one of the movies I would be looking forward to the most this summer. And then those trailers came out, showing a lot of Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark, Iron Man's billionaire civilian identity, and enough action to tease us without giving the game away, and suddenly I was getting anxious for this blockbuster to arrive.
For once, actually, the trailers have given you an accurate portrayal of what you're going to see in the final product: humor, solid characters, good special effects, and exciting action. You'd think that wouldn't be too much to ask of a big superhero adventure movie, but yet, how many bland, witless special effects pictures have hit the screens in recent years? Too many to recall.
Iron Man is a long-running Marvel Comics series that originally cast Tony Stark as a weapons manufacturer during the Vietnam War who, after seeing the effects of his product, began to seek a new way to bring justice to the world. For this 2008 incarnation, Favreau and his screenwriters Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, the team behind Children of Men and First Snow (working here in addition to Matthew Hollaway and Art Marcum), have updated the story so that Stark is part of the current military-industrial complex. On a trip to show off his newest destructive creation in Afghanistan, his caravan of humvees is ambushed and Stark is shepherded away to the secret headquarters of a terrorist cell that demands he recreate his missile system for their use. Instead, he builds an advanced suit of armor and sets himself free.
Returning to California, Stark brings a new sense of social consciousness back with him. He wants to shut down Stark Industries and upgrade his Iron Man suit so he can personally take the weapons he made out of the vicious grip of the bad guys. Having formerly been a hard-drinking, hard-partying playboy, Stark's sudden change of character strikes his friends as strange. His long-suffering personal assistant, the freckle-faced Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), fears for his health, while his business partner, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), fears for their bottom line. Two guesses as to whom the heavy will turn out to be, but you'd better get it in one.
There are a lot of ideas and a whole lot of plot packed into the first hour of Iron Man. Before we even see him in the armor, the character has to be established and his worldview outlined. After the armor, there is a lot of tech to be shown, as well as various political nuances to be tackled. Not to mention the overall story about what happened to Tony in the desert, a scheme that involves clandestine trading and a healthy dose of betrayal. Plus, eventually there has to be an opponent worthy of Iron Man so that we can have a slam-bang finale where lots of scenery is torn apart, including a freeway. There must always be the destruction of cars, some behemoth must always smash into a truck. This end battle is probably the most conventional part of Iron Man, and they could have likely gone bigger with it, but somehow the smaller scale feels right.
What is remarkable about Iron Man is, despite all of these things, Favreau's film never becomes overburdened. On the contrary, the director of Made and Elf whips through the material with a speed and dexterity that not only keeps the movie from getting bogged down but manages not to skimp on the required storytelling. In a badly made movie of this kind, we can see screenwriting set-ups coming a mile away. It's the old Chekhov rule of a gun in the first act needing to be fired by the third act, and media savvy audiences can spot hambone clues pretty easily these days. When a story component in Iron Man calls back to a previous set-up, it's almost always something you didn't see coming, thus giving viewers genuine surprises.
While all of the action in Iron Man is fun and full of thrills, I think where the film really gets it right is in the characters. There is as much weight placed on them as there is on the gadgets and the explosions, and that means that Iron Man is an action movie that actually has people in it, not just a bunch of conveniently arranged clichés. All of the cast, which also includes Terrence Howard and Leslie Bibb, is wonderful, but the movie really belongs to Robert Downey, Jr. He is a hoot to watch in the early scenes, wisecracking his way through a world that clearly loves him. Thankfully, he is also good as the conflicted Tony Stark, believably transforming the self-assured genius into a man with doubts without sacrificing the basic core personality. Just because he has started to care doesn't mean he can't also have the occasional good time. There are few actors that can do whole scenes talking to faceless robots and still manage to be charming and funny.
Gwyneth Paltrow also deserves special note for being able to go toe to toe with Downey and keep from being eclipsed by him. There is a palpable chemistry between the pair, and when the inevitable sequel comes jetting into multiplexes, it's a dynamic the filmmakers would be smart to keep.
So, yes, I really, really liked Iron Man. There's been a lot of build-up, a lot of hype, and though we have come to expect that the payoff for such a lead-in is usually disappointing, for once we don't have to settle for the merely mediocre. If I had to find fault with the film, I'd be hard-pressed to do it. (Okay, fine--the musical score is clumsy and often obtrusive.) This one has it all. It's funny without being dumb and full of good action sequences that enhance an excellent story rather than distract us from the lack thereof. Everyone brought their A-game to this one, and hopefully it's going to set the tone for the rest of the summer, because as of right now, Iron Man is definitely the big-budget blockbuster to beat.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.