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Iron Man

Paramount // PG-13 // September 30, 2008
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted September 20, 2008 | E-mail the Author
"They say that the best weapon is the one you never have to fire. I respectfully disagree; I prefer the weapon you only have to fire once. That's how Dad did it, that's how America does it, and it's worked out pretty well so far."

This...? This is a what a summer action flick ought to be. While most superhero movies these days are duking it out over who's grittier, bleaker, and the most hellbent on slaughtering their supporting casts, Iron Man captures everything I love about Marvel comics. Iron Man can leap back and forth between being fun and playful without defusing the intensity and emotional wallop
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of its more dramatic moments. There are plenty of big-budget fireworks, but it doesn't lean on action or an $80 million effects budget as a crutch; Robert Downey Jr. is so brilliant in the role of billionaire industrialist Tony Stark that this would've been my favorite movie of the summer even if he never did get around to slipping on the suit. Still, when we do first see the red and gold of the Mark III armor in flight, it's as kinetic a rush as seeing Spider-Man zip along on a webline or Superman take flight for the first time.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) isn't just an industrialist or one of the most brilliant minds on the planet: he's practically a rock star. C'mon, when was the last time you saw a billionaire weapons manufacturer on the cover of "Rolling Stone"? Following in his late father's footsteps and mentored by Stark Industries CEO Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), Tony keeps the world safe for democracy -- and rakes in eight figure paychecks and a parade of "Maxim" cover girls in the process -- by engineering the most efficiently destructive arsenal that the U.S. military has ever had at its fingertips.

During a trip to Afghanistan to show off the latest and greatest missile technology that Stark Industries has on the table, Tony's convoy is attacked by an underground group of soldiers using his own weapons against him. Despite being on the brink of death from the shrapnel embedded deep in his heart and kept alive only by a jury-rigged electromagnet in his chest, Tony is ordered by his captors to recreate the Jericho missile. Tony's brilliant mind immediately starts spinning -- not to build a missile but to create a suit of armor that'll carve through the waves of heavily-armed thugs and get him and his newfound friend Dr. Yinsen (Shaun Toub) far out of harm's way. Fueled by months of bottled-up rage and the miniature arc reactor that keeps the shards of shrapnel from skewering his heart, Tony does manage to escape in his armor, and the devastation he's seen his own weapons wrought makes him vow to leave that life of arms manufacturing behind.

Stane nods his head when Tony drops that bombshell in a press conference, asking the weaponeering wunderkind to lay low for a few months while he smooths things over with the company's board of directors. Tony uses that time to rebuild and refine his armor technology, assembling a more efficient arc reactor and learning to fly with boot-jets and flight stabilizing gauntlets. He's not setting out to build a weapon, but when Tony learns that his company's hardware is being sold under the table to butcher untold thousands of innocent people, he slips on his newly-crafted armor to destroy every last trace of that arsenal. This attracts the unwanted attention of the U.S. military -- including Tony's old friend Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard) -- as well as what's left of his captors in Afghanistan, who start piecing back together the scraps of the ramshackle suit that Tony used to escape...

I've been ravenously reading comics for more than twenty-five years now, and I've seen just about every movie adaptation to plow its way through the pipeline. As much as I've loved so many of them -- X-Men 2, Spider-Man 2, Hellboy, and Christopher Nolan's takes on Batman, in particular -- Iron Man stands out as my favorite. Sure, it's not quite as ambitious as, say, The Dark Knight, but I think Iron Man is exactly the movie it sets out to be, and it's clearly written and directed by a talented bunch with a sincere passion for the character.

