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The First Superhero of Spring: Iron Man

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(Paramount)

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Friday, May 09, 2008


Iron Man
Directed by Jon Favreau
(Paramount)

Reviewed by Margaret Barton-Fumo

If March is the month when the weather comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb, May is its cinematic reverse, releasing one or two monster hits before the downpour of summer blockbusters to come. Sharing marquee space with fluffy comedies like What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas, Baby Mama and the newest Harold & Kumar pic, John Favreau’s Iron Man quickly drummed up a considerable amount of preseason precipitation. With over $100 million in ticket sales from its opening weekend alone, the results are in — media outlets across the web are declaring it “the second-highest opening weekend ever for a non-sequel behind Spider-Man.” Pretty impressive, huh?

It’s not that the film’s success is unwarranted. It’s really quite good, in fact, with just as much imaginative technique and offbeat clout as Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. Favreau’s direction is well paced and unobtrusively stylish. Like Raimi, Doug Liman and J.J. Abrams, he brings a certain degree of respectability to franchise filmmaking. If he plays his cards right, Favreau might be able to score a Harry Potter film, or maybe even the next available Bond film. Peter Jackson closed shop on the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Christopher Nolan’s got a stone grip on Batman. Robert Rodriguez has dibs on Sin City 2 and 3, and Abrams is teasing us with a trailer for the 11th Star Trek film. None of these men are outstanding auteurs, but they’ve all got a knack for tastefully preening Hollywood schlock. With so many credible directors giving us their take on superheroes and prequel/sequel package deals, the question arises: Is talent being siphoned off or wasted? Are their directorial powers being used for good or for profit?

In the case of Iron Man, seamless direction is not the only attraction. There is, of course, Robert Downey Jr., once a high-profile drug addict, here an action hero whose thunderous surround-sound stomps drown out the humble snapping of machine gun fire. As Tony Stark (the weapons expert inside the iron suit) RDJ is perfectly sleazy. Only he can uphold his charm in spite of (or is it because of?) Stark’s corny dialogue and unsavory facial hair. And in another act of unusual casting, Jeff Bridges is nearly unrecognizable as Obadiah Stane, Stark’s business partner turned nemesis. To see the Dude and the ex-junkie duke it out in giant robot suits — Bridges’s large baldhead nestled awkwardly in a collar of hardware — is well worth the price of admission. True to the film’s comic-book roots, the producers obviously banked on quirk — and now they’re cashing out.

The premise isn’t half bad either. Viewers can rest assured that they’ll be treated to the usual superhero fare of rescuing small children, catching falling victims while in flight, and leveling city streets during a killer face-off. But unlike other masked crusaders, Iron Man performs the majority of his heroic duties on the war front. Forced to take on his iron identity while under captivity in the West Bank, Tony Stark returns to the US a changed man. Before, he engineered WMDs; now he focuses on perfecting military defense, returning to Afghanistan to destroy his own black-market weapons with an ingenious technology that conveniently spares civilians. Thinly veiled references to Halliburton give the film a faint edge, but ultimately the wartime themes are too generic and conflated with comic-book rhetoric to ruffle any feathers.

Clearly Tony Stark’s sarcastic, whiskey-guzzling underdog is the real draw of the film. Preempting both Ron Perelman’s misanthropic Hellboy and Edward Norton’s geek-Hulk by just a few weeks, Iron Man trumps his morally compromised, brooding heroic brethren with the best setback of them all: He has no superpowers. He’s just a man with a smart mouth and a head for figures in a really cool, practically indestructible iron suit. That alone should guarantee Favreau & co. a few more sequels.

 

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