REVIEW: Iron Man: American Can-Do Spirit

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IRON MAN is a lot of fun and will make a lot of money. It seems to have a bit of “four quadrant” appeal even, and may be the superhero movie that breaks out of the young male demographic that is their bread and butter.

Or maybe not. It’s hard to imagine a movie that investigates boyish fantasies more thoroughly. Fast cars, loud missiles, flying around in a metal suit shooting fire out your hand, tinkering in the lab and soldering together a miniature nuclear power plant out of some scraps you found lying around the cave – this is a Radio Shack fantasy all the way.

Mild spoilers to follow below the cut.

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Economical in its action pieces, the movie retains interest through endless scenes of Robert Downey Jr. as industrialist Tony Stark tinkering in his lab, puttering with circuits, and bantering with robotic and computer “assistants.” Comparisons to both Dexter’s Lab and Gyro Gearloose with his little Helper are unavoidable, but also part of the fun. There are lots of in-jokes here — the required biography via newsreels and magazine covers includes one of Jeff Bridges in Tucker, a story of a real life inventor, but one that doesn’t end as happily. Here Bridges plays Obadiah Stane, the second in command at Stark Industries. I hadn’t been paying too much attention to previews of the film, so I wasn’t immediately aware that Bridges played the villain — although a few scenes of him riding a Segway, smoking a cigar, playing classical piano and playing chess are all the hints you need, even before Stane gets his own ideas about flying around in a metal suit. The music credits at the end reveal that the music Stane was playing was composed by Salieri — another of history’s villains.

The inspired bit here is the casting of Downey as Iron Man. Downey is a gifted enough performer to have survived career setbacks that would have reduced anyone else to late night special on VH1 with Dr. Drew. Even in the role of a superhero he sparkles, shines and humanizes the cartoons. He’s aided by a very funny, smart script credited to Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Art Marcum & Matt Holloway. So many names in the credits usually means a problem but here they’ve kept everyone’s best bits.

The story follows the beats of every superhero movie ever made to the letter, including the Charity Gala©, the Fight in the Warehouse© and the Heroic Reveal©. As the first movie ever produced by Marvel Studios, much is on the line here, but they’ve wisely gone for quality with solid vet Jon Favreau directing and a cast of Oscar® nominees and winners, including Downey, Bridges, Terrence Howard as Rhodey and Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, here Stark’s long-suffering Miss Moneypenny-esque assistant. There’s real chemistry between every member of the cast, from loyal friend Rhodey, who still casts a supervisory eye on Stark’s booze and broads excesses, and even Paltrow, so often insufferable but here intelligent, efficient and with enough of a backbone not to just throw herself into Tony Stark’s arms.

The story is a canny update of the original Iron Man’s beginnings, with the fooferaw in Afghanistan substituting for North Vietnam. Different decade, same problems. As the film begins, Stark is a callow, shallow member of the military-industrial complex, off to the Afghani plains to show off a new missile system. He’s also a mechanical genius. Things go wrong when his convoy is ambushed and he’s kidnapped by some bearded bad guys in keffiyahs — they’re not quite the Taliban, but more a motley crew of international ne’er-do-wells, including Hungarians. Stark awakens with some sort of magnetic gizmo keeping shrapnel from his heart, installed by a sidekick scientist. He’s ordered to put together a missile system, but decides to make himself an Iron Man suit along the way to effect an escape.

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From there it’s a merry battle of flying around and blasting things, with some political/industrial intrigue thrown in. Stark sees the error of his ways in building weapons of destruction which can be turned against innocents as easily as used to keep the peace, which causes some conflicts with his board of directors, the US government and Stane. Luckily all of these tussles can be solved by donning a mechanical flying suit.

