Sunday, May 04, 2008

At the movies: Iron Man

As a comic book fanboy -- as well as a longtime fan of the brilliant Robert Downey Jr. -- there was no way I was going to miss the opening weekend of "Iron Man," and I wasn't disappointed. Spoilers coming up just as soon as I find out what my Social Security number is -- and, for anyone who still plans to see the movie, make sure you do not leave the theater before the closing credits finish running...

I went to see the movie with Matt Seitz, and as we attempted to wipe the smiles off our faces afterwards, he made an observation that he repeats in the comments to Ryland Walker Knight's review at The House Next Door:
the film inspired a reaction similar to the one I had after seeing "Casino Royale," which took James Bond seriously as a person and surrounded him with other psychologically credible characters and created a central love story that was not even remotely a joke, and it was one of the biggest hits of the series entire then-44 year run; it made me wonder what took them so long. Same thing here: "Iron Man" delivers the requisite rock'-em, sock-'em robots action (much more thrillingly and coherently than "Transformers," which suffered from Michael Bay's characteristically sloppy-yet-monotonously monumental filmmaking) but the parts that are really compelling, at times thrilling, are the little grace notes and moments of character interplay.
And that's really the key to what makes "Iron Man" work. It has all the superhero movie trappings, but it takes the human emotions within it seriously even as it manages to have a wicked sense of humor.

Other than Christopher Reeve as Superman, has there ever been a better match of superhero with actor than Downey Jr. as Tony Stark? Downey Jr. was a prodigy from an early age who let his addictions take over his life; Stark's a prodigy who enjoys the celebrity life a little too much. (In the late '70s/early '80s, the Iron Man comics even acknowledged that Stark was an alcoholic, and even did a years-long storyline where he was too drunk to wear the armor.) What's more, there's a joy that Downey brings to almost every performance -- even in darker movies like "Two Girls and a Guy" -- that fits perfectly with Stark, a man so smart and so rich that he can have and do anything he wants.

From the very first scene in the Humvee, where Stark manages to be both intimidating and ingratiating, obnoxious and charming at the same time, the performance is an amalgamation of the best of Downey Jr.'s fast-talking hustler characters, but with a difference: Downey's Stark isn't talking so quickly because he needs to trick anyone, but because his mouth is always straining to keep up with his brilliant mind. While Downey spars well with Gwyneth Paltrow and Terence Howard in a '30s screwball comedy way, some of the movie's best scenes feature him working solo, bickering with the computers and other gadgets in his home. It's a measure of Downey that he can get such big laughs playing off of machines, but also telling of Stark that he has a tendency to treat machines as if they were people. (His bickering with Jarvis, the artificial intelligence that runs both his home and the Iron Man suit, was like "Knight Rider" if "Knight Rider" was made by people with talent.) Director Jon Favreau (who, in his role as Stark's bodyguard Happy Hogan, seems to have slimmed back down to his "Swingers" fighting weight) understands how to exploit Downey's comic gifts in a way that doesn't camp up the story.

Other than relocating from Vietnam to Afghanistan, the movie is a very faithful retelling of the origin story from the comic books, with Shaun Toub giving Stark (and the movie) a moral center as the suicidal Yinsen. By the time I started reading Iron Man comics, Tony had already had the surgery to remove the shrapnel from his heart, and while it made sense from a plausbility standpoint -- given the advances in medical technology, it was silly for Tony not to try to have the stuff removed -- I understand why the really old-school fans talk about missing the element of Tony needing the armor to survive. In the movie, he only needs the mini-arc reactor (which is a gorgeous visual), but the sequence where he has to stagger through the workshop in search of the spare that Pepper saved for him reminded me of the stories the old-schoolers used to describe of Tony, the armor out of power, having to crawl towards a wall socket in order to survive.

Because this is an origin story, and because Favreau and company no doubt understood that Downey was going to turn out to be the selling point, there's a minimum of action in the movie -- essentially, the escape from the caves, the flight training sequence, the quick jaunt to liberate the village, and then the battle with Stane as Iron Monger -- but those scenes are exciting enough (and coherently shot enough) to satisfy, especially since Downey's performance is so much fun even in a relatively mundane setting like the black tie reception.

