Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
May 2008

Strong as 'Iron'

Favreau, Downey Jr. kick off summer-movie season in dazzling style with 'Iron Man'

Iron Man
Paramount Pictures
Director: Jon Favreau
Screenplay: Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Shaun Toub, Faran Tahir, Leslie Bibb and Clark Gregg
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 6 minutes
Opens May 2, 2008
(out of four)

Two bad movies came to mind while watching Iron Man - and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. The two movies are Fantastic Four and Transformers, and while they covered similar ground as Iron Man, and came before Iron Man, Iron Man is the perfect argument against both. It is the movie that reinforces that both of those movies sucked, and that Tim Story and Michael Bay both suck for making them.

Like Fantastic Four (among others), this film chronicles the unlikely origin of a reluctant superhero (just one this time - not four). Like Transformers, it involves crime-fighting pieces of weaponized machinery. And like both of them, it requires heavy special-effects work and extensive action choreography.

Unlike the above films, Iron Man does these things successfully. Fantastic Four felt the need to pander to its audience as if it were made up exclusively of small children, and so what should have been an interesting metamorphosis from scientist to superpowered mutant ended up just coming across as silly. And then there's Transformers, which Iron Man repeatedly calls to mind during its action sequences.

Director Jon Favreau (Elf, Zathura, Made) doesn't have the pure technical gifts that Bay does, but he knows how to use what he's got. What he does know is how to tell a coherent story, and how to use what visual style he has to enhance that story. Bay has still not learned these skills. He makes footage that looks great in a trailer; Favreau's footage works in an actual movie.

Iron Man is easily Favreau's biggest and most accomplished film to date - and it better be, right? He has at his disposal one of the most fascinating of comic-book anti-heroes, Tony Stark, once a boy genius at MIT, now an irresponsible billionaire weapons manufacturer and irrepressible womanizer. Not the hero type, as he puts it. That is, until he gets kidnapped by Middle Eastern militants and charged with creating a weapon . . . only to turn the tables on them and create a metallic, weaponized, flying suit of armor, the prototype for what will eventually become Iron Man.

To get the character - and indeed one of the only ways that could have made Tony Stark more interesting than he already was - Favreau cast Robert Downey Jr., himself once an infamously irrepressible partier, which always drew attention away from the fact that he was one of the most exceptionally talented actors in the world. He's recovered now, and after award-worthy showings in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Zodiac and A Scanner Darkly, he's taken center-stage in a big-budget action movie.

I loved the choice of Downey when it was first made. Not only did it take balls, but it virtually assured that the character would actually be a person, rather than someone who looks good in a costume. (Movies like this and Batman Begins and Spider-Man took the correct approach. Superman Returns and Daredevil? Not so much.)

Though we first get introduced to Tony as an arrogant, hard-partying, Machiavellian so-and-so, what we see for the bulk of the film is a completely vulnerable version, broken by being held captive in a cave for three months and for the first-hand revelation of the kinds of havoc his weapons wreak on mankind. Not only that, but his own survival is always, and will always be, at risk. For reasons the film will explain, he's had an electromagnetic "arc reactor" implanted into his chest that is his only means of survival.

When he escapes from his captors and returns to civilization, he wants to change the entire infrastructure of his company . . . a plan that doesn't go over too well with his all-too-loyal second-in-command Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges - who, like Downey, is one of the very best actors around), who took charge of the company while Stark went missing.

I'll let you figure out who the bad guy is.

Favreau doesn't overload the film with action sequence after action sequence - he's smart enough to realize that there's too much going on with the characters to forget about them just so we can see stuff get blown up.

However, when things do start to get blown up, when Iron Man finds himself an adversary or two, Favreau and cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain) pull them off in fabulously entertaining style.

Iron Man lacks some of what would typically be essential for this type of film, but it's able to make up for it with its depth of character. Oddly, there is not one clear Great Villain, which would usually be a superhero film's undoing. In this case, it is not; Iron Man's greatest villain is Tony Stark himself - not the man necessarily, but the havoc he has helped create and the guilt that will haunt his conscience forever. This is a more multi-faceted superhero character than most, and in what will inevitably be a new money-making franchise for Marvel Studios, Iron Man is a great start.

Note: You would be well-advised to stay through the end credits.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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