I’ve never been a fan of Robert Downey, Jr. Not because of all his personal struggles (though his judgement has certainly been less than impressive many times), but because I felt like he was a one-note actor who could only play smarmy jerks. Also, Iron Man himself has always been a character I could take or leave. I never had much against him, but never sought out his adventures either. Consequently, I wondered if seeing Iron Man would be an unpleasant repeat of the Ghost Rider experience — an actor who annoys me playing a superhero I don’t care about.
Well Robert, all is forgiven. You were fantastic. And Shellhead, you’re more interesting to me than you’ve ever been, thanks to this movie, a note-perfect film distillation of Iron Man comics. The movie does an absolutely stellar job of making Iron Man an emblematic hero for our current historical moment, and makes Stan Lee’s concepts seem smarter and more prescient than they ever were (not that they were dumb!)
Having seen the movie, I now cannot think of anyone better than Robert Downey, Jr. to play Tony Stark. For one thing, Stark is a smarmy jerk as the film begins, and Downey’s already got that bit nailed. Where he surprised me, though, was in his ability to make Stark’s emergent heroism truly believable, while maintaining the core truth that the character remains in many ways an arrogant, reckless egomaniac. Much of the credit here goes to the excellent screenplay (which IMDb credits to four different writers, with no doubt many more behind the scenes), but Downey brings a genuine and fierce commitment to his scenes. I’m thinking in particular of his “there is only the next mission” scene with Gwyneth Paltrow. Oh, and let’s talk about Paltrow. She never screams. Not once. After three Spider-Man movies’ worth of shrieking Kirsten Dunst, I loved this choice. She makes Pepper Potts (a hackneyed 60’s character if there ever was one) feel like a real person, a loyal but conflicted friend (and, she never forgets, employee) of a self-destructive genius. When Stark undergoes a moral sea-change after his long trauma, we can see her wondering whether he has truly changed, or whether he’s imploding in an all-new way. In the moment when she quits (well, threatens to quit, really), I liked seeing her struggle between company loyalty, moral right, and protectiveness of her friend, whose sudden world-saving crusade seems suicidal even if it’s noble and redemptive. Jeff Bridges — long one of my favorite actors anyway — does wonderful work here as Stark’s Judas, Obadiah Stane. What could feel like an abrupt and frustrating transition runs smooth as silk in Bridges’ hands. He’s perfect at glad-handing the media, while showing us little sinister explosions behind the scenes to prepare us for the big one. The only underused main cast member is Terence Howard. The movie knows this though, and when he gazes wistfully at the second suit and says, “Next time, baby!”, it’s reassuring us that if there is indeed a sequel (and based on this weekend’s numbers, it looks very likely), Howard’s Jim Rhodes will play a significant part.
That moment, setting up the pieces perfectly for the next section of the story, is one of the film’s many examples of clever storytelling. This movie is quite a loyal adaptation of its source materials, and where it makes a choice to alter them, the alteration is always an improvement. For instance, the Iron Man of the comics was born when Stark was captured in Vietnam. The film updates this to Afghanistan, and it works beautifully, even better than Vietnam works in the origin. Making Stark’s captors independent mercenaries who benefit from his weapons (courtesy of the double-dealing Stane) brings Iron Man into the 21st century, where the enemies that attack America aren’t affiliated with any particular country and can’t be fought by conventional means (unbeknownst to the Bush administration.) Raza’s choice to double-cross Stane by forcing Stark to build a weapon rather than just killing him is completely convincing in this context. Weaving Iron Man’s origin story in with Stane’s machinations (which didn’t enter the source comics until 25 years later) is a great bit of construction, giving the movie a much more unified feel than some other superhero first episodes. Tying in with the current political situation lends an even more welcome dimension.
The story also allows the Iron Man armor to go through several generations within one story rather than stretched out over years as it is in the comics. Thus, we fans get to see the armor go from the clunky grey origin version to the sleek Golden Avenger model, and the transition feels quite natural. Speaking of generations, there were a few other sequel hints dropped in (not counting the after-the-credits teaser), such as Stane pouring a bit of Stark’s whiskey and saying, “Tony always gets the good stuff, huh?” to Potts. No doubt Downey will fit the part even better in the second movie, where Stark’s alcoholism incapacitates him and Rhodey wears the suit for a while. Oh, and I also loved the bits at the end where the movie teased superhero cliches (not allowing Stark and Potts to hook up) including those in Iron Man’s own history (“I dunno, my bodyguard? Doesn’t that story seem kind of flimsy?”) Having Stark go off-message again at his second press conference and say, “I am Iron Man” was another well-judged folding of comic continuity into the story, skipping over a lot of secret identity jazz that would very likely feel pretty tired.
Another area where the movie shines is in its art direction. All the sexy tech looks incredibly sexy — the visual design is outstanding in every area. There are a number of breathtaking moments as new armor designs get revealed, and the world in which Stark moves is rendered gorgeously, from his immaculate living quarters to his cluttered workshop. Obadiah’s Iron Monger armor is frightening enough to dwarf even the power we’ve already seen Stark’s suit display. Tony’s glowing chest piece works not only on the symbolic level, and on the story level, but it looks exactly right too. Even the costumes effectively convey character, though Pepper is saddled with ridiculous shoes that undercut her otherwise competent and efficient nature. What a pleasure: a superhero movie where almost everything looks exactly as it should, that remains true to its comic origins but actually enhances them with its abridgements and updates, and where every piece of the story and every member of the cast contributes to a genuine emotional believability.