Iron Man, Iron Man
Does whatever an iron can.
Presses pants very fine
Keeps that crease right in line
Hey there, there goes the Iron Man!
Marvel comics writer-artist John Byrne's parody of the "Spider-man" song
"Iron Man" - the first superhero film to be produced by an off-shoot of the company creating the material (Rival DC Comics' out-put is produced by Warner Brothers, whose parent company also owns DC) manages to not fall into the Inescapable Doom-Trap that plagues so many comic-book adaptations--turgid respect for the material. It seems like so many of these films ("Spider-man," "Superman Returns," "Batman Begins," "Hulk," "Sin City") think they're creating "The Song of Bernadette," instead of adapting a comic-book whose target audience is somewhere between five years old and arrested development. Kids (and adults) enjoyed these highly-derivative adventures* because of their swash-buckling derring-do and "can-do" attitude, but so many of their filmed adaptations feel that they have to encased in welschmertz two inches thick (an unhappy consequence of the Marvel "soap-opera/romance comics" style of writing in the 60's), as if the makers were incapable of transferring the joy of the source, or were ashamed of the movies' origins. "Iron Man," though it has some elements of that, neatly skirts around the heavy moments with a happy combination of Robert Downey, jr.'s manic performance and Jon Favreau's taking advantage of Downey's quirky rhythms to make the thing breezy, fast-paced and fun, despite the amount of collateral damage inflicted on the surroundings and the people in front of them. There is just enough action here to give you a taste of the "When Titans Clash!" atmosphere of the Marvel paradigm, and for once, one of those fights convinced me that comic book action could be pulled off and made just as dynamic on the big-screen (Superman's saving of a damaged 747 in "Superman Returns" is another). Fortunately, the slug-fests never last too long so that it turns into a "Transformers"-style overkill sequence. The film-makers know when enough is enough, and make the most of it.
How's the story? Well, it updates it to the present-day where munitions billionaire Anthony Stark (Downey) finds himself blown up by his own weaponry and is taken captive by a "terrorist cell" (The "Ten Rings"--which means they're twice as corrupt as the International Olympic Committee) living in the hills of Afghanistan, with only an electromagnet, engineered by his fellow captive Yensin, keeping the Stark shrapnel in his body from going to his heart (what there is of it). He is instructed to create a prototype of the "shoot-and-forget" Jericho missile that he was demonstrating to the military at the time of his capture. As the Ten Rings have a hefty supply of Stark munitions, he starts to cannibalize them for work on the missile. But, because the Kunar Province isn't really that far from Damascus, he has a change of heart (oh...heh) and creates, Macgyver-like, a suit of armor to use against his captors in a desperate escape attempt. If you haven't already suspended disbelief, the rest of the movie won't improve things. But let's just say, things get worse after they get better.
There's a lot of heavy stuff being thrown at the audience throughout the movie, the plight of refugees, the complicity of arms manufacturers who don't take sides but will take a check, and the "with great responsibility, comes not-too-great pontificating," but Favreau, taking his cue from Downey, keeps all this heavy stuff light and frothy and brushes it away to get to the fun stuff. Downey's Tony Stark is a heavy-metal Bruce Wayne, a PHD/MA with OCD and ADD, and his higher-brain power makes him the smartest smart-ass in the room and the actor's physical comedy work during the R&D, stateside, of Stark's "IronMan" armour is consistently funny, and for all the CGI supporting it, it's Downey's performance that holds your interest, reminiscent of his incredible work impersonating "Chaplin." He is so good, and so in command, that it takes Terrence Howard and Jeff Bridges everything they have to try and match him and not get blown off the screen by him (Bridges, yes, Howard, no), while Gwyneth Paltrow (with the worst name ever given a character in comics-"Pepper" Potts!) can only collapse in giggles, which given the love-sick "girl Friday" character foisted on her, seems appropriate (although more than once she gives off a "Kirsten Dunst vibe" that seems derivative).
Favreau's work is consistently good, although he betrays fan-boy roots by basing sequences on "2001," "Star Wars," and "Alien,"** and not diverging "Iron Man's " flying scenes too far from "The Rocketeer." In fact, much of the slapstick humor of getting used to your rocket-pack derives from that film. The persistent calling to mind of the "Black Sabbath" song tends to outwear its welcome as well. The folks I saw it with brought up the fact that that armour wouldn't have quite so easy a time dealing with the modern weaponry of the Iraq War on display, considering that armored Humvees (the kind seen in the first sequence of the film) don't stand up well at all. But that didn't faze the fan-boys in the audience (one of whom sitting down the aisle from me who could have been the model for "The Simpsons' "comic book guy" guffawed, stamped his foot and yelled his encouragement at the screen--he, sadly, left before the the End-Credits that finished with an Ultimate sequence that would have blown his tiny little mind). Nor did it faze them that Tony Stark was continuing to party and live the high-life while the conflict in Afghanistan continued on. Nobody found that ironic.
"Iron Man" is a Matinee, but only because it should be seen on the big screen.
* (Although Stan Lee--who has another cameo in this one, though it's mercifully short--will tell you otherwise, Iron-Man's steely roots can be traced back to Dumas, and some cribbed elements from the Distinguished Competition)
** "Prove it" you says, defensively. Fine. The POV shots inside Stark's and Stane's robot helmets recall the shots of the Discovery astronauts in their pods, the read-outs reflecting off their faces, and "Jarvis" is no longer the Stark butler--how very "Alfred" that would be--but now is a voice-provided computer, ala HAL. For "Star Wars," Yinsen pulls a "Han Solo" early on , running , screaming down a cave-corridor after a couple of guards, only to have PRECISELY the same outcome, and Favreau includes a POV of the "IronMan" mask aproaching Stark's face ala "Revenge of the Sith." And for no other reason to acknowledge and crib the same creepy feeling it evokes, he has the same "singing chains" sequence from the first "Alien" movie. These are NOT coincidences.