After running its brand into the ground with its recent half-baked 'three-quels' and other vacuous nonsense ("Ghost Rider," "Fantastic Four"), Marvel's first independently-produced feature "Iron Man" signals a welcome return to form for the prodigious comic label.
Making full use of its mega-budget, the film's technical specs and production values are solid across the board, and often excel. As this is as much about the gadgets as it is about stopping villains, the designers and effects team step up to the plate with impressive sets and mechanics that combine smoothly with relatively seamless CG. From the titular character soaring through the skies, to various computer display screens that will make any technogeek drool (you'll want those bedroom windows for your own house), the film puts every dollar up on screen.
However it's star Robert Downey Jr., along with director Jon Favreau, who help this rise above formula. The result is something that, whilst hardly original or ground breaking, is nevertheless refreshing in its earnestness to avoid dark dramatic stylings in favor of an easy-going, crowd-pleasing action movie with a sprinkle of anti-war and redemption themes.
Downey's usual panache for slightly manic but droll delivery is the real backbone of the film - without him this simply would not work. The character of Tony Stark after all is a smarmy arms-dealing playboy who changes his mind after being held hostage by Afghan extremists whom he unwittingly helped arm. Treating the role too seriously or lightly would completely undermine everything else. Yet Downey and the rest of the cast find just the right balance to keep things believable enough to add suspense, but incorporates a touch of sci-fi to avoid certain real world credibility issues and obstacle that keep popping up.
Gwyneth Paltrow also surprises as Stark's assertive personal assistant Pepper Potts. Not only does she get a great line to kick off with, but her scenes with Downey are amongst the best as they bring an interesting dynamic to the otherwise familiar scenario of a secretary enamored with her boss. They also give the film its few scant moments of emotional depth amongst the more straight forward easy thrills and stock origin story narrative.
Stuck in generic archetypes as the friend and villain respectively, Terrence Howard and Jeff Bridges provide more solid footing to their roles than they deserve. The film showcases Stark, so the other characters are generally underwritten and serve more as plot devices. The gratuitous S.H.I.E.L.D. agents seem to be there only to serve as the basis of one of the film's few failed running gags, whilst Stark's voice-less aperture robots have more personality than some of the human supporting characters.
For all its little moments of inspired creativity, the script by four separate writers falls back on some tired and dubious material for the meat of the story. The Afghan terrorists who play a key role are pointedly vague about their identities and cause (they want to start up their own version of the Mongol Empire), yet the comparisons to what happened with the Mujahideen could not get any more blatant. The tone, though mostly quite teen-safe, goes some dark places that don't seem to comfortably fit the rest of the film. Looking back it is often surprising how much of the film works in spite of the script rather than because of it.
Likewise the pacing hits the odd speed bump, notably a second act that spends just a little too much time developing the armor, to a third act which definitely drags out with a useless twist, and a robot vs. robot fight that's visually impressive but not terribly exciting. It's the one time the CG becomes too blatant, and isn't helped by a deus ex machina explosion that conveniently covers plot holes and robs us of a truly satisfying conclusion. No shame though, 'last act slippage' is a pesky condition that plagues all superhero origin movies from X-Men's mutant radiation wave, to Spider-Man's Power Rangers-style fights with the Green Goblin. Even "Batman Begins", the new standard that sits above all other recent superhero flicks, finds its deftly tight narrative marred by a dubious microwave-triggered panic-inducing steam scheme.
By all counts though Favreau has done a stellar job - the more sedate scenes are superbly edited, and the other big action scenes (the jet dogfight, the test rocket runs, the breakout of the cave) are exceedingly well filmed with jaw-droppingly massive fireballs, high-octane thrills and off-the-wall comedic touches. This is also one of the few superhero films where the humor is well-placed. Even the few more over the top moments like Stark's private plane nightclub to an impromptu bit of surgery on Pepper's part, generate solid laughs.
Perfectly positioned in early May, the film has just the right tone for its release - think of it as a cooler and more tech-heavy "Spider-Man" without all that wallowing in nauseating teen angst or speeches of responsibility, but concurrently having less emotional heft to push it beyond popcorn blockbuster territory. Its cast, principally Downey Jr., and some solid direction breathe a lot of life and energy into an otherwise run-of-the-mill comic book origin movie. Much like the first "X-Men", this is a well-made and perfectly serviceable action film that begs for the same team to put together a meatier and more exciting tale in the inevitable and welcome sequel.