IRON MAN avoids the cartoonishness of the Fantastic Four movies with ease. This smart inventor acts like a smart inventor and not a dopey fuddy duddy, like the movie Reed Richards. It also ups the gravitas element of X-men, where the flash of Magneto’s concentration camp childhood gives a real-world grounding. IRON MAN deals with the post 9/11 mess in the Middle East in a palatable way — there’s nothing American know how can’t solve. It’s no surprise that the best action sequence is one where Iron Man takes on a pair of US fighter jets. It’s the only one where he has a foe that might just take him out. In the end, IRON MAN is pure Americana. It’s sometimes glib and self-congratulating; but it’s also determined and brave when it needs to be.

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Nitpicks: I was annoyed to see Gwyneth Paltrow fleeing for her life in high heels when a moment before she was teetering around in five-inch stilettos like a drunken Meatpacking District bimbo. I guess that’s HER superpower.

Also, just WHO designed that Stark Industries logo? Weak! Milton Glazer would have been called in long ago.

Finally, it’s hard to overstate just how perfect Robert Downey is in this role. No line is too corny, no motivation too stretched. He makes everything credible, witty and enjoyable. Freed from captivity the first thing Stark requests is an American cheeseburger. He eats it in the middle of a life changing press conference. Downey takes a bite and says his line but at the same time allows a brief expression of pure rapture at tasting a good old fashioned burger again. (Product placement declared it was from Burger King.) Suffice to say that immediately after watching the movie I made a beeline to Shake Shack. Those Shack burgers are tasty.

Comments

  1. “It seems to have a bit of “four quadrant” appeal even, and may be the superhero movie that breaks out of the young male demographic that is their bread and butter. ”

    Wasn’t that Spider-Man – which focused on the MJ relationship instead of just punching people? Half-romance / Half action.

  2. Sphinx Magoo says:

    Make way for the sequel!

  3. I want a Purple Cow from Shake Shack AHORA.

    I think they knocked IM out of the park. I thought the explanation of the purpose of the thing on his chest and the colors of the suit were particularly nice touches — so simple but effectively removed these details from the blind acceptance of comics to the adult world of rational explanation. sorta.

    Either way, much better than “transistors.” Nice job Marvel!

    Brad

  4. Lots of little Easter eggs for the fans, too — the organisation that kidnaps Tony is called “the Ten Rings”. Which is how you do it: it’s not intrusive, it hints at something larger without detracting from the ongoing action.

    I very much got the feeling that this was created to be the first of several Iron Man films. Which is good, because this one was terrific fun.

  5. Mmmm… shack burgers…

  6. “IRON MAN deals with the post 9/11 mess in the Middle East in a palatable way — there’s nothing American know how can’t solve.”

    Don’t you mean the film suggests a fantasy solution to a real problem?

  7. Donnie says:

    The BK placement was so blatant that the entire theater groaned. And hey! I thought the same thing about the Stark logo too.

    But one thing – how does the Segway hint at the villain role?

  8. The Beat says:

    A Segway is for hippies, come on.

  9. Nathaniel says:

    You didn’t know Stane was the villain right away!!? How can you have forgotten the pivotal events of the Armor Wars? :P

    Interesting that both Iron Man (Iron Monger) and The Incredible Hulk (Abomination) are using the evil version of the hero as the central villain, especially after the last Spider-Man did the same thing with Venom. It’s certainly an easy way to set up an understandably difficult challenge for the hero without having to explain a lot about the bad guy’s powers to folks who never read the comics.

    That pretty much requires that the next FF movie will feature the Super-Skrull, right? My mouth is salivating at the thought of a Superman movie with him fighting Bizarro for an hour and a half :D

  10. Nathaniel says:

    Also, FWIW, the Stark Industries logo is an almost exact copy of the old McDonnell Douglas logo, so it’s an example of the movie’s production designers doing a great job in copying the military-industrial feel.

  11. Pedro Bouça says:

    Nathaniel, to be fair Stane was long dead when Armor Wars begun.

    (By the way, here is a character who died and never came back. Marvel even created a new Stane – his son – instead of ressurecting the original.)

    Best,
    Hunter (Pedro Bouça)

  12. Capper says:

    Remember to stay until the very end of the credits for a terrific “ultimate” scene that ends the movie. It was awesome!

