image from IMDB.com.
Though I am writing this review in 2015, two weeks prior to the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron, I am attempting to place myself back in the mindset of 2008 when Iron Man was released, when Marvel Films was not cranking out hit-after-hit, and when few were certain that Robert Downey, jr could carry a movie as a lead anymore.
From its first moment, Iron Man knows what it is and what it’s doing. What Iron Man is is a high-octane, laugh-out-loud, grab ’em and don’t let go action movie that is fun from start to finish. What it’s doing is apply a pitch-perfect tone adapting an American literary genre that has – too often in the past – been taken too lightly or too seriously. When you take comic books too lightly, camp becomes the order of the day. When you take comic books too seriously, the result is painful and overwrought.
When you hit the sweet spot (say with Superman the Movie or Spider-Man 2) the audience is treated to wonderful spectacle, heroic adventure and an iconic rendition of a character. All actors who have or will play Superman will be judged by the standard Christopher Reeve set. All who put on Spider-Man’s tights will be following Tobey Maguire’s terrific performance. We can add Robert Downey, jr’s Iron Man to this list.
From his first moment on-screen, riding in a Humvee on his way back from a successful demonstration of military hardware, Downey, jr. commands the entire movie as Tony Stark, brilliant inventor and scientist with an outsized ego and an oversized wit. Smooth, engaging and impossibly charming, Downey, jr. delivers each of his lines in the film – in the Iron Man armor and out of it – as though he’s making them up as he goes along. At each step of his development as an unlikely hero, Downey jr. seems as surprised by how events are unfolding around him as the audience is. If there is a recent better fit for an actor to a role than this, I am hard pressed to recall it. Downey, jr. is simply perfect. Primarily because of his performance, we care more about Tony Stark out of the armor than we do about him in it, and for a movie about a superhero, that’s a pretty rare feat.
Downey, jr. is well supported by a great cast. Both Gwyneth Paltrow and Terrence Howard are very good in second banana roles, Paltrow as Stark’s executive assistant Pepper Potts who may or may not develop into his love interest and Howard as Stark’s best friend Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes whose job in the movie is to play conscience to Stark’s man-child proclivities. Neither actor is stretched much beyond the comfort zone, but they fit the flavor of the movie very nicely.
Jeff Bridges, on the other hand, seems to be having just as much fun as Downey, jr. His Obadiah Stane is one part corporate titan, one part father-figure and one part ruthless business man. Of all the actors, Bridges is the only one who truly matches Downey jr. in terms of wild energy and emotion and his off-kilter line delivery is a pleasure. His plaintive “Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave… out of a box of scraps!” is likely not destined to be the most quoted line of his movie career, but perhaps it should be. I can’t say I’ve seen all of Bridges’ movies, but I think I can say without fear of being contradicted that he’s never played a role like this one and, just when he could chew scenery and take Stane completely over-the-top, he doesn’t. He’s a great foil for Stark.
The plot itself adheres very closely to the Iron Man origin story in the comics, but not so slavishly that the magic of the creation is lost in translation. At its heart, Iron Man is a redemption story and there is no better actor working today to place in the center of such a story than Downey, jr. That the audience has as much fun getting to the redemption as the actors seem to be having is a great testament to the direction of Jon Favreau. Every choice he makes, from set piece to soundtrack, seems inspired and all of them lead to a terrific finished product.
And when we get to the “secret” ending, we know there is a wider plan at work for Marvel’s movies, and we’re thrilled by its potential.
IRON MAN receives FIVE FUNVEES out of a possible FIVE.