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Iron Man (2008)

  • Review: *** ½ (out of ****)
  • Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, Leslie Bibb, Shaun Toub, Faran Tahir
  • Director: Jon Favreau
  • Screenplay: Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, Matt Holloway (Adapted from the Comic Book series)
  • Length: 126 min.
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and brief suggestive content.

Signaling a change of direction for the Marvel Comic Book adaptation franchises, Iron Man marks the company's first independently produced foray onto the big screen. And, if the rest of their films can match the quality of this production, perhaps the best of the genre is yet to come.

Jon Favreau's follow up to the fiscally disastrous Zathura and surprise critical hit and box-office darling Elf brings the technological brilliance of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to cineplexes. Stark Industries is responsible for several big government ordnance contracts and his stronger, better and faster munitions have led to untold casualties all in the pursuit of money. However, after he is captured by Arab terrorists and ordered to build his latest weapons masterpiece for them, he realizes how his creations can have a detrimental effect on innocent civilians.

During his incarceration, he creates an impervious suit of metal with various rudimentary built-in devices that he uses to escape his captors. After returning to his home, he decides he must perfect that original model and make something far more powerful that will help him thwart evildoers across the globe. The suit leads to his media hero name Iron Man.

When Downey was revealed to be taking on the role of Tony Stark, I overheard many conversations that questioned the decision. However, anyone familiar with Chaplin or Zodiac or even many of his other terrific performances, had an idea that he could probably carry it off. And with what's on the screen, it's quite clear he was immensely successful. He gave the character emotional and physical depth, creating an individual whose motives were slimy yet altruistic. His performance clearly outshines every comic book hero portrayal thus far committed to screen, besting Michael Keaton's Batman and Hugh Jackman's Wolverine.

Downey also continues a trend of big acting names, most of them Oscar nominees and a few winners, who've decided to "slum it" in the recent onslaught of comic book movies. Three such individuals co-star with him in this film. Terrance Howard appears as Col. Rhodes, one of Stark's good friends. Jeff Bridges displays his acting chops as Stark's business partner Obadiah Stane. And Gwyneth Paltrow, the only Oscar winner of the bunch, takes on the role of Pepper Potts, Stark's indispensable personal assistant.

Bridges doesn't really show us anything he hasn't in the past. Nor does Howard, whose pseudo-side kick position seems tangentially related to the film and only hints at his cohort status in an upcoming feature. However, Paltrow, who has severely grated on my nerves ever since her unfortunate Oscar win for Shakespeare in Love, finally gives me reason to be impressed. Often these thankless love-interest-type roles have been severely limited, but Paltrow manages to make Potts feel like a real character with motives and desires of her own. It's the first time her charm in a film has impressed me.

Downey and Paltrow contribute to the film's success, but not the entirety of it. Favreau's skill behind the camera was never overt. Many of his films have succeeded in spite of his lack of name recognition. Many will recognize him as an actor, but most people couldn't associate his name with a given film without help. The first film I saw of his was Made, an unsuspecting direct-to-video affair that was better than I would have expected, but certainly nothing spectacular. However, it was clear that he had a very laid-back style to storytelling, which helps bring out the story and the performances better than those with a heavy-handed approach (think Jon Turtletaub, Jerry Bruckheimer, Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay). His talent helps ground his films in reality even when examining supernatural or superhuman incidents. It's quite refreshing.

While a large slate of screenwriters often serves to mute a film's quality (Pixar has been succeeding at it for years), Iron Man's cadre of scribes has broken the trend. Children of Men writers Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby are joined at their typewriters by Punisher: War Zone (2008) writers Art Marcum and Matt Holloway. Their screenplay, while peppered periodically with implausibilities and lame jokes, is nevertheless a breath of fresh air in the sea of recent assaults on our cinema-going minds. The characterizations and plot devices are fresh and strong while weaving a solid story.

Far from the perfect comic book film, there are a lot of elements in Iron Man that make it more successful than those released in recent years, which is a welcome idea for many fans of the genre and a great boon to Marvel Studios. It also means that the genre, which many saw collapsing after the dismal one-two-three punch of Spider-Man 3, Superman Returns and Ghost Rider.