A slickly attractive, well cast and solidly constructed piece of mainstream, action-adventure entertainment, Iron Man represents the latest Marvel comic property to go legit, and would seem, based on its top-shelf execution, to have all the ingredients of another successful franchise-in-waiting. Anchored by an enjoyably charismatic performance from Robert Downey, Jr., and serving as the logical extension of Jon Favreau's directing skill, the movie should represent a positive kick-off to the summer box office season for distributor Paramount.
Occupying the same early-May slot that has typically been reserved for sequels like Spider-Man 3 and Mission: Impossible III the last couple years, Iron Man should have no problem turning out Marvel's devoted fan base. With a forward-leaning protagonist seeking a more moral interaction with the world, the film also seems to have the potential to expand on its core audience. While it's not an ensemble hero piece like the X-Men series, the rest of the cast are involved enough in the story to give it a broader sense of moorings, and one can easily envision a grander series blooming from this origin story.
The absence of a hugely marketable action star, and relative stature of the comic book title, may somewhat suppress international turnout when compared to other superhero adaptations, but positive word-of-mouth and critical reaction should push Iron Man close to an even split with domestic returns. Ancillary marketplace value will be additionally robust, with extensive excised scenes, presumably re-included, driving DVD sales.
Downey, Jr. stars as billionaire industrialist and genius inventor Tony Stark, the second-generation CEO of the government’s top weapons contractor. A rascally charmer derided as being constitutionally incapable of responsibility, Stark has achieved political-celebrity status by protecting American interests around the globe for decades, and enjoying himself while doing it. This embrace of the limelight costs him, though; following an overseas weapons test, Stark's convoy is attacked. Injured by shrapnel embedded near his heart, Stark is tasked with building a weapon, but instead builds a suit of armor to escape captivity.
Upon his return to America, this erstwhile lord of war is transformed, and vows to take his company in a new direction. Despite resistance from long-time aide Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges, below right), Stark secretly sets about personally developing a cybernetically controlled suit of armor that, with its proprietary repulsor-ray technology, gives him superhuman strength and the ability to fly. Distraught by his company's complicity in a tangled case of arms double-dealing with global implications, Stark sets out, with the help of his devoted assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and trusted friend and military liaison Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard), to right past wrongs.
Some of the seams of Iron Man's screenplay — the first draft of which was penned by Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, then punched up by Children of Men co-writers Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby — show, given the lengths to which the movie goes to establish the multi-ethnicity of its terrorist bad guys. These bits, and swathes of its third act action finale, sometimes feel like an exercise in obligation, albeit dazzling in their technical execution.
Still, there's a playfulness to many especially introductory scenes that benefits Iron Man, and informs the crusading yet wryly self-effacing spirit of its protagonist. The true test of a superhero movie, especially a series debut, is whether it could survive without any of the action scenes, and Iron Man definitely could. Favreau exhibits great care and investment in establishing the relationships of all the characters, and the latent exasperation many feel for Stark; his gift with actors is evident in carefully attuned supporting performances from Bridges, Paltrow and Howard.
Also, while he previously proved his talent at juggling fantasy action elements — albeit on a much different scale, in the under-regarded kids' flick Zathura — Favreau here shows himself skilled as a cinematic constructor, a master of attention to the component parts of filmmaking. He's abetted by fantastic, sleek work from Industrial Light & Magic. The different iterations of the Iron Man suit are all interesting, as is the giant Iron Monger suit — resembling a marauding version of the title creature from 1999 animated flick The Iron Giant, from Brad Bird — that Obadiah Stane uses to battle Stark late in the movie. Other technical credits are equally top-notch.
Stark possesses intellect, ingenuity, rakishness and more than a little self-destructive single-mindedness, and Downey wonderfully captures all of those aspects of his personality. Owing to Downey's dramatic chops, there's also a glimpse of the deep reservoir of pain that comes through, effectively shading the material without explicitly dwelling on many of the darker elements present in the comics, namely Stark's alcoholism. For the full, original review, from Screen International, click here.