Favreau has said he imagines this as the first of a trilogy, and based on the early box office returns, I can't imagine we won't get at least two sequels. The post-credits scene sets us up for what the next story might be -- and brings the Ultimate Nick Fury character full-circle with its casting -- but I almost hope they don't go in that direction. An Avengers movie might be cool, but if there's one thing that movies like "Batman Forever" and "Spider-Man 3" have taught us, it's that less is more with the number of characters in a comic book movie. Downey's so good that I don't want him having to share time with whoever's playing Captain America, Thor, etc. I suppose the problem of doing another solo Iron Man project is that the comic book doesn't provide many villains who would translate well to the movies (it's hard to do The Mandarin without making him seem racist, for instance), but I think that can be dealt with when the time comes.

What did everybody else think?

34 comments:

J said...

I liked the A-Team half of the flick, wasn't so hot about the corporate espionage half. Thought the end battle had the exact same probs as The Hulk's, just swap Bridges and bigger suit for Nolte and bigger Gamma catastrophe.

But it was light and fun and the seven-year-old near me who talked through the whole thing only added to the movie.

Toto said...

Agree on just about every count. Treating this subject matter seriously is the key. The modern miracle here is that a blockbuster-in-waiting like "Iron Man" was made with wit, intelligence and integrity. Whoda thunk it?

boffo said...

The movie was just awesome.

If you're interested in the early Iron Man, I suggest picking up The Essential Iron Man Volume 1. It's the first 34 Iron Man stories. A lot of fun, although somewhat hokey in the way that 60s Marvel comics usually are.

Rachel said...

I didn't know a thing about the old Iron Man comic going in and went solely for the glowing things I'd heard about the performances of RDJ and Paltrow.

The movie really delivered -- it was funny, exciting, and visually thrilling. And the pace was great. Not once did I wonder "how much longer" like I often do at other popcorn movies.

RDJ was pitch perfect. He straddled the asshole/genius/reformed hero line perfectly. And Paltrow did a good job with relatively little (though they gave her some nice zingers). I loved -- as Owen Gleiberman at EW called it -- the gross out/love scene between them. Well done all around.

It has topped the century mark mark already so bring on the sequel!

Mrglass said...

The actors were great, but the story was really too predictable. It is a great B-movie, but I don't understand all the critical praise.

Alap said...

compleeeetely unrelated to iron man, but still marvel-related and television-related: has anyone been watching the new "spectacular spider-man" series on saturday mornings? i watched out of duty the poorly animated, ramones-do-the-theme-song version from the mid-90's, and caught some of the stilted mtv version from a few years ago, but as hard as it is to believe, this series has the same intelligence, emotion, and structural coherence that "batman: the animated series" had when it changed the way people think about children's animated television.

just watch the third episode, the one with the lizard's origin, which has the sharp, simple character moments--the teen drama between peter and gwen, doc connor's guilt-ridden relationship with his son, that most every saturday morning cartoon either doesn't have the time or doesn't care to squeeze into the story. plus, the animation style is super clean and broad, so the action scenes are actually pretty bracing to watch. honestly, it's the closest "ultimate spider-man" has come to being put to screen.

i don't expect you to do weekly recaps of the show or anything, alan, but if i folded my hands really tightly and asked in a sweet tone, could you at least do one of those one-shot, overall impression dealies you do for shows like "bones" every once in a while?

chris w said...

I'm pretty sure they were setting up The Mandarin. I think the bald terrorist guy will end up being him. Think about it: we didn't see an on-screen death so there's plausibility that he survived Stane's attack on the camp. His organization was called The 10 Rings. What is the Mandarin's power? 10 rings. Boo. Ya.

Also, is that Terrence Howard's normal speaking voice? Was anyone else kind of put off by his voice in this?

All around a great and fun movie.

chris w said...

Unrelated to Iron Man but just occured to me:

Did you ever catch up with The Venture Bros.? I hope you did because season 3 is starting the beginning of July. I have to say that show is the best thing to come out of Cartoon Network's Adult Swim and I really think you'll dig it.

Andrew said...

My favorite scene was probably the one where Downey and Bridges are battling over a pizza box.

stevie said...

Indeed. I can't remember a movie that handled casting as perfectly as this one. And the geeks in my theater all screamed when the big cameo at the end happened. (I was wondering if it would be Ultimates Fury or Regular Fury, and was delighted to see the former.)

Also, as a Ghostface Killah fan, I was happy to see some Tony Stark/Tony Starks crossover action.

cg said...

Drat, drat, drat. Of course I didn't stay through the closing credits!

Alan Sepinwall said...

