May 6, 2008

Iron Man (05/06/08)

Lettergrade: B

Hollywood, having launched successful franchises based on Marvel comic book signatures like Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, and X-Men, has recently turned its check-book toward lesser known characters that I frankly have never fucking heard of. In a way, however, not knowing anything about who Iron Man is and what his deal might be made the film a bit more enjoyable for me. In fact, very enjoyable.

It's not an over-the-top, balls-out, action-n'-set-piece extravaganza, but it has some good humor, a nifty story, and several satisfying action scenes. I tend to feel that popcorn movies these days really over-exert themselves and needlessly try to be a little bigger, lengthier, and more explosive than whatever picture was out last year. I remember watching Mission: Impossible 3 and feeling utterly exhausted: We were, like, 30 minutes into the movie and there had already been what felt like four huge action scenes. Iron Man doesn't do that: Refreshingly, it brings things down a notch and in doing so provides Joe Audience with more of a reason to give a shit about the stuff that's happening between fight scenes.

The key thing that makes Iron Man work is the cast. Drug-addicted alcoholic womanizing actor Robert Downey Jr. plays drug-addicted alcoholic womanizing billionaire Tony Stark. He's a defense contractor who inherited Stark Industries after his father's death. He also inherited his dad's old business partner: Jeff Bridges who plays "Obadiah Stane." In case that name doesn't sound explicitly evil enough for you, they made him bald with a big-ass Dr. Andrew Weil style beard. In fact, anyone who's bald in this movie turns out to be blatantly evil, but that's another issue altogether. Gweneth Paltrow rounds out the cast as Pepper Potts, Stark's personal assistant, who is mysteriously in love with him despite the fact that she's seen him blow through countless one-night stands and meaningless hookups over the years. I guess she either has really loose standards or the threat of herpes isn't part of the Marvel Universe. In either case, she's cute and good in the role, so what the hell.

In a way, the premise has similarities to Batman, a DC Comics property, in that a billionaire with no particular super ability decides to use his wealth and ingenuity to fight crime. Iron Man, however, is more geared toward kicking the asses of terrorists and world-villains... he doesn't seem to be interested in muggings and bank robberies the way the Dark Knight and Superman are.

Stark is in a Generic Middle Eastern Country demonstrating a new weapon, when his motorcade is ambushed, and he is taken prisoner. Long story short, he winds up building an Iron suit to help engineer his escape, and upon returning to the US, he realizes that he can no longer supply the world with ingenious weapons that kill people. Yadda, yadda, yadda... superhero, etc.

The fact that Iron Man is not as iconic, beloved, or even as known within the superhero community does nothing but benefit the picture. It led the studio to make an unusual choice in directors, Jon Favreau, and allowed the screenwriters to come up with a loose, breezy script. Movies like Superman Returns are so rife with fan-speculation, expectation, and internet-reaction that they almost buckle under the weight of it all. Since a new Batman movie can usually expect to do good business, the budgets get astronomical and the studio micro-management is often appalling. Of course, modest budgets and low expectations didn't help Ghost Rider, Dare Devil or The Fantastic Four end up any less shitty, but I will contend that they had more of a fighting chance than Batman & Robin did.

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