Robert Downey Jr. is the most inspired casting choice for a superhero flick since Christopher Reeve back in the Superman days. Even before the camera pans over to Downey's face for the first time -- when all we see is a hand holding a glass of scotch, with chunks of ice clinking around as a Humvee bounds up and down a barren stretch of Afghan desert -- he is Tony Stark. The smirking charm, that swaggering confidence, a brilliance that he tends to keep restrained until he's off by himself...Downey's so perfect in Iron Man that it's hard to believe the script wasn't written with him expressly in mind. One of the hallmarks of a truly great superhero story is if it's still compelling when the character isn't in the suit, and that's certainly the case here. Because this is an origin story, Stark doesn't spend a tremendous amount of time in the armor -- he's
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still building it for most of the movie -- but some of Iron Man's best moments are when he's working out the kinks in the hardware. Tony's inventiveness and half-bungled experiments in refining the tech in the Mark I armor score some pretty enormous laughs while also bringing out that wide-eyed sense of wonder I had reading comics growing up. As for the supporting cast, Gwyneth Paltrow -- looking more drop-dead gorgeous than she ever has on-screen -- captures the dogged loyalty of Tony's right-hand, Pepper Potts, while infusing her with a charming sort of awkward energy. I'm not sold on Terrence Howard as Rhodey; he's the only one in the cast who seems like he's consciously acting, but his role is small enough that it's not too much of a distraction, and the character's kind of blandly written anyway.

One of the only flaws that stands out to me is the final confrontation between Iron Man and the mammoth reverse-engineered Iron Monger. On one hand, it doesn't carry the same destructively epic sense of scale I'd really hope for, while on the other, the action is kind of distractingly chaotic and choppy as it is. Admittedly, Jon Favreau isn't a director with much of a background in staging action, and hopefully this'll be improved upon when the inevitable sequel rolls around. The rest of the action is pretty fantastic, though: the opening siege in the desert is unrelentingly brutal and a massive slug in the gut, and Tony's strike back in the Mark III armor -- targeted miniature missiles, an exploding tank, the soldiers of the Ten Rings (!) being flung around like ragdolls -- it's a hell of a lot of fun. Iron Man also screams along quickly enough that its two hour runtime feels like maybe forty-five minutes, not bloated by meandering filler the way so many big-budget spectacles are anymore.

I know I'm in the minority here, but Iron Man gets the nod as my favorite superhero flick: not just of this summer, trumping even the unrelentingly bleak The Dark Knight, but of all time. Hollywood's forgotten how kinetic, smart, and fun summer blockbusters can be, and Favreau and Downey have captured the best of that -- not to mention one of Marvel's most underrated superheroes -- with Iron Man. Highly Recommended.

Oh, and as I'm sure any comic geek worth his salt reading this review already knows, it's worth sticking around after the end credits finish making their upward crawl to see all that chatter about the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division be paid off.

Video: No surprise here: Iron Man looks phenomenal on Blu-ray. By and large, the scope image is crisp and startlingly detailed; I felt as if I could pick out each and every grain of sand in the Afghan desert, and the various incarnations of the armor are teeming with intricate flourishes that'd be reduced to a muddy smear on DVD. Contrast is deliberately skewed throughout much of the movie, it's backed by a brilliantly vibrant palette, and the faint trace of film grain is deftly compressed and never intrusive. Black levels are somewhat of a disappointment, though; the lackluster weight of the blacks really stand out when framed against the deep, inky letterboxing bars at the top and bottom of the screen, and dimly-lit interiors in particular lack much in the way of depth or dimensionality. That occasional flatness -- and some very minor fluctuations in crispness and clarity -- keep this Blu-ray disc from landing a perfect score, but Iron Man lives up to the extremely high expectations swirling around it, and
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this disc easily qualifies as showcase material.

Iron Man is presented in 1080p at its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1, and this Blu-ray disc has been encoded using Paramount's preferred codec, AVC.

Audio: Iron Man is bolstered by an outstanding soundtrack -- boasting swooping dynamics, a colossal low-end, and an incomparably immersive sound design -- and this exceptional mix is reproduced on Blu-ray in Dolby TrueHD 5.1. Iron Man uses all six of the channels at its fingertips to extraordinary effect, teeming with split-surrounds and some of the most convincing imaging I've heard in the couple thousand DVDs and Blu-ray discs I've torn through over the years. This is, after all, a flick with missiles and devastatingly powerful suits of armor screaming across the sky...bursts of gunfire and ricocheted shells peppered from every direction...two war machines ravaging the streets of Los Angeles in a brawl to the death. Even fairly tame effects sparkle in this lossless soundtrack, such as a discrete effect with a tumbling light fixture after one early experiment is bungled, and those sorts of colorful strokes are painted throughout the movie. This is a remarkably powerful and immersive mix; the opening siege on Stark's convoy in particular has cemented itself as my demo reel of choice, and the soundtrack as a whole easily qualifies as reference quality.

