Iron Man is that rare summer blockbuster movie. It can certainly be taken at face value and enjoyed as a big budget popcorn-type of movie — the cinematic equivalent of a bacon double cheeseburger with a big side of greasy fries (to quote my review of Hot Fuzz). However, like Batman Begins and X-Men 2, there are deeper subtexts and themes that you can tease out if you so desire, and you can do so without ruining the pure, thrill-packed entertainment one bit.
Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr. in a bravura performance) is a brilliant inventor and, thanks to his company, Stark Industries, a multi-billionaire. When not showing off his company’s latest weapons, he’s bedding supermodels and living the playboy lifestyle — much to the chagrin of his close associates, such as personal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and military attaché James Rhodes (Terrence Howard). That all changes when, during a trip to Afghanistan to demo Stark Industries’ latest missile system, his convoy is attacked by terrorists.
Stark is critically wounded in the attack — by one of his own weapons, ironically — and captured. An emergency and unorthodox surgery saves his life and he is put to work building weapons for his captors. There, Stark undergoes a startling revelation, that the weapons he so blindly assumed were being used to defend America have actually ended up in the hands of its enemies.
This, combined with some soul-searching brought on by the man who saved his life, a fellow captor named Yinsen, propels Stark to seek a new direction in life. But first he has to escape, and being the brilliant inventor that he is, he does so with the aid of a giant suit of powered armor complete with rocket launcher, flame thrower, and jet engines (natch).
Once he’s back in the States, Stark is a changed man. He announces that Stark Industries will no longer manufacture weapons, putting him at odds with the company’s shareholders and raising the concern of his business partner, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges). Stark then goes on sabbatical, where he begins refining the powered suit that he built in Afghanistan.
But even though he’s eschewed the playboy lifestyle and industrialist trappings, he’s still basically a boy playing with big, expensive toys — or, in this case, highly advanced robotics and cybernetics in his ultra-advanced garage. That is, until he is given evidence that terrorists are still using his company’s weapons, including the ones he destroyed in his escape, and that they might not have been stolen after all.
Any discussion of Iron Man must begin and end with Robert Downey, Jr. Put simply, he makes the movie the success that is. Even with all of the extraordinary special effects, thrilling action sequences, and hilarious dialog, if it weren’t for Downey, Jr. and his dedication to the character, comic timing, and enthusiam, Iron Man would be little more than a pile of scrap metal.
Even when he’s at his most callous and condescending, Stark still comes off as immensely likable and charismatic, thanks to Downey, Jr. And when Stark’s world is turned upside down, and his life given a new purpose, it is again thanks to Downey Jr.‘s performance that Stark’s transformation is so compelling.
Much like Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins, Stark is a man whose life has been given a one-eighty, and yet he must still move within his old world, a world of fame, wealth, and celebrity. We see that tension, as he struggles to reconcile what are now two very different sides of his person: the changed, guilt-ridden man on one side and on the other side, the wealthy billionaire who, as far as everyone else is concerned, is back for more. And out of that tension, a hero must somehow emerge.
The rest of the cast does a fine job as well. Gwyneth Paltrow’s role is relatively minor, but she brings an undeniable warmth and tenderness to the film. Pepper Potts is one of the few people who really cares about Tony Stark the man, and there’s a wonderful chemistry and interplay between the two, especially when it’s hinted that there might be something more between the characters.
Jeff Bridges is almost unrecognizable at first, as the man who is Stark’s closest friend and partner, but who has a hidden agenda all his own — but he pulls it off quite nicely. The only major actor who is a little bit on the underwhelming side is Terrence Howard, but only because the script gives his character little to do but shake his head at Stark’s latest womanizing and drinking shenanigans.
Beyond the cast, and specifically, Downey Jr.‘s performance, the movie succeeds in almost every way. The special effects, courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic, are simply phenomenal, easily putting to shame the work that they did on last year’s Transformers movie. Iron Man’s suit is a marvel to behold, with every joint, actuator, and servo designed and animated to the nth degree of detail. All of which makes the action sequences that much more kick-ass, be it Stark’s initial escape, his further tests with the Mark II and Mark III suits, or the film’s finest sequence, an aerial chase between Stark and two F-22s.
And it even succeeds when it ventures into deeper, more thought-provoking territory. Like all of the great superhero stories and movies, Iron Man is not just about a man in a cool costume doing cool stuff. Iron Man is surprsingly topical, delving into such topics as military industrialism, war profiteering and terrorism — if ever so fleetingly. Not to mention the themes of redemption and salvation, in Stark’s sudden transformation from the epitome of a crass and selfish materialist into someone who realizes the need to strive for something greater and nobler.
Admittedly, the movie’s “message” does get a little murky at times in its message — after all, we’re talking about a movie in which a man vows to put an end to the misuse of weapons through the use of an even better weapon. But this isn’t a “message” movie, it’s a Hollywood blockbuster, and frankly, it’s always welcome when such movies provide any measure of depth beyond the mere spectacle.
I could, at this point, point out the movie’s flaws, such as the weaker third act, the slightly anti-climactic climactic battle, or the various weaknesses in the plot. But frankly, the moment Tony Stark drops another witty quip, or Iron Man fires up his repulsors, such things just don’t seem to matter anymore. Put simply, Iron Man has set the bar high for every other summer blockbuster to come, and it’s any indication whatsoever, the next couple of months are going to be awesome.