Iron Man has been blowing away the box office the last few weeks to take the undisputed top spot so far this summer season. I was skeptical upon first glimpsing the trailer, but any misgivings I had about this movie were absolutely demolished upon finally seeing it. Iron Man is the paragon of a well made comic book movie, a tale of human redemption wrapped in a slick sci-fi veneer, good enough to probably single-handedly save the career of it's star.
As a friend put it, Robert Downey Jr.'s performance as Tony Stark is a testament to the fact that a bad coke habit won't diminish your acting talents an iota. The man is the movie: he manages to make a believable turn from a not vain, but rather completely immodest billionaire genius playboy, to a slightly less vain billionaire genius eccentric do-gooder. Whoever wrote Stark's dialog deserves a raise, as does Downey Jr. for his perfect delivery of it: the character managers to be witty, funny and immensely likable, even as he's living a life of perpetual adolescence. Certain lines are simply perfect, and I won't spoil any by giving them away here. Unlike certain other superhero alter egos---cough, Bruce Wayne, cough---who seem to function as powerfully effective chick magnets by merely being dark and brooding, Stark manages the feat by behaving the way you'd expect someone with looks, charisma, intelligence and money, who's got the world completely in his pocket, to actually behave. Hugh Hefner's cameo only underscores this. Hell, I'd date Tony Stark.
In fact, getting a capable star without overpaying doubtless allowed the resources to go to movie's real star: the special effects. Now people who's been reading this column for a while know that I'd not the kind to be easily impressed by oodles of whiz-bang CGI. But Iron Man manages the rare feat of presenting near future technology so beautifully it's a tech-head's wet dream. From the robotic arm Stark uses as a lab assistant, to the graphics on the computer displays in his workshop, to the lovingly rendered armoring up sequences where Stark's Iron Man suit is not so much put on or taken off as it is built and reconstructed around his body, every effect shines every bit as much as Iron Man's armor. Despite the fact that we're watching a man in a robotic exoskeleton outrun and out-maneuver fighter jets, or single-handedly take out a terrorist army, once we grant the money it's premise we really never hit a moment where we have to stop to question it's believability. Practical or not, this looks the kind of tech we'd expect a billionaire to have access to in ten years or so (not the suit, maybe, but everything else for sure), and the effects shop build a computer model so good it's usually impossible to tell when we're looking at a physical prop or an electronic one. Well done, indeed.
Gwyneth Paltrow's turn as Pepper Potts, Stark's capable assistant and the only person really close to him is another winner. Paltrow manages to come off both more demure and more alluring than any of the bevy of supermodels Stark cavorts with earlier, and we're not left with any question as to where their sudden attraction comes from. Following in the first Spiderman's footsteps, Iron Man lets the romantic tension between Stark and Potts build slowly and go ultimately unresolved. I don't remember this romantic subplot being an important part of the Iron Man universe before this film, but it's addition is a deft improvement, offering an opportunity to humanize Stark and showcase his growing maturity, even if it does signal the end of the glorious PG-13 T&A parade with which the movie opens.
The storyline is a pure escapist power fantasy. Stark doesn't get zapped by radiation, come from a distant planet, or hit some kind of genetic or supernatural jackpot: he works hard and suffers at his own redemption. Even if building some sort of miniaturized fusion reactor from spare parts in a cave is a bit too much, once you grant that event a mulligan and move on, the other events in the movie trend lightly upon the possible. The engineer in me loves how the movie takes us through prototyping and testing, and not just in some fast-forward heavy metal montage, but step by step (don't worry non-techies, the movie always keeps the process very entertaining). And as far as plotting goes, while its themes may be very similar to other favorites, this is such a different Origin Story that it ultimately stands refreshingly apart from the crowd.
The decision to break with comic book movie tradition and feature the results of war violence in all its brutality is a wise one. Watching Stark's convoy get ambushed as the movie opens is startlingly real, and will doubtless bring flashbacks of images from Iraq shown on the world news. Seeing actual soldiers and innocents die, rather than miraculously survive being flung through the air by explosions as these types of movies sometimes choose, while unpleasant to be sure, makes Stark's conversion all the more believable. Also, I like the very believable manner in which he justifies his weapons business before his change---this could have been reduced to such a shallow ignorance, but never is. Additionally, the frequent posters of Allied WWII munitions factories in the background only underscore the fact that the movie never stoops to pushing false platitudes, but understands it needs to strike a balance in its message. I think this is the most positive portrayal of the military I've ever seen in a superhero movie: usually they're cast as so many ignorant blockhead grunts and ridiculously overzealous commanders.
Finally, the fight scenes pull off a coolness factor which puts Iron Man in the top-tier of the recent crop of superhero movies---who doesn't wish they could turn their back and scoff at a tank? The choice of climactic battle is a bit uninspired, but adequate, perhaps the one aspect where there's significant room for improvement in the inevitable sequel.
Final verdict: as you probably already know, so far this summer's clear winner is Iron Man. An unexpectedly great comic book movie that any Marvel fans have probably already seen, all the rest of you deserve to treat yourself to a viewing as well---I doubt anyone will judge this incredibly polished, dutifully exciting fantasy with a (prosthetic) heart to be anything less than a total winner.