We’re only two weeks out from the U.S. release of Marvel’s The Avengers, one of this summer’s most highly anticipated films. Given the high number of popular franchises getting a return this year, I thought it might be fun to periodically revisit their predecessors. As the release of The Dark Knight Rises grows closer we’ll spend some time looking back on Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, and obviously Prometheus should prompt a (backwards?) look at the Alien saga (but not the Alien vs. Predators films—I have my limits). And, of course, as The Hobbit draws closer, we’ll revisit Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. But first, let’s spend some time with superheroes.
I think Marvel’s attempt at creating a cohesive universe, where the characters can bounce in and out of each others’ franchises, has been a great deal of fun. I never was much of a comic book reader—and when I did read them, it tended to be either DC Comics or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—but I’ve been extremely impressed with how the studio has crafted a world that is both rewarding to the geek faithful and accessible to casual readers or the uninitiated.
The Marvel films may lack the darkness and heft of something like Nolan’s Batman movies, but what’s missing in gravitas is more than made up for with wit, humor and pure popcorn thrills. Obviously, some of the films in this shared universe (I’m only counting the films with a connection to The Avengers, so don’t go looking for Spiderman or Ang Lee’s Hulk) are better than others, but each has delivered its own share of fun. So, over the next few weeks, we’ll take a look a back at the series, including Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America.
I can’t recall another comic book movie where the secret identity is more fascinating than the actual superhero.
Certainly, it’s a lot of fun to watch Clark Kent and Peter Parker bumble—but we’re always waiting for them to jump into action as Superman or Spiderman. Bruce Wayne can be interesting depending on who’s playing him, but despite his obsession and grief, we’re more interested in watching Batman play with his toys. Heck, Thor and Captain America do away with the secret identity altogether.
But whenever Tony Stark steps into his metal suit in “Iron Man,” I’m a little disappointed—I just want Tony to keep talking.
It may be hard to forget in light of its success, but “Iron Man” was not a prepackaged hit when it was released in 2008. It was expected to do well, but get lost among Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” Harrison Ford’s return as Indiana Jones and Marvel’s other big summer tent pole (and fellow “Avengers” tie-in) “The Incredible Hulk.”) Director Jon Favreau was best known for his co-starring role in “Swingers” and helming the kids’ flicks “Elf” and “Zathura,” and Iron Man had a strong fan following, but was unknown to many outside the comic book world.
Even more daunting was the fact that star Robert Downey Jr. was most famous for a promising career (“Chaplin”) that had nearly derailed due to his sordid personal life and legal woes—although, to be fair, the actor made a hell of a comeback three years’ earlier in Shane Black’s woefully under-seen “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (in a nice bit of Hollywood karma, Black is now directing “Iron Man 3.”) Although Downey would be nominated for an Oscar the same year as “Iron Man” for his brilliant turn in “Tropic Thunder,” and later take on another beloved franchise as Sherlock Holmes, his viability as a box office draw was in question at that point—it’s no wonder the studio originally wanted Tom Cruise (yes, there was a time when people were more secure about putting Cruise—or even Mel Gibson—in a movie than Downey).
And yet, it’s Downey who makes this film a success–his smartass, grease monkey billionaire is a cocky, funny and charismatic hero for us to latch onto, and every second Downey is on the screen, the film has an energy and wit to it that’s usually lacking in this genre, where directors are often too eager to jump into the action and mayhem to focus on character moments.
At heart, “Iron Man” isn’t really even about IRON MAN, per se…while Batman, Superman and Spidey all seem to be distinctly different characters from their alter egos in these movies, we’re always well aware that the “Iron Man” is nothing more than a suit, a crime-fighting tool. The real hero is Tony Stark, which is why the film never drags in the way that these origin stories tend to.
Think about it. Aside from possibly “Batman Begins,” is there really a great superhero origin movie? Sure, we might have fond memories of watching Superman discover his powers or of seeing Peter Parker test out his web-slingers, but at heart we want to see our heroes get into action as quickly as possible–it’s why the second installment in these franchises is usually the more memorable movie.
But “Iron Man” is not about how a big metal guy started kicking butt–it’s about how a billionaire weapons manufacturer developed a conscience and dealt with the ramifications of his decisions.
It helps that Tony Stark is a bit of a douchebag at the beginning of the film, albeit one played with a great deal of charm and humor by Downey. But he’s a playboy–and not one like Bruce Wayne, who uses his lifestyle as an alibi. Stark lives fast and parties hard…early in the film, we see an awards ceremony, where we get a brief film heralding Stark’s genius, only to cut away to him avoiding the ceremony altogether because he’s too busy drinking, flirting and playing craps. He has no moral qualms about his job as a weapons manufacturer and only stops to answer a reporter’s questions so he can get her into bed. The only person who keeps him slightly in line is his devoted assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).
But following a weapons demonstration in Afghanistan, Stark is kidnapped by terrorists, who force him to build a bomb; the fact that they’re keeping him alive only by a magnet, which keeps a piece from shrapnel from entering his heart, is another possible motivator. During a tour of the camp, Stark sees that his weapons have made it into the hands of America’s enemies, and he is befriended by a fellow captive. Rather than build the weapon, Stark constructs an armored, weaponized suit and fights against his captors and, upon making it home, declares that his business will no longer make instruments of death–much to the consternation of his Vice President and mentor, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges). On the sly, Stark continues work on his mechanized suit, with the idea that it can bring peace to the world.
