President Dwight Eisenhower once described the shame and the dangers of the military/industrial complex. He decried “spending the sweat of [the world’s] laborers, the genius of its scientists…” in pursuing the means of war. He went on to say that this was no way of life at all, “…it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
The protagonist of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, billionaire weapons developer Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), is forced to confront his own role in the militarization of freedom, and stumbles on a crisis of conscience. Awakened to his role in spreading and profiting from the business of death, Stark vows to change the direction of his life and his company. His noble effort is met with resistance, and Stark’s solution is to build a rocket-propelled metal suit. Nothing too complicated, there. Iron Man is, after all, an adaptation of what has been referred to as a ‘second-tier’ superhero.
That is what Iron Man, the character, is. For every Batman, Superman, and Spiderman, there is an Aquaman, Flash, and Iron Man. All durable characters saving lives in the comics universes for decades, the second-tier superhero lacks the easy name recognition of their flashier and generally more complicated compatriots, but they nevertheless have devoted, profitable followings.
As superhero adaptations go, Iron Man is first-tier. Since it is the first screen telling of Iron Man, Favreau pays obligatory homage to backstory and origins. In the process, the movie finds its success in its character studies, not its CGI action sequences. Downey walks a line between charming and smarmy, eventually settling on noble and upright. Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark’s assistant, Pepper Potts, is sweet and innocent, with a streak of worldly experience designed to keep the audience from being repulsed by the clichéd limitations of the character. And, there is Jeff Bridges turning in a performance as Obadiah Stane, Stark’s business partner and eventual nemesis. Favreau makes Bridges look big, powerful, and intimidating. Bridges and camera are often placed to make Obadiah tower over those he is talking to. Obadiah isn’t particularly unsettling as a bad guy, but he does the job. The first look at Bridges’ huge bald head and it becomes obvious what Obadiah’s role will be in the film.
Iron Man is also a film that lacks any surprises. It is a first-tier superhero adaptation, but the genre has hardly been represented well on film. Stark’s awakening to the immorality of weapons development is a complicated subject, dumbed down for mass appeal. But, how much depth can one expect from a superhero film? Only a few, led by Batman Begins, have managed any serious weight. Paradoxically, maybe if there were no Iron Man, maybe if the film dealt solely with the interplay between Stark and Obadiah, sans all the shiny toys, would there be room to expand upon subject matter that slips into the background the further the film progresses.
As it is, the audience is left with a flashy film with a good cast and a likable protagonist. However, it only hints at the possibilities of its plot. Depending on how much thought one is willing to put into the film, that could be good or bad.
The actions scenes have the usual problems with physics that one would expect. At one point, Iron Man takes a hard hit from a tank shell and is left with only some scratches. The film is full of instances like this. Indeed, that is one tough suit. But, that is the point. Stark has invented a virtually indestructible suit of armor that flies at supersonic speeds, and has a bitchin’ paint job. It takes Hollywood to make that look real. The CGI is generally restrained. Beyond the bad physics, the in-flight graphics and climactic final confrontation aren’t too cartoony, but they still cross the threshold of believability. Someday there will be high-speed CGI action sequences that don’t look fake. Until then, in Iron Man, these sequences at least don’t look cheap.
Iron Man is a good movie. One could also follow that assessment by saying that it also ‘is what it is.’ Iron Man is a summer blockbuster released a few weeks early. The source material is uncomplicated, and so is the film. It’s well made, and more respectful to viewers than most blockbusters, but not as much as the audience deserves. Everything about the film is designed to maximize audience appeal and profitability. The returns these last few weeks since its release show it has applied its formula effectively. What makes Iron Man different from other popcorn fare is that it has a compelling story with just enough restraint to keep the audience from feeling it’s been had. If that feels like a tepid endorsement, it is. But a good, simple movie cannot be called a masterpiece because it stands tall in a genre where the average quality of films is so dreadful.