Movie Review: Iron Man

Grade: B

Did anyone hear about a little movie called Iron Man that came out this past weekend? You know, the one that’s made over 100 million dollars already (double that if you add in the international numbers) and has a really high rating over at Rotten Tomatoes.

Super hero movies have sort of become their own genre, defined by colorful characters, out-of-this-world, CGI-heavy action sequences, and snappy dialogue that’s a little bit cheesy sometimes, funny others, but works in the context of a comic book universe. For me, they are at best extremely fun and enjoyable thrill rides, like a trip to a good theme park. These aren’t Oscar worthy flicks, but then they never set out to be in the first place.

I kept all this in mind going into Iron Man, the latest franchise to be adapted to the screen by Marvel (and also their first picture to be entirely self-financed). It had been awhile since I’d seen a good super hero movie, by my definition. There was the utter mess of X-Men 3, the incredibly mediocre Fantastic Four 2 (which only looked good when stood up next to its even worse counterpart), and Ghost Rider, which I haven’t bothered to see, but doubt I’m missing much from word of mouth. In fact, the last super hero I enjoyed watching on the big screen was Batman (Superman…not so much).

All this to say: I had high hopes for this one. I kept hearing people buzzing about it, using phrases like “F’ing awesome!” and “Amazing” to describe the gold-titanium alloy man, so I bought into the hype and went in expecting greatness. I didn’t find it. What I did find was a pretty good movie with a great actor at the helm, and a lot of good elements that just didn’t quite add up for me.

I’ve had at least some foreknowledge about most of the comic-based movies I’ve seen–some ability to decide if this was a good adaptation or not and to debate the finer, nerdy points with friends afterwards–but I knew very little about Iron Man going in. I’ve never read an Iron Man comic, though I do know about Tony Stark as a character from reading The Avengers and The Ultimates. As for the villains, the supporting characters–I knew none of them. Of course these films are designed for people who have never even picked up a comic book to be able to enjoy them.

Robert Downey Jr. was made to play the billionaire playboy Tony Stark and his performance makes this movie. I felt the same about this as I did after seeing the Pirates of the Caribbean movies–that without Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow, the whole franchise would have stunk. In this case, I can’t envision any other actor getting it anywhere near as right, but Downey Jr. gets the look spot on and fully becomes this character, spouting off one-liners, effortlessly bedding chicks and looking cooler-than-cool in everything he does.

His first five minutes of screen time alone sold me on his character, as he bounces witty lines back and forth as naturally as breathing, and makes you, for everything in the world, wish you could step into his shoes and be even just a little like him. While boys have the kind an funny Peter Parker to idolize, this is the whiskey drinking, skirt chasing superhero for men to look up to, with the wide-eyed wonderment of a six year old. Watching Stark evolve from a whiny, spoiled rich kid into someone with concerns greater than himself and who he’s going to bed for the night is where this film really succeeds.

The rest of the cast did an admirable job of backing up Downey Jr., but no one stood out enough to even peek out from his shadow. Gwyneth Paltrow provided good eye candy and made a great accessory for Tony Stark to tote around, Terrence Howard as Jim Rhodes was nothing special, and Jeff Bridge’s performance as Obadiah Stane started off nicely, but had become laughable by the end. In Bridge’s case, I think the fault lies more in the character itself than how he acted the role, and that leads into what seems to be Iron Man’s biggest weakness: the villains.

Apparently director Jon Favreau wanted to take this movie in a more realistic direction, which, for the most part, worked well. Except with the bad guys. The two main villains, the friend-turned-enemy Obadiah and the terrorist Raza, are weak, forgettable yawns of characters. Most of the comic book villains to grace the silver screen have been over-the-top, maniacal nutjobs with a penchant for outrageous costumes, but not here. Obadiah does have some depth to him, but he devolves into a wacko businessman from hell, bent on offing Stark. I liked him better in the moments when he was a thoughtful, conniving villain rather than the eventual madman he became, rampaging the city in an Iron Man fat suit. Raza, on the other hand, was a waste of screen time. He had no motives of his own (none that were well fleshed out, at least) and seemed caddy cornered into playing the role of a very stereotypical middle-eastern freedom fighter.

The X-Men had Magneto and The Phoenix to go up against; Spider-Man had Dr. Octopus and the Green Goblin; Batman will be facing the ultimate freak show villain, The Joker, in the upcoming Dark Knight movie. Meanwhile, Iron Man battled a middle-aged businessman and an underdeveloped, cliched terrorist better suited for a James Bond flick.

As it is, Iron Man was a fun, adrenaline-burst of a film, with enough humor and action to satisfy, but without that extra oomph that would have rocketed it from good to great. And I won’t give the ending away, except to say: stay after the credits and your inner comic-book fanboy will be greatly rewarded. The setup here is good, though, and I’m hoping the next installment, as well as The Avengers movie, will take these foundations and grow. So far number two seems to be the lucky number in the comic-book movie universe. Here’s hoping that trend continues.

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