  13. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie have so many good reviews. What is going on here? It must be a really good movie. Is RD Jr. going to get an academy award for this? That would be one big step for super-heroes.

  14. Inhumans99 says:

    Right now, it’s favorable ratings sits at 94% on Rotten Tomatoes…but I am sure there will be some softening as more reviews trickle in over the next few days (still…even assuming a 10-15% drop, this would still indicate that IM is a critics darling).

    And yeah, you can probably see the ending on You Tube, but it is worth sitting through the credits. If this and Hulk make bank, the next several years could be a whole heck of a lot of fun for comic book fans like myself. Bring on the sequel!

  15. I typed in Iron Man Ending on you tube and found it. I have to say, there were a lot of people who saw that one coming, just not in this movie. Very cool. This is the kind of thing that I think will keep the next wave of super-hero films fresh and interesting.

  16. “The BK placement was so blatant that the entire theater groaned.”

    Really? It didn’t bother me at all. If you were held captive over for three months, and had to eat the local “cuisine”, you’d probably agree to build one-hundred Jericho missiles for a Pepsi. It as a cute scene — blatant maybe, but no as heavy-handed as some product placement.

  17. Scott says:

    Salieri is a villain in fiction, not history. There is a difference.

  18. Unpopular says:

    The good reviews are likely due to it just being a fun movie. The action is great, the comedy is well-timed and well-written, and the entire cast is spot-on (although I did message Jon Favreau on Myspace to tell him to cast Alicia Witt as Pepper Potts). It has the best Stan Lee cameo yet. The product placement bothered me, but it’s the only one I remember seeing, and that’s not too bad. Stark didn’t specify from where he desired a cheeseburger, and I guess Burger King was the nearest convenient place to get one. Nothing wrong with that. I may have complaints after a second viewing, but I was very happy after leaving the theatre. And I don’t even like the comic-book Iron Man.

    On a side note, even if the new Hulk film bombs at the box office, it doesn’t mean it’s a bad film. With the way this summer is stacking up, SOMETHING has to underperform, and practically the only film I’m not interested in is Sex and the City. With ticket prices what they are and the economy crawling along, I don’t see too many people paying to see two great films every week. Iron Man is a great start to the summer, though. Good luck to all the other films trying to keep up.

  19. Jason says:

    Where this sits above the other adaptations so far is it gives the fans a lot more than the odd reference to keep us happy… the whole movie is one big love letter to the character. They took the time to throw in a Roxxon office building in the background for heaven’s sake.

  20. This movie was so much fun — I also appreciated Pepper Potts not launching herself into Starks arms.

  21. “this is a Radio Shack fantasy all the way.”

    I called it the “Top Gear for robotic attack suits”. I win.

  22. Torsten Adair says:

    I’m waiting until Tuesday to see this without the fanboy crowd.
    I hope it makes lots of money for Marvel, because I really want to see a Damage Control TV series, maybe on HBO? Pre 9/11, light hearted fun, like the original comics. With lots of cameos, and spinoff SheHulk after the second season.

  23. i hated the bk placementt because everyone knows it should have been an IN N OUT burger he wanted.

    thought the movie was fun and since i am not a huge iron man fan at all, it was better than i expected.

    the teaser at the end was…well, i could have done without it since nothing else in the movie teased there was another being on the planet with powers.

    that said, good job by everyone. maybe this will make people pick up robert downys best film to date ” kiss kiss-bang bang”

    jimmy

  24. Christopher: No, none of the actors will get an Academy Award for this film. That’s not a criticism of their performances, it’s just that the Best Actor awards aren’t for films of this kind.

  25. I don’t remember the last time I saw so much blatant product placement. It wasn’t just Burger King. Audi went nuts with their new car and the US Air Force spent a ton of money and resources to get its hardware in the film.

  26. Jason Caskey says:

    I’ll admit some movies are pretty heavy-handed with the whole product placement thing, but as a society we are saturated with that sort of thing already. I for one find the practice (for the most part on television) of either partially obscuring the logo, or replacing it with a generic one much more distracting. Besides, on LOST the product placements for name brands that don’t exist is part of the charm for me.

