FILM REVIEW: Iron Man
12A • 126 mins • 2 May
Director: Jon Favreau
Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow
Megalomaniac scientists? Easy! Planet-munching space entities? Pah! Superheroes who are really looking for a challenge should try negotiating a smooth transition from origin story to fully-fledged heroics – it’s probably the most formidable foe they’ll ever face.
Like many of his more-famous brethren, Iron Man comes a cropper when the time comes to start saving the world in earnest. It’s a shame because Jon Favreau’s film gets so much right that you leave the cinema raving about the subtle, inobtrusive in-jokes, the near-perfect casting and the special effects that really hit the mark. But there’s something missing, a certain je ne sais quoi that would lift Ol’ Shellhead into the upper echelons of movie superheroes. It’s like watching a football team made up of brilliant individuals who can’t quite hack it as a team, frustrating with flashes of inspiration while they struggle to bury the ball in the back of the net.
Heading up that lengthy list of positives is Robert Downey Jr, a masterstroke of casting who completely nails billionaire playboy turned armour-plated do-gooder Tony Stark. There’s never been any doubts over Downey’s talent, but in his first blockbuster lead he’s a revelation. He completely owns Stark’s perfectly-formed quips – despite being the sort of amoral arms manufacturer you’d detest in real life, you can’t help loving him – and manages to keep the character interesting, even when he grows a moral compass. Indeed, he’s arguably more watchable than his ferric alter-ego, particularly when he’s sparring with super PA/love interest “Pepper” Potts (a fantastic Paltrow) in a “will they/won’t they” relationship that brings Moonlighting to the Marvel universe.
That’s not to say it’s a disappointment when Stark climbs into the suit. From the basic, Ned Kelly-influenced Mark I suit he uses to escape from from terrorist captors in Afghanistan, through to the sleek, classic red and gold Mark III, Stark’s metal-plated haute couture is a thing of beauty, a seamless blend of CG and Stan Winston’s real-world props. Such is the detail (a cog turning here, a piston extending there) that you believe a man in an automated supersuit can fly. And repel bullets. And fire missiles. And generally make himself a nuisance to bad guys. This is superhero fantasy grounded in the real world.
Part-chief engineer, part-test pilot, Stark turns intensive R&D into an artform. While in Afghanistan he’s driven by urgency, a one-man A-Team turning missile parts into armour under the noses of his captors. Back home in his Tracy Island-style super-pad, the creative process is more light-hearted but no less enthralling, the sense of danger replaced by Stark’s fun interaction with in-house robot assistants (basically the Scutters from Red Dwarf).
And so Iron Man’s biggest strength becomes his biggest weakness. The character’s origins make for such a neatly self-contained story that the movie’s closing act was never likely to compete. Disappointingly, Favreau opts to follow the well-trodden road that leads to smackdown with a Big Bad, and it’s no surprise when it turns out to be a let-down. With motives that involve fluctuations in share price rather than the traditional “taking over the world”, the villain (whose identity is the worst-kept secret in movies – the one drawback of the perhaps over-generous helpings of photos, trailers and clips dished out before release) doesn’t really cut it. And by the time Iron Man tests his metal (sic) against the bigger, less elegant Iron Monger you just want them to get it over with as quickly as possible – surprising, really, as it’s only the second proper glimpse we get of Iron Man in action.
Of course, story won’t have been Marvel’s only concern for its first self-financed movie, and there’s a chance plot was sacrificed in the name of introducing the world-at-large to a non-A list hero while keeping fans happy (die-hards will love the references to War Machine and SHIELD). That Iron Man succeeds in both these respects bodes well for the inevitable sequels – maybe then he’ll break free of his origins and show the hero he really can be.