Iron Man also includes Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs in French and Spanish, and subtitle streams are offered in English (traditional and SDH), French, Spanish, and Portuguese.

It's worth noting that Iron Man reportedly triggers some of the Dynamic Range Control functions on certain players and receivers -- including the PlayStation 3, if it's not configured properly -- and this flattens out the dynamics. Audiophiles will want to make sure these options are disabled when the disc first plays to get the most out of it.

Extras: Iron Man is a sprawling two-disc special edition, and virtually every last one of its extras is presented in pristine high definition.

The first of this set's extras is the interactive "Hall of Armor", which delves far beyond what's expressly shown in the movie into the three suits of armor Tony dons as well as the reverse-engineered Iron Monger. A click of the remote rotates each 3-D rendered model a full 360°, and zooming in
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reveals such technical details as the specific alloys used in the armors' construction, what Tony scuttled from his missiles to power the first generation suit, how the armor enables him to still breathe when breaking the sound barrier, how many tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition the Iron Monger is packing, and much, much more.

The reel of deleted and extended scenes clocks in at 24 minutes in total, and with a handful of them featuring polished, high resolution digital effects, it's clear that several of these scenes must have been in the cut until the eleventh hour. The longest new sequence has Tony impulsively throwing a lavish shindig at the mansion, realizing a couple inches from a fourway (!) that the man he used to be was left for dead in the mountains of Afghanistan. The climax is extended a good bit as well, including Rhodey getting in a shot on the Iron Monger and further fleshing out one character in his final moments. The bulk of the footage is anchored around fairly minor extensions that really would've dragged down the first half hour of the movie, and Iron Man is much better off without them. Still, it's always intriguing to see what might've been and how even a bit of judicious editing can make a dramatic impact.

Featuring a hefty chunk of the Marvel bullpen -- Stan Lee, Gerry Conway, Gene Colan, Tom Brevoort, John Romita Jr., Bob Layton, Dan and Charles Knauf, Warren Ellis, Adi Granov, Joe Casey, Joe Quesada, and Patrick Zircher -- "The Invincible Iron Man" (47 min.) is an extremely comprehensive look into how Ol' Tinhead has evolved in the comics over the past forty-five years. Most every major era of the character is explored: Lee creating Iron Man essentially on a dare, Stark's transformation as the Vietnam War drew on, the character's role in forming Marvel mainstays like the Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D., his struggles with alcoholism, infusing new life into Iron Man with his new Extremis-based armor and an updated backstory that greatly influenced the movie, the hardline stance he took during last summer's Civil War storyline, and even his incarnation in Marvel's Ultimate universe.

This is more than just a primer into Marvel's four-color take on Iron Man, tackling some of these topics in a fairly intense amount of depth and spending quite a bit of time with the talent behind them. "The Invincible Iron Man" also delves into the artistic challenges of rendering the personality of a character hidden behind a rigid suit of armor, the frequently evolving designs of the armor over nearly half a century, and how Tony Stark and Iron Man lend themselves to being continually updated and reinterpreted. Comic retrospectives are a fixture on these sorts of movies, and even though its focus is more heavily weighted towards the character's origins and the present day, this is one of the most comprehensive I've seen. "The Invincible Iron Man" can be viewed as six individual featurettes or played as one single documentary.

The centerpiece of disc two -- and the set as a whole, really -- is the feature-length documentary I Am Iron Man. Running just shy of two hours in length, this sprawling look into the making of Iron Man is nearly as long as the film itself. Alternating between sparkling high definition video and Super 8 home movies (!), I Am Iron Man is a fly-on-the-wall look at every stage of production: piecing together storyboards and animatics, the design and construction of the armor, stuntmen struggling with the bulky Mark I suit, the unconventional wire rigs used to sell its sense of flight, shaping the look of the movie with cinematographer Matthew Libatique, the design of the computer interfaces as well as the titles, reviewing all of the post-production it, and there's a pretty good chance it's in
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here somewhere. Pretty much all of the key talent on both sides of the camera is featured, and most every sequence is explored in at least some detail.

