What’s the point of a movie review, when the film has already opened and grossed over $200 million between foreign and domestic? What is there left to say when the critics have already spoken, ladling on Iron Man panegyrics enough that you’d think the film is the Second Coming? I think what’s left to say is this: you deserved more.
It’s common currency to excuse a lack of originality in a film by shrugging and saying, “Come off it, man, it’s a comic book movie.” The assumption is that comics are a cut rate art. The fact is, some of the best writing, and the most complex of visual sensibilities, can be found in the comics. Iron Man is the new kid on the Marvel block, and his mythology updates perfectly from the Vietnam era of the comics to the Middle-East of today. The questions the books raise are not just relevant, but prescient.
For instance, in Afghanistan, billionaire weapons designer Tony Stark (Downey, Jr.) is water-boarded, a practice very much on the minds of Americans. Is the idea that all violence rebounds on the user? How does the evolution of weapons technology – from the bow and arrow through the chariot and the nuclear bomb – change the way wars are fought? Can possessing the biggest stick on the block be used as a deterrent, or does a weapon, by the mere fact of its existence, create pressure to use it? How would the face of war change if a single solider had the firepower of an entire regiment, and could employ it with pinpoint accuracy? What would this mean for the “War on Terror”?
Big ideas for a summer movie, to be sure; but why shouldn’t our entertainment make us think? Unfortunately, those intriguing questions are jettisoned in favor of big metal things slamming into other big metal things.
I suppose I should give you some more plot summary here. The thing is, the film has already been badly damaged by an irresponsible ad campaign that will do anything to get you into the theater. In the trailer, the first act – Tony’s captivity and escape, via a powered suit of armor — is revealed point for point. The trailer then reveals the arc of the second act, and astonishingly, even gives us the identity of the villain and shots from the climax.
So instead of spoiling the plot, let’s talk acting. Robert Downey, Jr., can be a sexually ambivalent presence (see Two Girls and a Guy ). He’s often a little fey, light on his feet, a little bit pretty. Not in Iron Man . Here, he is quintessentially male – a boozer, a gambler, a broad-shouldered, devilishly goateed, silver-tongued womanizer, a connoisseur of engines, hi-tech, and the finer things. And yet his vulnerability warms you to him. Much of that is us projecting on an actor who has had public struggles with addiction, and who is finally bankable; we are ready for Downey, Jr. to have his payday. He makes a wonderfully complex superhero in a role that seems tailor made.
And then there’s the suit, a triumph. Post-escape, back in the lab at home, Stark refines his armor. The Mark II is halfway between the deco hood ornament of and the lumbering Frankenstein’s monster of Robocop . Iron Man fetishizes gleaming, p The Rocketeer ainted metal, sexy whirling gimbals and lathed, airtight seals. It may not be the freshest idea on the stack, but the robo-suit delivers a Steve Jobs-like, geek chic thrill (Terence Howard, who plays Stark’s military friend, gushes, “That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”) ILM and Stan Winston Studios deserve the fanboy adulation they will receive.
I’ve obviously been describing an entertaining movie, so why the sour grapes? I think it’s worth griping when a film with so much going for it flips on the autopilot switch for its entire final third. I have no doubt that the inevitable sequel will settle down and improve upon the formula. But let’s call the first Iron Man by its true name: a disappointment.