“Iron Man”. That’s kind of catchy. It’s got a nice ring to it.
Going back to April 2008, before The Dark Knight came out; before Marvel’s The Avengers (sorry, Marvel’s Avenger’s Assemble) was a speck on the horizon, an Iron Man movie was a significant risk. X-Men, Blade, Batman and Spider-Man had formed the initial landscape of the super-hero genre in the new millennium. Iron Man wasn’t known beyond fervent comic book readers, people who listened to Black Sabbath or kids who may have caught the cartoon in the 90s. Launching a potential franchise with a character – a very tech-orientated James Bond/billionaire playboy – with little awareness could have turned out like other less-popular comic book films such as the disappointingly weak Elektra or Fantastic Four. That it turned out to be good as it is, is down to Robert Downey Jr’s performance, amongst other things.
Tony Stark (Downey Jr) is a wealthy, arrogant industrialist, presenting his latest and greatest tech at a presentation in Afghanistan where he finds himself fighting for his life after his convoy is attacked. Kidnapped and with very little help, Stark is forced to build a suit of armour to escape his captors and upon freeing himself decides to use his technology to fight evil.
The above synopsis sounds cheesy (anything that has the words ‘fighting evil’ makes me cringe), but it’s to Marvel’s credit that in the context of the film it doesn’t sound laughable. Placing Tony Stark in a climate not far from our own (switching Vietnam for Afghanistan, introducing Apple-like interfaces) makes it much more relatable and palatable. It still retains much of its comic book ‘wham-bam’ personality but it’s not as far-fetched as it could have been, despite having a man who flies around in a high-tech suit of armour.
A lot of that is down to Jon Favreau’s direction (building up his big-budget aspirations after Elf and Zathura), Matthew Libatique’s brightly coloured, realistically-shot cinematography, ILM’s visual effects contribution and a hugely talented ensemble that function as one of the more impressive ones seen in tentpole filmmaking outside of The Dark Knight franchise. The emphasis is on character, not action; humour not broad stupidity (Stark’s bickering/flirting with his assistant, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, is a highlight), building a solid core for the action scenes. That the action isn’t particularly memorable is down to Favreau’s lack of nous/ambition, resulting in a third act fight that preceded Real Steel’s rock-em, sock-em antics. The action is perfunctorily done, a blemish and a missed opportunity for something that offers more scope than just people punching each other with metal fists. It’s a good thing the characters are this much fun as the limp action could have sunk the film.
It doesn’t help matters when the narrative is as formulaic as this one. Redemption narratives are too easily telegraphed: a strong opening half full of conflict eventually gives way to a busier-but-less-interesting second half that tries to resolve issues with a neat little bow. The initial villains (The 10 Rings) don’t offer much of a threat unless it’s of the very generic kind, and the main villain (Iron Monger) is a bit bland, a word you could apply to the film when Downey Jr is not on screen.
That he’s front and centre is this film’s greatest asset. Downey Jr’s revival (Hollywood loves a bad boy come good) is reflected in his cracking performance here after his great turn in Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (coming full circle with Black coming onboard to direct Iron Man 3), ‘owning the screen’ instead of chewing the scenery. Without him, this film simply wouldn’t be as good.
[Ramin Djawadi’s score is the film’s least memorable part, a heavy metal orchestration that mimics its protagonist’s ostentatious sense of worth/rock star life/Black Sabbath, forgoing a theme and opting for sonic wallpaper. Disappointing, especially when he’s capable of crafting memorable themes like this one.]