Monday, August 11, 2008


Jon Favreau’s Iron Man has the distinction of achieving a number of firsts.
It was the first major hit of the 2008 summer (at the time of this review’s posting, the film is the third highest grosser of the year thus far, in the wake of The Dark Knight and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull); it was the first film to be produced by Marvel Studios; it was the first in what looks to be another successful Hollywood franchise; it was the first Marvel comic film since Bryan Singer’s X2 that left me nearly completely satisfied, an agreeable taste of popcorn cinema that had just enough substance informing its four-colour antics to make it soar right over the heads of recent muddled and murky Marvel entries.
And, just like Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, it found a franchise star in the unlikeliest of Hollywood actors.

But the truth is, a large part of why Iron Man works is due to Robert Downey, Jr., whose Tony Stark is the lovable billionaire industrialist cad, who is made to suddenly face the brutal reality of his company’s weapons manufacturing.
Downey nails not just the all-consuming obsessive quality of the driven genius, but also the heartfelt sense of atonement Stark adopts after a weapons field test in Afghanistan turns into a three-month long imprisonment.
Understanding that the fruits of his company have been subverted and used against both innocents and the young American soldiers whose lives he’s been trying to safeguard on the battlefield, Stark takes it upon himself to once again wrestle with the conundrum of building a weapon of war to uphold the peace.

But this time, the weapon is solely under his control, in the hands of this flawed individual, whose call to heroism is fueled by the need to right the wrongs committed with the products of his industry, with the leavings of his genius (a theme ironically magnified in the film through the subplot which sees the development of the Iron Monger, the titular hero’s mechanical nemesis, his automated Other).
Downey manages to put this all up on the screen, while still keeping the rakish Stark a jaunty presence; unlike another troubled billionaire playboy, Stark isn’t the brooding type.
And yet, the sense of a burdened soul intent on making things right is still clearly evident.

This humour and humanity amidst the combination of Iron Man’s high-tech comic book world and the nearly pinpoint marriage of physical effects and CGI on-screen goes a long way in making this a summer Hollywood tentpole that’s about more than just the explosions and the adrenaline.
And in that particular corner, Downey is helped along by Gwyneth Paltrow (who plays Stark’s ever loyal girl Friday, Pepper Potts) and Jeff Bridges (as Obadiah Stane, Tony’s erstwhile right hand at Stark Industries). The performances from the trio suggest casual, comfortable relationships, grounding the movie’s fantastic goings-on in a realistic milieu.
I might have added Terrence Howard as well, but his James Rhodes doesn’t get much screen time, and seems to be in the film primarily for the purposes of introducing the character to this potential new franchise; in the comic books, Rhodes eventually dons a variation of the Iron Man armour as War Machine.

A more interesting introduction made in the film though, is that of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division, which comic geeks will know as S.H.I.E.L.D.
This particular introduction of course, bleeds into that post-credits bit with Sam Jackson, which then bleeds into the Tony Stark cameo in Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk.
And that’s probably another Iron Man first: it’s potentially the first in a long line of interconnected Marvel Studios films.

Immediately (and to my mind at least, rather prematurely) following the box office success of Iron Man, Marvel Studios announced a whole slate of subsequent films, which included adaptations of Thor and Captain America, all leading up to a proposed Avengers movie.
They had the 2010 and 2011 release dates down pat, and they had logos for the film’s titles too. Of course, they had no scripts, no casts, no directors.
But that didn’t stop them from locking themselves into very specific release dates.

It’s this annoying tendency of Marvel to shoot themselves in the foot just when they’re getting it right that always bugs me.
As I mentioned in my review of The Incredible Hulk (see Archive), Marvel needs to cultivate a little more circumspection.
Just because their bad—or otherwise terribly flawed—adaptations (see any Marvel comic book film between X2 and Iron Man) make money, doesn’t mean they’re worth the celluloid they’re shot on.

There needs to be integrity, substance, and humanity in a comic book film to serve as solid testaments to a fact that we comic geeks have known for a very long time: that the comic book is a valid medium of artistic expression, that it’s about more than just fistfights and spandex, and that it certainly isn’t just for kids.
I’m happy to say that Iron Man is one from Marvel that makes that grade.
Here’s hoping they keep their eye on that more valuable, lasting prize.

Parting shot: For the record (and to paradoxically showcase that other, more readily apparent prize), as of August 10, 2008, Iron Man has a worldwide gross of $568,178,682, while The Dark Knight clocks in at a whopping $645,241,000 in only 24 days of release. (As a point of comparison, Iron Man has been in theatres for 101 days.)
Meanwhile, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has raked in $744,839,965 in 81 days of release.

(Iron Man OS courtesy of [design by BLT & Associates]; images courtesy of,,,, and

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