First of all, let me qualify this review by saying that I am a huge DC Comics nut. One need only look as far as my blog header to determine that. So the fact that a Marvel comic-to-film adaptation caught my eye was an achievement in itself. After seeing the trailer for Iron Man a few months ago, it did more than merely ‘catch my eye’; it actually made me excited for the film. If you haven’t seen it already, take some time to have a look:
What you can take away from that trailer, and what I ultimately took away from the film is this: a grounded plot and believable acting can sell an iron man, comic book films are supposed to be fun, and Robert Downey Jr. is a perfect fit for Tony Stark.
Downey Jr. portrays an utterly human Tony Stark in the Marvel tradition – conflicted and flawed, but ultimately likable. The billionaire industrialist, like his father before him, has built his entire fortune and empire on weapons manufacture and military technology. In the film’s opening scenes, you really get the impression that Stark believes in his company’s role in global stability. This all comes into conflict, though, after an explosive sales-pitch in the Middle-East, when Stark is grievously injured and captured in a terrorist firefight. Iron Man is really born in his prison-cave, long before the suit is built. Indeed, he is born almost out of necessity – Stark wakes up connected to a car battery – an electromagnet the only thing keeping shrapnel from his heart. But more than that, Stark is forced to confront the reality of his world [he’s also forced at gunpoint to re-create his own missile, but that’s another story]; a world in which his own weapons are proliferated for evil designs. His fellow prisoner Yinsen becomes his closest friend, who not only inspires him to be Iron Man, but also helps him build Iron Man. It feels as though Downey’s brought a lot of himself to the table: the slick, aging ‘rock star’ who yearns for release from the shallow trappings of wealth and fame. It’s almost ironic that Stark manages to fill that void by constructing a shell for himself.
Downey Jr. is Tony Stark. Tony Stark is Iron Man.
Iron Man is rich with themes and metaphors like these. The most obvious themes being those of financial, military, and creative power, and accountability for that power. In many ways Iron Man represents the America that it wants to be. On his first jaunt as the finished Iron Man, Stark ventures back to his place of capture to destroy his own weapons and take out the terrorists, without a single civilian casualty. It’s a pity that these excursions are few and far between, but that’s the price of the obligatory first-film-as-origin-story approach. Having said that, Iron Man features one of the better origin stories this side of Batman Begins, and it’s really necessary to sell us on the idea of one man having the mental, financial, and technological capacity to build such a complex suit of armour. Having witnessed the level of detail in the special effects, it really made me wonder how anyone could have believed in an Iron Man as early as the sixties. That’s more a testament to the film than a criticism of the source material.
As amazing as the special effects are, it’s the performance of the cast that really carries the plot. All of the major players (Downey Jr., Terence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, and Shaun Toub) serve as strong reference points with believable and well-rounded performances. Tony Stark is more than just a billionaire playboy, Pepper Potts is more than a love interest, James Rhodes is more than just a ‘token black guy’. You really get the impression that these characters are in it for the long haul, and there are a few gentle nods toward this notion. As I alluded to earlier, Robert Downey Jr. was the perfect choice to play Stark, winning us over with his wit and charm, and convincing us in those grim, life and death moments. Iron Man really has the right combination of comedy and mature content for a comic book film, and is reflective of the age and sensibilities of the comic readership. A majority of the laughs are dealt in the suit-testing phases. In these scenes, wealth and technology become his uncomfortable allies, and slowly we see him scorn the former for his Greater Purpose. Granted, this message can be a little hard to swallow with all the product placement (Iron Man would like to thank Burger King, Ford and Audi for their support), but it’s another day at the office for Showbiz.
In what I perceive as its central theme – Creativity vs. the Man – Iron Man takes more than a few stabs at big corporations. In Iron Man, we ultimately see Stark as the creative human being, and the Corporation as a perverter of creativity, and a thief of great ideas. When Iron Man faces off against his own technology in the final battle, he asserts his position as a responsible and accountable force in the world. Again, he is the America that America wants to be.
With spot-on characterisations and richness in theme, credit must go to the scriptwriting team for mining and distilling the wealth of the source material, and director Jon Favreau for handling the film with utmost respect for the character [it all comes back to using power responsibly, see?]. Iron Man brings home the gold, but it also keeps a few aces up its sleeve. If you’re a comics fan, you should have a fair idea of what to expect in the sequel, just don’t look too hard before you actually see the film.
When all is said and done, Iron Man stands tall as a great comic book film. It works both as an action film and a comic book story, denying the power of neither medium. Favreau, Downey and Company sell an iron man to a new audience, even to this DC Comics fan. Well done.