STARRING: Robert Downey Jr, Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, Shaun Toub, Leslie Bibb, Bill Smitorvich, Nazanin Boniadi, Micah Hauptman

2008, 126 Minutes, Directed by:
Jon Favreau

Superhero origin stories are usually a drag. After all, do we really want to see how Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider or how the Fantastic Four gets bombarded with gamma rays whilst adrift in space?

Not really. Audiences just want to get to the good stuff straight away Fantastic Four’s The Thing clobbering Dr. Doom without any dull exposition.

Too much exposition and too little action pay-off threaten to derail Iron Man, but the origin story is so intrinsic to the character and the plot that there is no way getting around it. After all, then Iron Man would just be some guy in a robot suit. Instead he is Tony Stark, billionaire playboy owner of Stark Industries, one of the U.S.’s biggest military weapons producers. Stark (Robert Downey, Jr. in an energetic performance) is kidnapped by some terrorists after demonstrating some of Stark Industry’s latest military technology to top brass in Afghanistan.

Ah, how the sands of global politics have shifted. In the Reagan years Afghan militia were the heroes in movies such as Rambo III. Here they are the villains. (In the original 1960s Marvel comic books Stark was captured by the Vietcong.) The Afghan villains here are however depoliticized. They seem to have no radical Islamic political agenda and are merely generic bad guys. All they want is power for the sake of it. What they are going to do once they get to power is a bit of a mystery. Thus there is no America being the “Great Satan” speeches by the head villain. Just a lot of vague grousing about becoming the next Genghis Khan stuff nothing to overtly alienate potential Muslim audiences.

The Mujadin, er sorry, Afghan bad guys force the captive Stark into building a new high-tech missile system for them. How they realistically expected him to build a piece of leading-edge technology for them in a cave using a blast furnace is a bit of mystery. One can see that it is all written by the same screenplay writers who expect audiences to buy what happens next: instead of building the missile for them, Stark builds an super-powered iron bodysuit right under their noses. The bodysuit is bulletproof, can fly and boasts a flamethrower too. Pretty impressive for what seems to be a few days’ work!

"What makes Iron Man work is an electrifying performance by Robert Downey, Jr . . ."

Stark uses the suit to escape and eventually winds up back in the States where he announces in a informal press conference that Stark Industries will be quitting the lucrative weapons manufacture business; something which he decided upon after realizing that the Afghan baddies have been supplied with Stark weapons, probably by someone within the company itself. That “someone” turns out to be his second-in-command, Obadiah Stane (played by a bald Jeff Bridges). It seems that Bridges’ cigar-chomping power-suited baldy is (surprise! surprise!) the villain all along and has actually ordered a hit on Stark so that he can take control of the company. Stane also discovers what Tony Stark has been up to since he returned from captivity in Afghanistan, namely secretly building a more advanced prototype of the metal suit he used to escape. Naturally Stane builds an even bigger metal robot (named Iron Monger, but never called that in the movie) with which Iron Man faces off during the film’s climax.

There is a noticeable dip in the action once Stark returns to the States and starts building his second robot suit, especially since we have already sat through some scenes of him having built the first suit. However Downey Jr.’s charismatic performance, some unexpected humor and exceptional special effects pull the movie through these scenes so that we can get to the mano-a-mano super-powered robots battle towards the end. These scenes are well-done, but pales somewhat to the fight scenes in last year’s Transformers.

But CGI robot fight scenes aren’t what Iron Man is about. What makes the movie work (and it does work despite its mistakes) is an electrifying performance by Robert Downey, Jr., clever and witty dialogue plus some neat special effects and some nice humorous touches. Ideally one should hate the cocky and obnoxious Stark, especially during the movie’s early scenes in which one is confronted by his envy-inducing playboy lifestyle. We are supposed to hate sleazy weapons manufacturers, right? Yet Downey, Jr. actually makes us like Stark. This is Downey’s movie and he carries it through with aplomb. The supporting cast (also including Terrence Howard and Gwyneth Paltrow as loyal sidekicks) do okay, but actually have very little to do. This is Downey’s show, and the other actors seem to realise this and never try to steal the movie from him.

The first real blockbuster of 2008, Iron Man is fluff. But it is hugely entertaining fluff. Less of a butt-numbing experience than Spider-man 3, but more substantial than Fantastic Four – Rise of the Silver Surfer, Iron Man clocks in at 126 minutes. Despite that small dip in the action, the running time is just about right. Audiences looking for grand escapist fare at cinemas this summer won’t mind having spent their price of admission on it. Be sure to get some popcorn too . . .

Some notes:

  • The film’s politics are astoundingly naïve in the way it ignores the realities of the global weapons business. For a more realistic view, check out Lord of War starring Nicolas Cage. In a way it is a mistake getting Iron Man involved in “everyday” stuff such as fixing global wrongs. Does this mean that he is going to solve all of our wars for us? Should he have been called Globocop instead? Iron Man should ideally be battling supervillains and evil masterminds.
  • In a way Iron Man is the ultimate wish-fulfillment role model for picked-upon adolescents. After all, who wouldn’t want to be a super-rich billionaire, have chicks all over them and use their money to become a real-life superhero and kick people’s asses?
  • Famously in the comics Stark fought a battle with alcoholism. In this movie he chugs down a lot of booze in his “pre-hero” phase, but seems to sober up as soon as he becomes Iron Man.
  • Iron Man flies from his home in L.A. to a remote village in Afghanistan. Question: how long did this intercontinental flight take him and for how many pee breaks did he have to land? Or is it something he does in his suit like an astronaut?
  • The movie ends somewhat abruptly and will probably have audiences wanting more . . .




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