Tony Stark (Downey Jr) is a mechanical genius, playboy businessman and CEO of a major weapons manufacturer whose family motto is, Peace means having a bigger stick. But when a trip to Afghanistan goes explosively wrong, hes mortally wounded and capture
Iron Man is an origin story in more ways than one. This is, after all, the first true Marvel Studios picture, the first fully financed by the comic-book publishers-turned-entertainment megahouse. And, with north of $150 million dollars invested, it represents a risky way of kick-starting your business. Especially when you look at the creative team: some great names, with several Oscar nominations between them (and one statuette, for Gwyneth), but none who have ever opened a summer blockbuster. Kudos to Marvel for going for talent over big-name draw – a gambit the studio’s also taken for the upcoming Incredible Hulk. But kudos doesn’t cover overheads. You can almost hear the collective breath-holding over at Beverley Boulevard while those multi-million-dollar dice are being rolled…
Origin stories are tricky things, too – they too often feel like feature-length pilots for intended franchises. X-Men suffered from being all set-up and no pay-off, and even Christopher Nolan’s brilliant Batman Begins was less sure of how to climax than it was of how to, well, begin. And where’s it written that comic-book franchises need origin stories? It didn’t hurt Indiana Jones, Connery’s James Bond or Captain Jack Sparrow that they arrived on our screens fully formed. Superheroes these days require a full C.V. and cover letter to get into our multiplexes – especially the Marvel mob.
The problem isn’t so much that origin stories themselves are inherently uncompelling, rather that by the film’s midpoint they’ve run out of steam, leaving the latter half, and usually a rushed final act, to summon up and dispense with a token threat, the hero’s mettle duly tested. For all the bold casting and inventive selection of director, Iron Man certainly doesn’t break the mould on this front. It opens dramatically and impressively with the tinkle of icecubes in whisky, casual references to Maxim cover girls and an explosion, setting up Tony Stark as an amoral, money-grabbing high-flyer who is felled with inevitable irony by his own hardware, incarcerated in a cave and ordered by Afghan guerillas to build a mountain-levelling missile. It’s in these harsh, subterranean surroundings that Stark travels most of his character arc, discovering a conscience and constructing the Ned Kelly-style ‘Mark One’ suit of armour (which looks absolutely nothing like the missile that was on the menu, but somehow his captors don’t notice, despite the fact that they keep him under constant video surveillance). Logic-lapses aside, it’s the most thrilling part of the movie, and it’s over all too soon.
Don’t misunderstand us – there’s still much to enjoy. There’s winning comedy in Stark’s suit-perfecting misadventures, involving a dash of Wile E. Coyote slapstick and some great deadpanning from Downey Jr as he teases and berates his robot-arm assistants, one of whom is a little too eager with the fire extinguisher. And the acting-powerhouse cast don’t disappoint. Jeff Bridges may be more typically pitched these days as the amiable slouch, but his Obidiah Stane is crisp, bullish and hard-edged, even if he’s the worst-kept secret-bad-guy since Palpatine. Meanwhile, as the terribly named Pepper Potts, Gwyneth Paltrow invests the thankless archetype of the torch-holding secretary with true warmth, and her scenes with Downey Jr zing with smart banter and thrum with unrequited passion. And, in case you hadn’t guessed, the role of Stark fits Downey Jr like a titanium-alloy, servo-assisted glove, the back-from-the-brink actor veering nimbly between the swaggering and sensitive sides of his character, never mistiming a wisecrack.
Yet once Downey Jr’s in the completed red and gold robosuit, and it’s revealed precisely how his former captors clapped their hands on his lethal hardware, the movie loses momentum. Building on its fine, inexplicably Oscar-denied FX for Transformers, ILM’s photo-real work on Iron Man himself is flawless, yet Favreau – so much more an actor’s director – makes the action scenes too brief, too flippant; a zoom here, a flash there, with plenty of pulse, thump and crunch, but never the sustained symphony of cybernetic smashmouth and state-of-the-art firepower you might have hoped for – notwithstanding any squeamishness you may have about one arguably too-topical battleground.
It’s a minor disappointment, thankfully not crushing enough to drain us of anticipation for future instalments, but it’s good to have the obligatory origin episode out of the way. Marvel’s gamble will likely pay off, and that collective breath should be comfortably exhaled. Here’s hoping, though, that future projects will prove as creative in the storytelling as in the casting. Over to you, Dr Banner…
Its not sure where to go once the final Iron Man suit is constructed, and seems in a rush to get there, but Downey Jr and the supporting cast are so perfectly placed we're already looking forward to the bound-to-be-better sequel.