Monday, May 5, 2008

Review: "Iron Man"

Yes, it's been a month since my last review, but a lot has been going on. I got into grad school and had to figure that whole thing out, and now I'm moving home for the summer. The month of April was quite lucrative in the life-progress department. But now, it's time to get back to my favorite thing in the whole world: movie talk.

...And what better way to dive back in than with "Iron Man," a superhero film that defies its genre and, in the end, turns out to be the most unique and, quite possibly, the greatest of its contemporary peers. Now, those of you who read my Daily Cardinal column, oh, a year or so ago, would agree that this is a large stretch for me, as my final article chronicled a vast, unfathomable love for the film "Spider-man 2." The lights have not left my eyes for this one. I still feel the same ache beneath my ribs for the plight of Peter Parker, his confliction, his torment over the girl nextdoor. The movie still convinces me with every breath it takes. But "Iron Man" has a certain amount of character that "Spider-man 2" lacks. That character lies in Tony Stark, played with suave, somehow sensetive precision by Robert Downey, Jr.--perhaps the genre's most unlikely choice for a superhero since...well...George Clooney, only this time, it worked out. And there were no nipples. Only chest plates.

If you don't know a ton of details about the Iron Man comic series, join the club. I think that the film does a great job of making this okay. The perpetually curious geek that I am, however, spent a few hours on Wikipedia Friday afternoon just getting to know the scrape and genius of Tony Stark. I read, with constant wonder, pretty deeply into the lore, and I learned that beneath the iron facade, Stark is a deeply troubled, weakened individual. Much like Bruce Wayne, Prince of Gotham and DC Comics, Stark lost both parents tragically at a young age. He spends most of his life collecting wealth, beautiful girls, and information, controlled by the manipulative grasp of family friend and Stark Industries board member Obadiah Stane. Tony Stark is a genius, having attended MIT at the age of fifteen. His company manufactures the cutting edge in military weaponry, and their latest endeavor, the "Jericho," is a multi-warhead missile that could, essentially, eradicate an entire metropolitan area in one easy step.

The "Iron Man" film, directed by the unlikely genius of Jon Favreau (so money he doesn't even know it), begins when Stark visits Afghanastan to demonstrate the ramifications of the Jericho Missile. He is accompanied by good friend, military officer, and Stark Industries Chief Aviation Officer James Rhodes (Terrence Howard), the morally astute babysitter type whom Stark separates from while riding away from the demonstration. When Stark's humvee is compromised, he is wounded badly by shrapnel from an explosion, kidnapped, and taken to an enemy cave. There he meets physicist Dr. Yinsen (Shawn Toub), a fellow prisoner who constructs an electricity-powered chest plate to keep the shrapnel from entering Stark's heart. When Stark is ordered to build a replica of the Jericho missile for his captors, he uses the time to build the Iron Man prototype instead--a bulky, anti-glam version that outfits similar to a rusty 1989 Buick La Sabre. The suit is powered by a miniature arc reactor, employing technology invented by Stark, not yet known to our mankind. Stark engineers the reactor as an improved replacement for the electric plate in his chest (aka glowing chest circle thinger). The reactor also serves as a power source for the Iron Man prototype, and eventually, via crude Iron Man suit, Stark escapes. Yinsen is, however, killed in the crossfire, and his death takes a profound effect on Stark, driving him toward an insatiable hunger for justice. Upon arriving home, Stark announces that his weapons division would no longer operate, and that Stark Industries would use its resources to conduct other kinds of technological advancement--Arc Technology, in particular. The decision angers Obadiah Stane (a foreboding turn by Jeff Bridges), who calls for Stark's injunction from the Board due to post-traumatic stress.

During his time off, Stark engineers the Iron Man we all know (and come to love--a fierce kind of love, if you're me). He employs the assistance of JARVIS the computerized butler (voice of Paul Bettany), several smart, heavily-clawed, mobile robots, and faithful secretary Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Most of the movie's funniest moments (and there are many) happen during trial and error sessions of the suit's flying aptitude. The sweet in "Iron Man," yes, the sweet, comes with the chemistry between Paltrow and Downey, Jr.--a delightful, 1940s newspaperman kind of chemistry that grows and develops but never gives us too much. And when Stark learns the awful truth about his kidnapping in Afghanistan, and the underhanded dealings of Stark Industries weaponry, Pepper aids him in his attempt to out the devious Obadiah.

Despite a power-packed trailer, the film itself actually spends most of its time introducing us to Tony Stark. Very little is dedicated to raw, "Transformers" caliber action sequencing until about the last twenty minutes or so. Even still, the CGI is breathtaking, even more effective in such small, intermittent doses. Stark's final Iron Man suit is painstaking in its details, fluttering and breathing like a second muscular physique. Aside from the suit, and the film's final scenes, "Iron Man" relies very little on its CGI. It is primarily made of keen dialogue and smooth, unique storytelling, lead by the impressive performance of Downey, Jr.. Stark has, perhaps, the most dabilitating weakness of all human superheroes: his life hangs in the balance of an arc reactor in his chest. Downey, Jr., originally cast due to his past drug addiction, embodies this and every weakness so fully that he seems born to play the role. He is filled with doubt, guilt, conflict at the empire built by his father. While seemingly jaded by the ways of the industry, Stark is as vulnerable as the beat in his chest, forever threatened by his own past, wanting so badly to make a difference. Pepper recognizes that, perhaps, she alone understandd his weakness. While the two do not share a traditional Peter Parker/M.J. type love story, they do share a moment or two. We're all glad for the restraint in the end. Two more sequels to go--there's pleanty of stolen moments to be had. Plus, "Iron Man" isn't actually like "Spider-man" at all. "Spider-man" is, essentially, a love story. "Iron Man" is about a man finding himself. Pepper Potts is simply there, in the meantime, to give him something to live for.

I very much loved "Iron Man." Robert Downey, Jr. consistently ranks in my top five actors, and I think he was, essentially, the only choice for the role of Tony Stark. Jon Favreau (who is consistently becoming one of my favorite directors) really had zero other choices if he wanted to make "Iron Man" a successful franchise, which I believe he'll do. There's just something about a superhero movie that relies heavily on compassion. We all need this kind of escapist entertainment, and this is the best kind--the kind that can both dazzle and relate to its audience. I suppose then, in the end, what truly sets "Iron Man" apart from "Spider-man 2" is that it doesn't attempt to give all that "with great power yada-yada-yada." It simply shows us the plight and development of a broken man and lets us decide for ourselves the man he'll become. My heart counts down to part two.

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