The documentary doesn't gloss over the headaches, from the daunting scale of this sort of undertaking by a first-time studio and a director who's usually hovered around lower-profile movies, struggling with a punishing sandstorm during a desert shoot, and fighting against time when there are still a hundred-plus effects shots outstanding and a deadline looming just a few weeks off. There's also a kind of candid playfulness that makes I Am Iron Man a heckuva lot of fun to watch, from Stan Lee reveling in his bit part as a Hugh Hefner type flanked by busty models to the since-departed Stan Winston quipping about how he gets all the credit without ever having to get his hands dirty to...hey, a cameo by A Christmas Story's Peter Billingsley! There are even notes about what might have been, such as the Mandarin originally being a central part of early drafts. I Am Iron Man is an exceptionally thorough look into the making of the movie, and it's well worth setting aside a couple of hours to watch. The seven featurettes that make up I Am Iron Man can be viewed individually or be played as a single feature-length documentary.

Disc two's other making-of piece is "Wired: Inside the Visual Effects of Iron Man" (27 min.). "Wired" spends a good bit of time with each of the three studios tasked with bringing Iron Man to life, tackling the texturing, motion capture work, and intricate details behind the ramshackle Mark I armor, how later suits' elaborate three-dimensional heads-up display originated with a 2001 poster, and the (mostly) seamless mix of practical and digital effects. One highlight is having a chance to see ILM's original test footage in its entirety, and the digital wizards down at the Presidio also run through the model's elaborate endoskeleton, piecing together an enormous virtual set for the finale, and highlighting just how convincingly they were able to manipulate the live-action footage and take it in a completely different direction than originally intended.

Robert Downey Jr.'s screen test (6 min.) sprints between excerpts from three scenes: Tony literally charming the pants off a prying reporter, palling around with a bunch of soldiers in a Humvee knee-deep in Afghanistan, and confiding in Rhodey about the suit. "The Actor's Process" (4 min.) is anchored around a rehearsal with Jon Favreau, Robert Downey Jr., and Jeff Bridges as the three of them work out the best way to attack one particularly tense moment outside a Stark Foundation
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benefit. It's interesting seeing a scene like this come together, especially since as written, it's so far removed from what's actually in the movie.

Also included is an extensive set of still galleries that have been grouped and subdivided in pretty much every conceivable way possible, along with a set of four trailers: one teaser, one domestic clip, and two international trailers. Out of the long, long list of extras on this two-disc set, the only one not presented in high-def is The Onion News Network's report on the the wildly popular Iron Man trailer being controversially adapted into a full-length feature film.

Iron Man is a BD Live enabled disc, and although the switch for those online bells and whistles is still flipped off as of this writing, a booklet tucked inside the case promises a trivia game that runs throughout the film.

What's missing? An audio commentary is usually a given with Jon Favreau -- he's sat down for at least one live commentary for Iron Man, even -- but there's not a track with him or anyone else on this two-disc set. It's mentioned a couple times in I Am Iron Man that this shoot was unusually loose and improvisational for a big-budget effects flick, and the lack of an outtake reel or a montage of the best off-the-cuff lines is kind of a drag.

Iron Man comes packaged inside a glossy cardboard sleeve, and the cover art underneath strips away the armor to reveal Stark and his brightly beaming chest piece.

Conclusion: I'm a lifelong comics fan who's devoured every last superhero flick that Hollywood has churned out over the past decade, and I'd give Iron Man the nod as my favorite of the bunch yet. In his first time helming a big-budget effects spectacle, director Jon Favreau deftly juggles a smirking sense of humor, just the right amount of drama and emotional turmoil, and a heckuva lot of four-color superheroic action. I can't imagine a more perfect Iron Man movie than this, and so much of that is owed to the brilliant casting choice of Robert Downey Jr. and the smirking charm he oozes. It goes without saying that Iron Man looks and sounds incredible on Blu-ray, and the movie is backed by somewhere in the neighborhood of four and a half hours of high definition extras. Grindhouse aside, Iron Man is the best time I've had at the theaters all year, it holds up exceptionally well the second time through, and, needless to say, this Blu-ray disc comes very Highly Recommended.
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