The summer blockbuster season is upon us, and we all know what that means: a lot fewer female-centered movies. However, as much as movie marketers seem to think every woman wants to see Made of Honor this weekend, many of us actually enjoy a good action flick every once and awhile. Like Iron Man. The first of the big-budget summer blockbusters, Iron Man, is a movie that has, in that annoying, trendy Hollywood jargon, "broad appeal". [Like "broad" as in euphemism for "female"? -Ed.] Robert Downey Jr. plays Tony Stark, an arms dealer with a limitless fortune who becomes Iron Man when he creates a computerized suit that gives him superhero abilities. (Sort of like Inspector Gadget meets Batman.) The real appeal of this movie is not in the stock Marvel Comics plot, but in the attitude and edge that Downey and Gwyneth Paltrow (who plays his assistant) bring to an otherwise standard, explosion-filled, digitally-enhanced film. In fact, film critics seem downright seduced by the film's cynical charm! Their reviews, after the jump.
Many people had a hard time imagining Downey donning superhero garb. In truth, it's hard to imagine "Iron Man" without him. For without his ironic hipster spin, without his rapid, off-speed line readings, which can make the most ordinary exposition sound like tossed-off improvs, this would be just another generic action picture with risible villains, a conventional story arc, and the inevitable showdown between two lumbering hunks of CGI metal—Iron Man vs. the even larger Iron Monger.
But the real treat is for grownups, who get a beguiling character study behind and above the special effects. Favreau — who directed the best Will Ferrell comedy (Elf) and an agreeably mature fantasy (Zathura: A Space Adventure), and before that wrote and starred in Swingers, maybe the sharpest buddy comedy of the '90s — knows that, when making a big movie, you do not leave your I.Q. at the soundstage door; you bend your gifts in different directions. He lends Iron Man the unobtrusive speed and precision of classic comedy. An actor before he was a director, he's not content to let his stars play stereotypes, or even archetypes. Bridges and Toub, and Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark's gal Friday (the most attractive she's been in years), aren't slumming in the least. They're rising to the material, and elevating it.
Like Tony Stark, Iron Man the movie has a maddening way of hiding its light (Downey) under a bushel—actually bushels and bushels—of special effects. During the action sequences (especially the disappointing final one, a face-off between Stark's Iron Man and Stane's Iron Monger), this movie could be any expensive summer blockbuster, with exploding tanks and bisected city buses and faceless mega-robots duking it out on rooftops. But when it's idling in neutral, and we're watching Stark putter in his workshop or seduce unsuspecting journalists, Iron Man abounds in that rarest of superpowers: charm.
The ace up Iron Man's sleeve, quite unexpectedly, is Gwyneth Paltrow, who brings both radiance and gentle intelligence to the role of a glorified housekeeper called Pepper Potts. How she takes out the laundry in those heels is beyond me, but she's a great sport for doing it, and her dry chemistry with our hero is worth a dozen atomic warheads. Downey may be the smartest star in a mask since Michael Keaton, but this fun, rattling picture would be all boys and toys without Paltrow to humour him.
The genius of the production lies in the agility with which it leaps from one mode to another. I'll be happy to see it again — and plan to do so over the weekend — for the pleasure of Mr. Downey's company, plus the genuine sophistication of the world that Tony Stark inhabits when he isn't driving his sexy cars or bedding a sexy writer from a glossy magazine. The serious-ish plot involves Tony's spiritual conversion from an arms magnate to a peacenik at war with his own corporation and the military-industrial complex, not to mention global terrorism, while his comic-book origins give him what amounts to an Achilles heart, a nuclear-powered device that makes him vulnerable as a man and all but invincible as his alter ego.
As Stark soars around in his titanium alloy outfit, aiming fireballs with perfect precision, he is as potent a figure as Superman. He's as rich as Bruce Wayne with an extra dollop of science-guy nerdiness, finished off with a heaping dose of snark. Iron Man's biggest strength is that the fantastically armored suit doesn't overpower the intriguingly flawed character encased within.
Wearing a goatee right out of the beatnik '50s, he's fast and frictionless, as airlessly ironic as a talk-show host who's been shoved onto the air at 3 a.m. and left to his own what-the-hell devices. The key to Downey's mocking, crumpled charm is that no matter whom he's talking to, he's really just nattering to himself. When he climbs into his Iron Man machine suit, with its whirring, clicking limbs and plated chest, flamethrower arms, and mask of a medieval knight, he doesn't disappear behind the tin-can walls of that chunky, atomic-age jet-pack robot. He's still there, a deftly fragile motormouth — a damaged soul who needs armor to fully become himself.
The hero must flex and furrow his brow; the bad guy must glower and scheme; the girl must shriek and fret. There should also be a skeptical but supportive friend. Those are the rules of the genre, as unbreakable as the pseudoscientific principles that explain everything (An arc reactor! Of course!) and the Law of the Bald Villain. In "Iron Man" it all plays out more or less as expected, from the trial-and-error building of the costume to the climactic showdown, with lots of flying, chasing and noisemaking in between. (I note that there is one sharp, subversive surprise right at the very end.)
What is less expected is that Mr. Favreau, somewhat in the manner of those sly studio-era craftsmen who kept their artistry close to the vest so the bosses wouldn't confiscate it, wears the genre paradigm as a light cloak rather than a suit of iron. Instead of the tedious, moralizing, pop-Freudian origin story we often get in the first installments of comic-book-franchise movies — childhood trauma; identity crisis; longing for justice versus thirst for revenge; wake me up when the explosions start — "Iron Man" plunges us immediately into a world that crackles with character and incident.
Downey clearly has a ball playing the weapons dealer Stark, best described as a cross between James Bond, Mick Jagger and Howard Hughes (whom Lee reportedly based Stark on). During an early flashback sequence, he's portrayed as a kid in a testosterone-laced candy store, living in a concrete temple to modernism in Malibu, delegating his longtime assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) to dispatch his one-night stands with dry-cleaned clothes and a limo home, partying with his Pentagon liaison Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard) in a private plane that, after a few drinks, transforms into a flying strip club. Once the guns start going off, "Iron Man" is fueled by so many explosions and sundry ejaculatory ya-yas that watching it is akin to sneaking into a treehouse past a sign saying "No Girls Allowed."
It's not difficult to guess where this is heading — Marvel stories are all permutations on a handful of stock scenarios — but Favreau doesn't blow it up any more than he has to. In "Elf" and "Zathura" he showed he could integrate special effects and carry the story, but like Downey, he's almost always looking for a comic spin.
A scene in which Tony invites his assistant, Pepper Potts (an appealingly valiant Gwyneth Paltrow), to reach into the hole in his chest and fix his battery is a cheeky cocktail of trust, disgust, love, sex, fear and courage (it's also a key plant for subsequent developments), but above all it plays funny. When a movie is firing on all those cylinders, you know it's a winner.