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Film Review: Iron Man

Iron Man (2008; Directed by Jon Favreau)

Jon Favreau’s Iron Man is a naturalistic, witty superhero origin story, with a natural, witty hero of an actor at its centre. This is Robert Downey, Jr.’s film, make no mistake, and derives much of its easy charm from its lead, whose derailed career the film’s success launched into the stratosphere. You like Downey’s cavalier, sarcastic, self-involved engineering genius millionaire Tony Stark from the opening moments, or at least like to dislike him. It’s only when he’s encased in the iconic metal exoskeleton and spitting out the occasional dry action-movie one-liner that this goodwill flickers and wanes. But when left on his own, he works some intelligent levity into the pulpy gravity of the superhero proceedings, often while holding one-way conversations with assembly-line robot arms.

The tech is neat, the action well-packaged, the Big Social Themes imparted with just the right comic-book-ish lack of subtlety. Stark’s near-fatal shrapnel injury is sustained not in the Vietnam War as in the comics canon of that period, but while promoting new arms provided to the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. There’s still a Good Indian vibe about the noble, thoughtful Afghan doctor (Shaun Toub) who keeps Stark alive by mounting a compact electromagnet on his chest to hold the lethal shards out of his heart, sure. And Stark’s eventual choice to entrust only himself with the tremendous power and weapons-grade potential that the glowing engine on his chest possesses is a metaphor for the arrogant elitism at the core of America’s supposed populist democratic ideals.

If the film has a failing of structure and affect rather than merely ideology, it is in its climactic section, and has everything to do with Jeff Bridges as the treacherous Obadiah Stane. Known for his relaxed affability (he is the Dude, after all), Bridges makes an excellent coiled-snake-in-a-suit for 2/3rds of the film, masking his unsavoury intentions with that magnanimous grin of his. But Bridges flames out when asked to be a cornball megalomaniacal supervillain in a metal war suit, as he is in the final battle. All that angry shouting and malevolent violence is, well, very unDude.

It’s an unfortunate off-key conclusion to what at least started out as one of the most well-crafted comic narratives yet committed to screen. Of course Iron Man benefits not only from a star with quirky charisma to burn but from the clear and compelling narrative arc granted it by the superhero origin story. These can be difficult stories to get right, but are consistently greeted by popular audiences as the most satisfying narratives of the genre, with the rare exception of a villain-driven spectacle like The Dark Knight (released the same year, it could be Iron Man‘s dark mirror).

As the cinematic arm of the superhero comics genre begins to expand, evolve, and flex its newfound muscle with greater creative confidence, however, the privileging of the origin story may begin to diminish. As The Avengers demonstrated, congregating established characters in a single gigantic blockbuster does big-time box-office business, although it took multiple films (this one and its sequel included) to set the stage for such success. Overall, though, the origin story provided in Iron Man constitutes some top-notch blockbuster matinee entertainment on its own stand-alone terms. Audiences were exhorted to get their popcorn, and they most certainly did for this film and for two subsequent installments (so far).

Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. May 25, 2014 at 11:46 am
  2. November 30, 2014 at 7:55 am
  3. December 27, 2015 at 11:45 am
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