05 May 2008

Iron Man fights with repulor rays!

Iron Man (2008)
Directed by Jon Favreau. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard, Shaun Toub, Leslie Bibb.

Yep, summer’s here all right: A $100 million opening for a comic book superhero movie. Get the hot dogs ready.

I’m happy to say that Iron Man opens the suntan-lotion season of film-going most pleasantly. It doesn’t rival Batman Begins or Spider-Man 2, but it’s far superior to the recent drab parade of other Marvel adaptations, like Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Ghost Rider.

I used to read The Invincible Iron Man comic when I was in junior high, and “Shellhead” was one of my favorite heroes at the time: the coolness factor of his sleek, impersonal armor made him hard to resist for any gadget-obsessed young man. Today, I find his comic book adventures almost unreadable: mired in techno-conveniences (whatever he needs the suit to do, it can do) and alter-ego Tony Stark’s near-fascist politics. The movie, fortunately, restores the Iron Man of my memories while adding enough modern perspective to feel fresh.

The character is one of Marvel’s major creations of the mid-sixties, when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby up-ended the world of superheroes with their creative approach of attaching psychological realism to their outlandish adventures. Iron Man was a co-creation of Lee, his brother Larry Lieber, and artists Kirby and Don Heck. Heck drew Iron Man’s first appearance, in issue #39 of Tales of Suspense, and would soon turn into the character’s first regular artist. Iron Man continued as a feature story in Tales of Suspense, sharing the title for many issues with a Captain America feature, before getting his own title.

The original conception of Iron Man might be best described as “What if Howard Hughes turned into a superhero?” Billionaire engineer Tony Stark, a top defense contractor for the U.S., manufactures a suit of transistor-powered armor to help him escape from a Viet Cong warlord’s prison camp. Behold the mighty power of—transistors! Stark uses the Iron Man armor to help protect Stark Industries from espionage, and devises the cover that Iron Man is his “bodyguard.” These early stories were Cold War in tone, with enemies such as Soviets Crimson Dynamo, Black Widow, Titanium Man, and “yellow peril” dastard the Mandarin. But the military-industrial heroics of ol’ Shellhead make a good contrast with the street-heroics of Spider-Man and the science-fiction epics of the Fantastic Four.

Although these early comics are dated in the extreme, they have the wonderful hyperbolic Stan Lee style and remains a blast to read. Thanks to the Marvel “Essentials” line of inexpensive black-and-white reprints, they are easy to find.

The film version uses a similar origin for Iron Man, but has updated the geo-political map so that weapons-manufacturer Stark now gets caught by a Taliban-esque army in Afghanistan. Forced to construct a new missile for the organization “The Ten Rings” (a nod to the Mandarin, who fought using ten powered finger rings of alien design), Stark instead creates the bulky gray armor he uses to blast his way free. The story then shifts to a later era in the from the comics’ history—actually, the time period when I was reading it in school. Stark fine-tunes the armor into its crimson and gold incarnation, and then confronts competitor Obadiah Stane (re-imagined as his father’s business partner) and his huge “Iron Monger” armor. It turns out Stane has brokered deals for weapons with groups that might not share U.S. interests. Tony Stark, once the careless playboy, has had a change of heart—quite literally, since it’s now a miniature reactor planted in his chest—now that he’s discovered what his company’s weapons are really being used for.

The film’s super-weapon is Robert Downey Jr., who makes Stark an incredibly funny and constantly watchable figure. This is a rare “actor’s role” in a summer blockbuster, and without Downey along, the movie wouldn’t have much spark. Jeff Bridges does a good turn as Stane, and he’s always been one of my favorite actors, but this isn’t a villain-centered piece. Thankfully, our hero is up to the task, turning even minor scenes that should be nothing more than exposition into memorable ones.

The film does have some problems. Paltrow is pretty pale as requisite love interest Pepper Potts. My friend Brian pointed out that Stane seems to get his own armor constructed in about five minutes, even after learning that his team doesn’t have a fraction of the engineering know-how of Tony Stark. The best action scene in the movie comes at the midway point, when the first Iron Man suit busts out of the Afghan cave and wrecks some fun havoc. Iron Man later outruns missiles and planes and gets in a massive Los Angeles smack-down with Iron Monger, but they don’t have the jolt of this first revelation.

This is the inaugural film from Marvel Studios (Paramount is only serving as the distributor), and it promises more good work to come. Now let’s get on that Captain America film, shall we?

If you haven’t seen Iron Man yet, please stay until after the credits. There’s a cameo appearance and a future-franchise set-up that you have to see.