Iron Man

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When I read Glenn Kenny’s line about Iron Man being, essentially, the best Marvel superhero movie to date, I have to admit: it pissed me off. Or, at least, Kenny pissed all over the Spider-Man fanboy inside me. But movie critics are all standing in line to carry Iron Man’s jock, so what do I know?


It’s true that, for a contemporary Hollywood summer blockbuster, Iron Man

is an exceptionally well-made film in some important ways–chiefly in

that it has, at the center of things, plenty of room for some actual

performances from some actual actors. Robert Downey Jr. is very good as

Tony Stark, the military-industrialist who finds his heart of gold; a

startlingly bald-and-bearded Jeff Bridges is flat-out excellent as your

villainous uncle, and Gwyneth Paltrow–well, Paltrow does what she can

in her pretty/gawky second-banana role, which is fill skirts and look

wistful. (Third-banana Terrence Howard hangs out in the margins,

apparently just holding onto the promises that he’ll have more to do in

the inevitable sequel.)

And Iron Man opens at a pretty

good clip, with a sequence set in a desert somewhere in the Middle East

(Afghanistan, presumably) where Tony Stark, having just hosted a

demonstration of a ridiculous new multifariously explosive missile, is

humbled by the realization that the terrorists who blow up his military

convoy and take him hostage are armed with weapons that have his name

printed on the side. To date, Stark has been a billionaire playboy–a

cross between Richard Branson and Howard Hughes–and Iron Man

is actually more fun when it’s chronicling his callow antics (throwing

dice when he should be giving a speech, bedding a Vanity Fair reporter,

or lounging in the miniature strip club built into his private jet)

than it is when Stark swears off the weapons industry and goes

supersonic in his self-made superhuman-power suit. Yes, there’s a

charming clunkiness to the first iteration of this behemoth, a kludgy

rock-em-sock-em-robot kind of affair that Stark pieces together when

his not-too-attentive captors put him to work in a makeshift weapons

factory. But after Stark returns home and, in an undeniably amusing

series of trial-and-error iterations, homebrews his sleek suit of armor

in the basement of his picturesque Malibu home, he becomes an army of

one–and because there’s precious little his sidekicks need do to help

him out, the film’s impressive human dimension becomes superfluous as

the action grinds on.

Stark returns to the desert, where he

drops a few terrorists and blows up a tank in a neat action scene

that’s apparently meant to constitute a satisfying revenge scenario,

but instead only draws attention to the intractable real-world problems

the U.S. faces over there, for all its military might. And then he

comes back home to L.A., where Obadiah Stane (Bridges), once his

right-hand man but now a murderous turncoat, has built his own

super-suit. And so the climax of Iron Man resorts to that grand

old cliché: two men beating the hell out of each other. Of course,

Hollywood movies with blockbuster aspirations tend to rely on

derivative, unimaginative action. But a big exception, I’d argue, is

the Spider-Man movies, or at least the first two, which boast

skillfully mounted and expertly edited set pieces that contrast nicely

with the cornpone dialogue, romantic melodrama, and broad clichés found

in Spidey territory.

And that’s the thing–the distance between the Spider-Man movies and Iron Man is a function of directorial chops. On the evidence presented in The Evil Dead,

his first feature film, Raimi may well have popped out of his mother’s

belly covered in Karo syrup and red food coloring, clutching a Bolex in

one hand and framing shots through his little pink eyelids. Even his

shitty movies are visual dynamite, with action shot from all the right

angles and lithely edited for maximum impact. Favreau, on the other

hand, is what’s called “an actor’s director” rather than any kind of

stylist. He lavishes attention on Tony Stark’s frame of mind, enough so

that you can sense the transformation that takes place, from his early

narcissism to the grim determination of the scenes in which he builds

his cave-busting giant and back to the giddy self-regard of his

climactic declaration, “I am Iron Man.” (The screenwriters don’t seem

to be sure, exactly, what kind of character arc they’re going for, but

in the hands of Favreau and Downey, at least it’s vivid.) And the

non-romance between Stark and personal assistant Pepper Potts pays off

in a couple of late-movie scenes that underscores the occasional

embarrassment and confusion of awkward courtships without going for the

obvious romantic payoff. (Again, there will always be sequels.)

But when it comes time to mount the big set pieces, and especially whenever Downey disappears into that super suit, Iron Man turns so generic it feels almost like the film has cut to a commercial break. I don’t require Jurassic Park-level

action contraptions in every big-budget cartoon that comes to theaters,

but I do demand a bit of showmanship. The smallish Thursday-night crowd

I saw the movie with laughed a lot, but seemed to become electrified

only once, when Iron Man, returning to the Middle Eastern desert, thunked

from cruising altitude to the ground in a fierce, tightly wound crouch

that gave the impression serious ass was on the verge of being kicked.

That’s a standout shot in a mass of perfunctory action that,

ironically, sucks the energy out of the movie. Watching the scenes of Iron Man

flying through the stratosphere made me wax nostalgic not just for the

acrobatic post-adolescent “Yahoo!” of those vertiginous scenes of

web-slinging through gleaming Manhattan canyons in the Spider-Man

movies, but also, briefly, for Superman Returns–unwieldy as

that movie was, its scenes of flight had a sense of wonder and majesty

that humanized the hero, rather than just his earthbound alter-ego.

Downey is cool beans, sure. But Iron Man himself, set against a bland

score by Ramin Djawadi that seems divided between cheese-metal guitar

pop and Hans-Zimmer-lite orchestrations, is just another piece of

chilly military hardware. Too often, it’s hard to remember why we’re

supposed to be rooting for him, anyway. B

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