Watching “Iron Man” again, I was struck by how little action is actually in the movie–and how little I really cared. True, Favreau knows how to crank up the excitement when the film calls for it–Stark’s escape from the terrorist compound is thrilling fun, and there’s a great, energetic Iron Man/military jet chase halfway through. But for the most part, this is a movie about corporate politics and industrial espionage, wrapped around a romantic-comedy about a playboy who grows a heart.
And it absolutely delivers, thanks to the wonderful cast at Favreau’s disposal.
Marvel’s had a knack for matching up its heroes with the right actors–Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans are both perfect as Thor and Captain America, respectively. But Downey is the only one who brings movie star charisma to the Marvel Universe, giving us a cocky, brash and arrogant leader who we love in spite of (because of?) his many flaws. Stark can be a bit of an ass, for sure, but he’s the kind of ass you can’t help but love — his banter with the soldiers in the film’s opening is humorous, and Downey is better than almost anyone out there with a quip.
It’s easy to rag on the actor for the snark he brings to all of his roles–and, in truth, it’s a bit grating at times when Downey appears on awards shows or at public appearances. But there’s more to snark with Tony, and Downey sells the character’s brilliance; many of the film’s most entertaining scenes involve Stark in his work station, including a very funny sequence where he tests out the suit’s flight capabilities.
Downey also has great chemistry with the film’s supporting characters, particularly Paltrow. Their flirtatious relationship is never played too seriously; instead, it has the warmth and humor of a screwball comedy, and both actors are fantastic. I remember initially being surprised that an established actress like Paltrow would take what I assumed was a love interest/damsel-in-distress role in a comic book movie, but she brings an intelligence and heart to the character that is sometimes lost in similar films. She and Downey have a very funny scene where Pepper is asked to repair the mechanism that keeps Tony’s heart beating, and I like that Pepper has a role in exposing the film’s villain and bringing in government assistance.
Terrence Howard has a lot of fun as Tony’s best friend, Air Force pilot Rhodes, and the two have a nice banter early in the film–for some reason, the line “I’m in the FunVee, you’re in the HumDrumVee” makes me laugh. I wish Howard had been able to stick around for the sequel, as the look in his eyes when he spies the War Machine armor promised the actor would get to really cut loose in “Iron Man 2”–something that I don’t think Don Cheadle handled too well as the replacement.
Bridges brings a lot of charisma to Stane, as well. It’s fairly apparent from early on that Stane will be the film’s villain, but the actor has a great time chewing the scenery, and his humor makes the corporate politics early in the film work without becoming too dry and boring. The entire cast is a joy to watch here and, like I said, it’s almost a shame when Stark has to put on a mask and stop dialoguing with the rest of the characters–there’s an improvisational feel to much of Downey’s dialogue that is one of the film’s biggest joys.
Favreau has a great sense of pace and timing, and I love the film’s bright look and humor. “The Dark Knight” would, of course, give the genre than enough angst and darkness, and one of the best surprises about the Marvel films has been how committed they are to the fun side of the concept. “Iron Man” doesn’t have deep characters or big themes, but the film works so well as a popcorn machine that it doesn’t really matter–while I love when the comic genre shows a bit of maturity and depth, it’s nice to remember that, at times, this is all based on something originally meant to thrill children. And “Iron Man” sets that tone admirably.
The only time the film really stumbles is in its final act, when the wit and humor give way to a standard special effects battle featuring two actors in metal suits. Obviously, the film has to end with a big fight–it’s a superhero movie–but I felt that watching two computer-generated giants throw each other around was nothing I hadn’t seen before. It’s not bad, but it definitely feels a tad anticlimactic, and it’s the only place in the film where the dialogue really feels cheesy and stilted. The film, of course, does regain its footing for its funny final scene, in which Stark does away with the whole business of alter ego’s altogether and announces that he is, indeed, Iron Man.
As a film, “Iron Man” is a lot of fun. It’s not the greatest superhero movie ever made, but it’s a good reminder of what the genre looks like when everything is done right. It’s funny and exciting and a wonderful piece of escapist entertainment.
As a tie-in to a larger universe, it benefits from its hesitancy. Because “Iron Man” was released before “The Avengers” was greenlighted, its attempts to create a bigger story worked more as Easter eggs for sharp-eyed fans, and feel a bit more organic to the plot–the creation of SHIELD, for instance, and the introduction of Agent Coulson are played more for humor than anything, and it actually ties in to the film’s final act. It doesn’t feel crammed in or like the plot had to do gymnastics to set up another film–“Thor” and “Iron Man 2,” in particular, suffer from too much “Avengers” set up. The scene with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury after the credits is a nice way to start bringing together a bigger arc, even if it’s fairly pointless (as most of the post-credits scenes in the movie are).
But “Iron Man” was the first film to show what the Marvel Universe might look like and, in Downey’s Stark, it created a memorable and engaging hero. It still holds up as very fun, enjoyable movie on its own, and the best thing I can say about Stark is that, whether he’s with the Avengers or not, I look forward to seeing what other adventures he has down the road.