  27. Russ Maheras says:

    “The BK placement was so blatant that the entire theater groaned.”

    Obviously, the theater-goers who groaned had never been out of the U.S. for an extended period.

    After years on the island of Okinawa, Japan, the first thing I did when I got back to Chicago while on leave was have a Chicago-style Italian beef sandwich. My second meal was a Chicago-style hot dog.

    I had a similar fast-food urge when I got back from a deployment to Haiti in 1994. After weeks of eating MREs, stuff like Popeye’s chicken seemed like haute cusine.

  28. mrpeepants says:

    why people get so pissy over product placement is silly. how many times do people go to fast food, restaurant chains, and big box stores to get ur stuff throughout the week. just mirrors real life.

    mmm fast food

  29. Allen says:

    Product placement…big woop.

    I have hated Tony Stark since “Civil Bore$”. :)

  30. My dad got a big kick out of the BK product hype – only because he used to manage one.

    ~

    Coat

  31. Tom S. says:

    I enjoyed the film. It would be nice to see a She Hulk movie or series sometime before I die.

  32. Eh, it’s was alright. Not bad, not great. It was no Spidey 2. The problem for me was the lack of any surprise in the story. It just chugs along (very entertainingly, mind you), hitting all the superhero movie marks and ends. I would have liked a climax with a bit more… oomph. Something a bit more clever or complex instead of a simple duke out.

    It was fun and entertaining, but certainly doesn’t warrant a 96%! I’d say it was more in the 80 percentile. RDJ is absolute perfection though.

  33. Ben Morse says:

    From the “New York Times”:

    “On or around Independence Day in 2003, [Robert Downey Jr.] stopped at a Burger King on the Pacific Coast Highway and threw all his drugs in the ocean. And while he was sitting there chewing on a burger, he decided he was done. This being America, five years later you can walk into that Burger King, and if you order a Kids Meal you can get your own Robert Downey Jr. action figure, wrapped up in gadget ware. (And what does Tony Stark want when he escapes his kidnappers? A good old American cheeseburger — from Burger King, natch.)”

  34. All I can say is this movie was absolutely spectacular.

    Of the best superhero films since the first Superman and that’s saying a lot. People can look at it now and criticize all they like but its still a classic because people left the theatres in awe, just ‘wow’… they made you really believe a man can fly.

    I had that same feeling, just… ‘Wow!’

    My dad took my mom to see it and even she thought it was excellent.

  35. “Also, FWIW, the Stark Industries logo is an almost exact copy of the old McDonnell Douglas logo, so it’s an example of the movie’s production designers doing a great job in copying the military-industrial feel.”

    It’s actually a lot closer to the Lockheed-Martin Logo:

    http://bentcorner.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/05/lockheed.jpg

    And as far as the Burger King/In-N-Out Burger comparison is concerned, I was stationed at Clark Air Base in the Philippines when the first BK ever to open at an overseas military base. I remember how emotional I felt sinking my teeth into my first of many Whoopers while stationed over there.

    Back home we have a word for people that are fans of In-N-Out Burger. We called them Tourists.

  36. I hadn’t been to BK in awhile, so when I coincidentally grabbed a Whopper, Jr. last night (Could the thought have been subplanted and dormant since Friday??), I was thrilled to see the Iron Man stuff all around. Do geek audiences groan at THIS shameless product placement? The door swings both ways; show us a burger, and a wider audience of kids suddenly has li’l Iron Men of their own, and maybe wants to read more about this cool armored hero . . . etc. If someone told me 10 years ago that Iron Man would be this mainstream, I wouldn’t have believed it. And I think it’s great for business.

    We definitely won’t see an Iron Man reboot flick, like Hulk or Punisher, anytime soon. “The best superhero movies isn’t the one that’s never made; it’s the one that’s only made — ONCE! That’s how Daddy did it . . .!”

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