Friday, November 21, 2008

Iron Man (Marvel Studios/Paramount, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

At least last night we finally had the chance to watch the film Iron Man, which I’d bought on DVD on my last shopping spree at Sam Goody’s (in the deluxe two-DVD edition that’s actually packaged in a metal container!) and I thought it was quite good, though hardly a world-beater even in its genre of comic-book superhero movies. In this version, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) — the man who would become Iron Man — is the principal owner and CEO of a large defense contractor, Stark Industries, founded by his father, who worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II. When his parents were killed in a car accident, company manager Obadiah Stane (an almost unrecognizable shaved-headed Jeff Bridges) took over as a sort of regent until Tony — already established as a precocious scientific genius with a record of inventions well before puberty — turned 21 and could take the reins himself.

At the start of the film Tony is riding in a Humvee in Afghanistan with three soldiers — including the driver, a woman whom Tony at first doesn’t realize is such but instantly makes a pass at her when he catches on — when it’s hit by enemy forces and blown up. Tony survives but is taken prisoner, and then there’s a title, “Thirty-Six Hours Earlier,” which introduces a flashback that explains what Tony’s life was like before that. Basically he was a combination Charles Foster Kane, James Bond and Arthur (the one Dudley Moore played in two 1980’s movies), drinking, partying, carousing, womanizing (he goes to Las Vegas to receive an “Apogee Award” for his defense work — “The military-industrial complex has its own Academy Awards?” Charles asked incredulously — only Obadiah has to accept it for him because Tony is too busy romancing women and shooting craps at the hotel’s casino) and even getting to go to bed with a reporter, Christine Everhart (Leslie Bibb) who publicly called him a “merchant of death” and who wakes up the next morning in Tony’s palatial mansion, empty except for his personal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, giving a good account of herself even in what is probably the silliest role of her career), who explains that “sometimes my duties involve taking out his trash” before escorting Ms. Everhart out the door.

Just when I was wondering where John Gielgud (or his equivalent) was, he turned up in the person — or device, rather — of Jarvis (voice of Paul Bettany), Stark’s rather nanny-ish household computer (as distinguished from all the ones he works with). The flashback takes us back to Afghanistan, where Tony had gone to demonstrate a new super-weapon, the “Jericho,” to the U.S. forces — and it turns out his captor is Abu Bakaar (Sayed Badreya), an Afghan warlord and Genghis Khan wanna-be who wants Tony to build him a duplicate of the Jericho so he can rule the world — or at least that corner of it. Realizing that Abu Bakaar is going to kill him whether he builds him the Jericho or not, Tony pretends to go along; with the assistance of Raza (Faran Tahir), a decidedly heterodox fellow Abu Bakaar kept alive only because he needed an English translator to communicate with Tony, Our Hero manufactures a crude version of the “arc reactor” that powers his entire factory and inserts it into his own heart, which is full of bits of shrapnel from a fragmentation missile that will kill him if he doesn’t wear some sort of electromagnet to keep the pieces away from his heart.

Then he constructs a metal suit and turns himself into an indestructible warrior; he uses it to escape but has to abandon the pieces in the desert. When he gets back to the U.S. he holds a press conference to announce that from then on Stark Industries will no longer do defense work — Iron Man is really a change-of-the-Zeitgeist film; though it was released last May it appears to signal a change in U.S. political and social consciousness from the devil-may-care individualism and foreign adventurism of the Bush II years to the more sober, more restrained approach on both domestic and foreign issues Obama promised in his campaign — and Obadiah Stain, turning the movie into a sort of high-tech version of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, files suit to have him declared incompetent and have the board fire him.

The rest of the movie shows Tony, aided only by Pepper and his computer Jarvis (and Pepper has to do a lot of fancy reverse-hacking to make sure Tony’s files appear only on his own computer and not on the company ones which Obadiah is watching), developing a new version of his Iron Man suit that will enable him to fly, be invulnerable to ordinary bullets and fire special “repulsor rays” powered by the same arc-reactor technology that is keeping the shrapnel inside him from destroying his heart. It turns out that Obadiah has been the bad guy all along; he’s cut the deals that have sold Stark Industries weapons to countries and free-lance armies all over the world, including enemies of the U.S., and he arranged with Abu Bakaar to have Tony kidnapped and killed, apparently out of jealousy that Tony inherited the company he had kept going through Tony’s minority. Obadiah uses the bits of Tony’s prototype suit Abu Bakaar’s forces salvaged from the desert to design and build his own version, and the two Iron Men battle it out at the end in the film’s big set-piece action scene.

The best thing about Iron Man is the sheer quirkiness of casting Robert Downey, Jr. in the title role — I suspect this is the most eccentric bit of playing a superhero in a comic-book movie since Michael Keaton’s turn as Batman in the 1989 Tim Burton franchise revival film, which still remains my touchstone for the genre: Burton’s dark, atmospheric direction and the superb performances he got from Keaton as Batman and especially from Jack Nicholson as the Joker have yet to be equaled. (Perhaps I should reserve judgment until I have a chance to see the latest Batman film, The Dark Knight — which Charles saw in a theatre when he visited his family and said was even more “gadgety” than Iron Man.) Aside from the mild political/social commentary about the morality (or lack of same) of the defense industry, Iron Man is a workmanlike film, surprisingly unsuspenseful (in all the action scenes we’re quite well aware beforehand of what is going to happen and the director, Jon Favreau, brings a lot to the film but can’t or won’t really do suspense), and as an action movie Iron Man delivers the goods but could use a bit more excitement.

There’s a nice scene in which Downey as Tony Stark is trying out his suit for the first time and taking a good deal of joy out of his new-found power — though the first Spider-Man movie did this trope even better — and the high point of Downey’s acting comes when Obadiah removes the device in his heart that’s keeping him alive and he has to flounder around on the floor to reach the backup device; I couldn’t help but wonder if he’d done the Method thing and used his experiences in rehab as the basis for his work in this scene.

Iron Man isn’t a great movie but it is a quite workmanlike one, entertaining and a pleasant way to while away two hours but a bit short of what it could have been with more of Tim Burton’s demented imagination or the social comment the Wachowski brothers have sneaked into some of their movies (V for Vendetta in particular) — and it seems a pity that almost no one but Charles and I noticed Downey’s fine work in The Singing Detective, a movie that seems to have sank into the dustbin of movie history, notable only for the trivia that someone associated with the production of Iron Man saw it and thought Downey would be good in this role. Iron Man is also noteworthy as the first film Marvel Comics has produced itself — though in partnership with Paramount — on the quite natural theory that rather than sell the rights to their characters to other studios and get only a small share of the profits, they can make both the movies and the lion’s share of the money from them themselves.