Drat, drat, drat. Of course I didn't stay through the closing credits!

Go to YouTube and do a search for Iron Man and Nick Fury. You'll find one of several cameraphone videos of it.

cg said...

Thank goodness for YouTube! Thanks.

Nicole said...

I didn't know about the end credits sequence, but luckily my detective skills kicked in when I noticed that no one had rushed out as the credits were rolling. I just saw it today, so I presume word about it had spread.

RDJ was great, but it is rare that he is not. GP was pretty good too and her bitchiness was refreshing, especially as compared to that reporter chick, who just seemed like a regular Hollywood blonde found in way too many movies.

I'm not into comic books, so I didn't get all the inside jokes, but even I figured out that gov't agent from SHIELD would be in the sequel. Terence Howard didn't have much to do in this one, and if Sam Jackson is on board for the next one, poor Terence will be shoved even further in the background.

RDJ kept saying in interviews that he would complain about the script he got every day until he was satisfied. Obviously it worked and hopefully the same happens in the next one to keep this fresh.

Devin McCullen said...

It was a lot of fun. Downey was excellent. Gwyneth, I'm not so sure about. The character doesn't make a lot of sense, but it's not really her fault.

I'm not sure whether to complain or just award them points for chutzpah for not even bothering to come up with an explanation on how Pepper survived the explosion at the end of the fight.

Stef said...

I loved it, loved it, loved it. I also didn't know anything about the Iron Man story going in, but I was amazed by the intelligence of this summer blockbuster. And you're right, RDJ was PERFECT. There's no other actor who could've played Stark so well. In many ways, this movie reminded me of The Bourne Identity, kinda like your comments on the last Bond, in terms of being genre-elevating and proving that an action film can also have a brain and a heart.

And yeah, totally missed the end credits. Thank goodness for the Internets.

Dark Tyler said...

I don't know what it is this movie did to me, but I've never been happier for someone I didn't personally know earning so much money. Apparently 'Iron Man' obliterated everything in its path (including GTA 4 :p) and opened with $101, the second biggest 3-day opening for a non-sequel in the history of the box office. And with the ridiculously positive reaction from both the critics and the audience, I'd expect a full trilogy to be greenlit yesterday.

By the way, I didn't take the final scene to mean that Sam Jackson will star in the next one, just that they're setting up their first crossover. You can tell Marvel is behind this flick and not a proper studio, huh? ;)

Dark Tyler said...

Well, had it actually opened at $101 would have been kinda embarrassing.

Michael said...

They made an oblique reference to the Mandarin - the bad guys were said to be working for "The Ten Rings".

Nice to see they gave credit to Stan Lee, Don Heck, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby, although I think this Stark owes more to the Michelinie/Layton era and Obadiah Stane is from the Denny O'Neil era.

Other easter eggs: the cartoon "Iron Man" theme in Rhodey's cell phone; Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" in the closing credits (without vocals); and Jarvis, the electronic butler (but who will be the butler in the Avengers mansion?).

dez said...

I'm also one of those who didn't know much about Iron Man going in (except that he was an alkie and as a old friend put it, "kind of a dick"), but I loved this flick! As others have noted, the pacing and casting were perfect, and the ending after the ending was a lot of fun. I heard after the film that Iron Man 2 was given the greenlight this weekend, so there will be at least one more. Yay for Jon Favreau and RDJ (who I adore)! :-)

@chris w: I don't know much about Terrence Howard, but his voice didn't bother me. What did you think was wrong with it?

ripvanruben said...

I don't think we need to worry about Terrence Howard being sidelined in the sequel. From what Howard said on Kimmell the other night, the sequel will focus on his character having to dawn the armor and eventually having a showdown with tony and the eventual creation of War Machine. Id guess a third sequel would be a showdown with the Mandarin.

I don't think Sam Jackson will figure too heavily in any iron man movies. He is rumored to be making cameos in Marvel studios flicks to lay the ground work for an eventual Avengers movie. It would be cool if he poped up in the Ed norton Hulk flick too.

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure they were setting up The Mandarin. I think the bald terrorist guy will end up being him. Think about it: we didn't see an on-screen death so there's plausibility that he survived Stane's attack on the camp. His organization was called The 10 Rings. What is the Mandarin's power? 10 rings. Boo. Ya.

