Iron Man

The Self-Made Hero—a review of Iron Man

Written by John August, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Arthur Marcum, Matthew Hollaway

Directed by Jon Favreau

Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Terence Howard

Iron Man always reminded me of the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz, not just because of his metallic exterior, but because of his lack of a functional heart. After seeing the movie, I now see that he has close parallels with Frankenstein’s monster as well—Tony Stark is the sum of many men, whose seams sometimes show and whose parts do not always mesh well. Most of all, however, he’s one of the most human and approachable of the many comic book characters now being translated into live-action movies.

Wealthy industrialist Tony Stark, a genius weapons designer, is touring Afghanistan selling his latest missile, a devastating weapon. He is ambushed and captured by scruffy bad guys whose appearance screams “terrorist” but who are carefully described as a diverse band of criminals. Like 99% of American entertainment, the movie is careful not to imply that people who walk, talk, and look like terrorists could actually be, you know, terrorists. So Tony Stark nearly dies not from the attack, but from the detonation of one of his own weapons. When he revives in a hidden cave, there’s a glowing metal device stuck to his chest, and he’s hooked up to a car battery. Seems that the shrapnel would have killed him, but the efforts of a clever scientist—who was fortuitously captured at the same time—has saved him. But for the rest of his life, Tony must wear this odd device. Threatened with death if he does not build a weapon for the leader of the not-terrorist band, Tony agrees, and then builds himself a suit of powered armor, using spare missile parts, in a scene that MacGyver would have envied.

Like all genesis stories, there’s a lot of explanation of the how and not much contemplation of the why, but the rest of the movie makes up for it in a big way. Not content merely to escape his captors, Tony finds himself waylaid by his own conscience. He defies his mentor, Obadiah Stang (Jeff Bridges) and pulls Stark Industries out of the weapons business. He retreats from the world of parties and politics, holed up in his basement making ever newer improvements to his original design (which got left in the desert and has been scavenged by the not-terrorists). His workshop is like something out of Pixar by way of Radio Shack, full of nearly-human robots and computers who obey commands like, “Spray me again when I’m not actually on fire, and I’ll donate you to a community college!” But while he rebuilds his exoskeleton into a lethal flying robot inhabited by a human, he also re-assembles his life and conscience into a stronger, more focused, and actually funnier guy than he used to be.

It’s that refreshingly unscripted and funny dialogue that keeps this movie from becoming a plodding remake of Transformers, which had all the charm and human interest of metal shop. Instead of ninety minutes of large metal robot-like creatures bashing one another in increasingly devastating ways, we get a good look at a conflicted, brilliant, and maybe unstable guy who’s just trying to figure out where he fits in. In this, he much resembles his prototype, Batman. Like Bruce Wayne/Batman, who predates Tony Stark/Iron Man by some three decades, he possesses no super powers, no supernatural abilities. He’s just a guy with brains, hands, and a lot of money to throw at his new hobby. Like the Batman, Stark follows the usual hero’s journey—born to wealth and power, he loses his parents at an early age, and then must seek his true self on a journey of discovery involving feats of strength and courage. We’ve been watching this movie since Gilgamesh, Moses, and King Arthur. It never gets old, however, especially when embodied in the likable, smart, and enormously talented Robert Downey, Jr.

Scuttlebutt has it that director Jon Favreau—himself an actor with a long list of credits—allowed his actors to improvise much of their dialogue, despite the presence of no fewer than five screenwriters. If so, he cast some geniuses, because some of these scenes sparkle with wit and good timing as if they were well rehearsed. Gwyneth Paltrow, as Stark’s capable assistant Pepper Potts, alternates between a catty possessiveness and a shy attraction. Her scenes with Downey resonate with nuance and sublimated sexual attraction. Downey improvised the speech Stark gives introducing his Jericho missile, and came up with the idea of conducting one of Stark’s press conferences by sitting on the floor.

Sometimes the scene is more than dialogue, of course, and I can’t help but mention how completely believable Jeff Bridges is as Obadiah Stang. With his prophet’s beard, bald head, and false bonhomie, he manages to convey as much menace with a fake smile as a pirate with an eye patch and a scowl. Bridges almost never puts a foot wrong in any role, and here he lends suitable weight and gravitas as Stark’s eventual nemesis. Nothing could be more clichéd than the bad guy hurling insults and scorn as he knocks the good guy about; performed inside a robot costume, it can be downright funny. Bridges brings the intimidation full force, and manages to make his final combat believable.

It’s weird that, for a movie based on an action hero, the action is actually the least interesting part of the story. Except for Tony’s thrilling initial flight in his new Iron Man suit over Los Angeles, most of the scenes involving the suit remind us all too forcibly that we’re watching a modern costume drama. As soon as Stark puts on the suit, the charming and vulnerable character so painstakingly created by Downey disappears. This Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation is relieved by the occasional shots of Tony inside the helmet, delighting in his new toy like a boy who just got his first G.I. Joe with Action Karate Chop. The battle of the titans in the last act is similarly ho-hum—there’s nothing particularly wrong with it, but we’ve seen it all before. The Hulk throws whole cities at one another, and the Transformers stomped about just as loudly all last summer. In the end, it isn’t even the suits that win the day for Tony—it’s his quick brain. He gets Pepper to blow up his company’s experimental reactor in order to destroy Stang; the Iron Man suit protects him but otherwise does not decide the outcome.

Much of this is not original, of course. Almost nothing found in comic books can be called truly original, nor is that really a basis for judging the art form. Comic books straddle the boundaries between static, written stories like short stories and novels, and the fluid, non-verbal stories told in moving pictures. They adhere neither to the conventions of fine art nor to the conventions of literature, but are constantly in flux. They are myths constantly undergoing re-definition in order to do what myths do—speak to the current moment. A novel may freeze a moment in time for us, a film may show us a progression in time, but a comic book shows us the moment itself interacting with its audience.

A lot of things go into making a successful superhero movie—the original franchise, the writing, the special effects. In this case, Iron Man succeeds due to two things—the acting and the humor. Downey is at the top of his game, pulling agony and joy out of himself to inject into Tony Stark, the kind of performance we once saw in Less Than Zero or Restoration. I’m excited to see this talented man back on the screen, and wish him many more such roles. Like his onscreen alter ego, he appears to have re-assembled the shards of himself into a stronger, more focused, and intensely likable man. Already the reception of Iron Man is such that Downey has been signed to two sequels. Finally, the film’s willingness to take a wry second glance at itself, the self-aware humor of having Stark throw the cards away and out himself as Iron Man, and the fast-paced, bad-boy give and take between Stark and Pepper, gives me hope that those sequels will be as exciting, fun, and popular as the Indiana Jones movies. If they’re anything like this initial effort, I look forward to a whole new franchise.

Copyright © 2008 by Sarah Stegall