Film Review: Iron Man (2008)

Iron Man 1

It’s easy for old Iron Man to get unfairly maligned or overly celebrated in people’s memory. The massive blockbuster smash that kick-started the whole Marvel film franchise, it has bright spots and dull ones, thrilling moments interrupted by some weirdly flat plotting. It’s the film that launched the resurrection of Robert Downey, Jr., but it’s also the film where our hero spends way too long in a cave and doesn’t do too much else when he gets out. It’s a shiny mixed bag, with more good than bad, and it had a lot of people saying, “Can’t way ‘til this really gets going in the sequel” (ominous foreshadowing.)

Of all the Marvel films, Iron Man definitely did the best job of playing on the last decade’s wartime anxieties. It tells the story of how Tony Stark – charismatic, spoiled, super-intelligent billionaire heir to an arms development fortune – is caught in an ambush in Iraq, forced to realize the trauma his wartime weapons have caused, and then builds one hell of a super-suit that allows him to escape his prison and return to America, using his technological genius to battle bad guys as Iron Man. And Robert Downey, Jr. – primarily loved because of the smooth, funny, motor-mouthed performance he puts on as Stark – also succeeds in fleshing out the idea of a loopy billionaire who is caught between his crisis of conscience and his inability to do anything about it except build bigger, explode-ier toys. Through the movie’s ups-and-downs, it was the re-introduction of RDJ to filmgoers, in all his charm and wit and hyperkinetic energy, that made Iron Man something to see (and relying on that performance would be the undoing of IM2.)

And you can’t really blame any of Iron Man’s faults on the other performances, either. Gwyneth Paltrow finds a natural, playful energy in Pepper Potts that seems to defy every negative thing said about Paltrow for years beforehand; Jeff Bridges’ gruff, flash-talking Obadiah Stane is a solid, intimating villain, if a little generic; and Shaun Toub as Professor Yinsen, the genius Iraqi prisoner Stark meets when captured, fills his role with a genuine warmth that makes us believe everything Stark does is for Yinsen’s memory. Only Terrence Howard could use an injection of attitude, anxiety, or just something to make Colonel James Rhodes feel like he’s even onscreen. But no way around it, the actors here take the pulpy source material and blow it up to life.

Iron Man’s biggest flaw is its pacing. Yes, we need to understand the time it took Stark to dwell in a cave to create the first Iron Man suit, and yes, we probably need some of the stock origin story, in which Tony learns just how to make this whole superhero thing work. But like all these damn superhero origin stories, we end up with too much build-up, too much prep, and not enough of the excitement of seeing our hero in full-on ass-kicking mode. So no matter how much gravitas Downey and Toub give the cave scene, no matter how many one-liners we get from Tony’s pet robots as he tries to build the first Iron Man suit, and no matter how cool it is just to see that red-and-gold suit rocket through the sky, it’s still a slightly weak trade for not seeing the film go into all-out action bonanza mode (an issue the sequel definitely did not fix.)

Still, director Jon Favreau manages to hit too many of the right cues to write Iron Man off as a fifty-fifty affair. Until the letdown of a final battle, he has a solid eye for big, blockbuster set pieces. He does help us to feel every step of Stark’s awkward journey from carefree playboy to missile-packing philanthropist. And there’s undeniably a squeal-worthy, child-like glee to all the bright colors, loud noises, and big explosions. And, of course, Robert Downey Jr. – just in general. It’s important to realize that this is the film is that gave birth to the upcoming Avengers. But despite its sometimes intriguing political commentary, Iron Man never really transcends the genre the way we think about with films like Spider-Man 2, X2: X-Men United, or The Dark Knight. Instead, it’s just a perfect summer popcorn movie – and we should never underestimate the need for relaxing, relieving slices of all out summertime fun.

Rating: 3.5/5 ★★★½☆ 

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About Josh_C

Josh has studied film at the Universities of Missouri and Florida, and he is currently studying horror film and popular culture in the Communication and Culture program at Indiana University. He has previously worked with the True/False Documentary Film Festival and the Ragtag Theatre in Columbia, Missouri, and he served as short-term production assistant on This Film Is Not Yet Rated. He is currently working on a dissertation on independent horror, horror film festivals, and horror fandom; feel free to contact him to discuss any of the above! He is also studying Dark Carnival Film Festival (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com).

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