I'd probably agree with you on the first statement, but not on the second. If anything, the Mandarin is likely to be that guy's boss - because why would Stane, who paralyzed a known killer, instruct his henchmen to leave him alive after executing his men? Also, Stane said something about the paralysis being the least he'd need to worry about (since Excedrin headache #357 was coming right up).

I think we'll see the Ten Rings again - just not "poor" Raza.

Diana said...

I want to see the two sequels, PLUS Jarvis the AI (Paul Bettany's clipped British sarcasm) getting his own spin-off!

Tony said...

They're definitely going to bring in The Mandarin. I think the warlord was a Mandarin lackey as well. I don't think he was the Mandarin, since Mandarin is supposed to be a brilliant scientist. I didn't get that impression from the terrorist leader.

dez said...

Among the other things I didn't notice (such as the ringtone mentioned earlier): Tom Morello doing a cameo as the first guard sent in to check on Tony when he's getting the first Iron Man suit ready (the guard who subsequently gets tossed into a wall).

dez said...

Oh, yeah, and RDJ is playing Tony Stark in the upcoming HULK flick, according to the imdb.

Anonymous said...

Oh, it's not just that. We are getting us some Avengers action. In order: Hulk (June 2008), Iron Man 2 (April 2010), Thor (June 2010), Captain America (May 2011), Avengers (July 2011).

http://www.filmbuffonline.com/2008/05/avengers-assembling-in-july-2011-iron.html

No other Marvel properties in development besides these right now. God, I hope they get them all right.

Anonymous said...

I agree that Terrence Howard's voice was weird, but I got used to it eventually. It kind of had a high-pitched, Johnny Depp's Willy Wonka quality to it. Just a little bit creepy almost.

hazmatzak said...

how Pepper survived the explosion at the end of the fight

The big white light fountain, or the classic orange fireball that followed? I have read the former was akin to an EMP, so Pepper would be fine unless she had a pacemaker (and Stark's old arc reactor was so low and flickery in power that he managed to survive). As for the good old well-lit gasoline fireball, I would say she had run out in time.

dez said...

Oh, it's not just that. We are getting us some Avengers action. In order: Hulk (June 2008), Iron Man 2 (April 2010), Thor (June 2010), Captain America (May 2011), Avengers (July 2011).


What really puzzles me from that link you provided is THE PUNISHER film that's supposedly coming out. Is that a remake of the first two? A sequel? Something completely other? :-)

Kenrick said...

I'm a big Marvel Comics fan. I thought the movie was good, but it didn't blow me away or anything. It was exactly what I thought it would be. I'm sure part of it was because I had seen so many online clips and knew too much about it.

I became a fan of RDJ's because of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, so I was expecting RDJ to do great in this movie, and Favreau definitely seemed like he knew what he was doing and tried to keep in touch with comics fandom.

So yeah I expected this movie to be good and so I didn't feel the wow factor that the average movie goer might have gotten from thinking it'd be your average popcorn flick. The overwhelming critical praise was almost a detriment for me in this regard.

That said, I enjoyed the first half immensely, but wasn't quite as taken with the second half and the conflict with Obi as the main baddy.

Btw, I get the points about Howard's voice. It was a little high pitched and whiny, but it didn't bother me.

nevada smith said...

The GOOD - RJD as the best action hero ever. Right up there with Christian Bale and Christopher Reeves (as someone else here said). The story-and did I mention RJD.
THE BAD-Terence Howard's further downward spiral in every movie he's been in since Hustle and Flow. Isolate his scenes and I swear you'll want to kill him. I'm sorry to hear he'll be in the next one. Paltrow-wasted in all but one scene (taking out the trash indeed). Jeff Bridges, slurping, alkie, bald-ass was as annoying a character as I've seen in years-and not because of how it was written-but because how it was played.
OVERALL-the best superhero movie in ages-at least 10 times better than Transformers.
THE UGLY-the after-credits. I hope it's just a joke that Samuel Jackson is Nick Fury/SHIELD. I am so tired of Samuel Jackson in anything he does. The most overrated actor of his generation (although he does get a little play for Pulp Fiction)

Bill said...

"What really puzzles me from that link you provided is THE PUNISHER film that's supposedly coming out. Is that a remake of the first two? A sequel? Something completely other? :-)"

It is a sequel, but with a new Punisher. Thomas Jane dropped out of the project and they recast with Ray Stevenson (Titus Pullo from HBO's "Rome").

dez said...

^Pullo the Punisher? I am so there! :-)