May 2nd, 2008
Spoiler disclaimer: This post does not contain specific details about the Iron Man movie beyond those available in the trailer. It does kinda ruin the ending to Elf, though.
I was never an Iron Man fan–even 20 years ago when my appetite for superheroes was voracious. To my mind, the whole concept behind the character was like an extended issue of What If?: what if Batman was a big pussy who needed a suit of armor every time he fought crime?! (I was pretty passionate about stuff like this, back in the day.) Plus, Tony Stark was always battling alcoholism or depression, and what fun was that? I wanted heroes who fought HIVE or ULTIMATUM, not the DSM.
But I’d heard good things about the film, and it was playing at the Cinerama, so what could I do? My 15 year-old-self would have traveled forward in time and kicked my ass if I missed the opportunity to see it. (Come to think of it, though, I still owe that kid a beatdown for The Phantom Menace.)
Iron Man wastes no time getting to the origin story. After opening with a few moments of Tony Stark wisecrackery (all of which was featured in the trailer), the industrialist is taken hostage by a gang of terrorists, confined to a cave, and given to understand that his days are numbered. “Wow, what a rip,” though I, sitting in the theater. Even someone with as scant knowledge of the Iron Man mythos as I understood that giving Robert Downey Jr. the role of Tony Stark was a bit of superhero-movie-casting genius unrivaled since Nicholson portrayed The Joker; and yet here we were, 10 minutes into the film, and already Stark had had his Pivotal Moment, having transformed from hedonistic sybarite to somber hero.
We’ll, I needn’t have worried. The next set of scenes are set 36 hours earlier, and show Stark in all of his bad-boy glory. Robert Downey Jr. is truly a joy to watch, and the audience in my theater was in stitches throughout the extended exposition. And though Stark is Irrevocably Changed For The Better by his experience with the terrorists, Downey continues to play his part with a rakish charm throughout.
Indeed, watching Tony Stark is so enjoyable that, when the third act arrives–devoted almost exclusively to the modern day Iron Man–it’s something of a disappointment, like a headliner who fails to live up to the opening act. “But Iron Man is Tony Stark,” you might argue. Well, yes, that’s true–according to narrative. But the Iron Man suit covers Stark completely, and, thanks to the miracle of CGI, is digitally rendered in most scenes. So, to me at least, there was no real sense of Robert Downey Jr. being “in” the suit. It was as if, after spending 90 minutes with one character as the protagonist, they abruptly decided to switch the focus to a different character entirely for the finale. In fact, I found myself improbably comparing Iron Man to Elf, the 2003 comedy that devotes itself to the story of Buddy (Will Ferrell) until the last 20 minutes, when suddenly it’s all about Santa Claus. (Only later did I discover that Iron Man and Elf have the same director, Jon Favreau.)
Which isn’t to say that the climax of Iron Man is bad (though it did evoke two of my Superhero Movie pet peeves, which I will detail in another post to keep this review spoiler-free). It’s perfectly serviceable, but something of a letdown given all that had come before. I guess they couldn’t have just omitted the eponymous superhero from his own movie, but if they make a prequel called Stark and just let Downey Jr. do his playboy act for two straight hours, I will be the first in line.