Iron Man is a film that is many things. It is a war movie that presents a look at the Middle East that would be ignored by audiences in any other movie. It is a superhero origin story that gets it right for the first time since Spider Man. It is an overlong drama that could have used a tighter hand in the editing room, trimming some excess fat out of an otherwise solid story of a man finding himself. However, what Iron Man is, above all other things, is a comic geek’s wet dream.
To preface this review, I should make a comment. Hi. My name is Shawn Lealos. I am a comic book geek.
I took about a twenty-year break from reading comic books. I read religiously from the age of 7 (1977) until I was at that age in high school where comic books equaled no girl action. By the time I started college in 1988, I had stopped reading them altogether. My memories of Iron Man from those years included his role in forming The Avengers, my all-time favorite superhero team. I followed The Avengers through many of their phases during those ten years and the two men that would always signify The Avengers to me were Captain America and Iron Man. Back in 1990, there was a Captain America movie, but unless your name was Batman or Superman, no superhero movies pre-X-Men were worth a damn. Now, in 2008, we get not only our first great superhero movie starring an Avenger (discounting The Hulk), but a movie that might kick start the next big phase of superhero movies.
Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a wunderkind who assisted his father in developing Stark Enterprise into the premiere weapon’s manufacturer in the world. His father worked on the Manhattan Project, which was instrumental in the development of the Atomic Bomb. Since his father’s death, Tony has taken over his dad’s legacy of developing the most devastating weapons for the wartime factions. The movie kicks off with a bang. Tony is in route with some military personnel in Afghanistan when they are attacked by foreign militant forces. Stark is hit with shrapnel from one of his company’s own weapons and is taken captive. He is ordered to build this militant force one of his prototype missile launchers, a devastating weapon that can destroy an entire mountainside in one shot.
Unfortunately, Tony is also close to dying. Some of the shrapnel is still in his body and moving quickly to his heart. A doctor is brought in to make sure he stays alive until he completes his mission. Tony, genius that he is, inserts a device into his chest that uses magnetic energy to keep the shrapnel from reaching his heart. Then he builds a prototype of body armor that he uses to escape. The escape displays what you can expect from this movie. It is complete brutality, violent and destructive. While in the armor, he shoots men in the chest with power blasts that should kill them on impact. He uses his heavy armor as a battering ram, smashing his enemies to death. He is a one-man wrecking machine, and obliterates any enemy that stands in his way. It all makes sense, as Tony has developed weapons for years that made him known as the “Merchant of Death.” Here, he just takes it to the next level. As I said, it is a war movie, dressed up as a superhero film. The devastation and destruction that Iron Man leaves in his wake is no different than that of any other movie depicting wartime factions. It’s just a more in-your-face sample.
When Tony returns to the United States, he decides he does not want to develop weapons anymore. Furthermore, he wants to find out what enemies his weapons were sold to and eliminate those threats. Tony goes from being a war monger to a man who wants to fight to protect and save people who are put in the line of danger from the weapons he helped develop. Along the way, he must face those in his own company who oppose his newfound ideals as well as those warring countries who are using his weapons to beat their enemies into submission. With great power comes great responsibility.
At this point, we get the best superhero origin story ever. Batman travelled the world learning various forms of fighting and detective skills. Spider Man just threw himself off a building and let whatever happened happen. Superman was a natural with his new powers. Even the X-Men, with their school to teach them the responsible ways to use their powers, caught on quite quickly. Iron Man might be the first movie I have seen that goes into painstaking details concerning how hard it can be to master new powers. Comedy is used at a high level as Tony struggles to figure out how to harness the powers that he himself created. He creates the ability to fly, but that does not mean he can just go up, up and away. It takes lots of practice and even more failure before he is able to use the new armor without killing himself. Along the way, we get the best example of how to create a superhero from scratch.
And never once along the way do they cheese up the character of Tony Stark. Fans of the comic know that Stark is, among all other things, an arrogant and self-centered man. He is a publicity hound who loves to be in the spotlight. If you think about how Bruce Wayne acts in public, you can come close to how Tony Stark is supposed to be. The only difference is that Tony Stark wants to be a partygoer, wants to be in the limelight and needs to be the center of all attention. The very last scene of the movie (before the credits), you see that, despite finding his true calling, he has never changed who he is deep down. Tony Stark, playboy, may be a superhero now, but he is still Tony Stark, Playboy.
That is where the movie succeeds most, as the casting of Robert Downey Jr. was a brilliant move by Jon Favreau. He embodies everything this character stands for. He is able to step into the character like an old pair of shoes and is the best fit (outside of maybe Hugh Jackman for Wolverine) that I have ever seen step into the body of a character I grew up reading about. To add to the great cast, Jeff Daniels was perfect as Obadiah Stone, Tony’s partner at his company and someone who does not completely agree with Tony’s new ideals. Add Terrance Howard as Tony’s best friend Jim Rhodes and Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, and you have a central cast that exceeds any expectation that I ever had going into the movie.
However, the greatest thing about this movie for me was the “Geek Love” that Jon Favreau gave all us long-time fans. There is a scene after the end credits that was made for fans of The Avengers. There were many who stayed until the end credits to see this scene, but only true comic book fans understood the significance of that last reveal. There is mention all the way through the movie of an organization whose initials are SHIELD. Once again, a geek reference that pays off at the end. Jim Rhodes, who would later in the comics become War Machine, has a quick comment at one point that also adds to the geek excitement. There are even smaller things, like one that pays homage to Jeff Daniels’ role in TRON. Jon Favreau has made a movie that has all the excitement, explosions and character development that mainstream audiences demand, but never forgets about the niche market of comic book fandom. These are the fans that will go back for repeat viewings, fans who will love this movie forever, all thanks to it catering to them as well.
There were small problems. The movie could have been cut down a little bit. I think some of the comedy could have been scaled back to keep the story a little more tightly paced. I also feel that the final battle between Iron Man and Iron Monger had a little of the Transformers style editing and that makes the battles hard to follow. These problems are small and in no way hurt the credibility of this movie. I believe, at the end of the day, it is better than last year’s big robot movie (The Transformers) and has set a bar that will be hard to reach by this summer’s upcoming superhero movies. Going in, I felt it would be better than the upcoming Incredible Hulk but not up to the level of The Dark Knight. Walking out of the movie, I now believe The Dark Knight has a lot to live up to if it wants to be anywhere near the level of Iron Man.
The bar has now been raised. Iron Man is the best superhero film since Spider Man 2 and everyone else better pick up their game or it might end up being the best action movie of 2008.