Thursday, May 08, 2008

Review: Iron Man

The golden age of films derived from comic books continues with a production that immediately vaults into the category of the best superhero films.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is a billionaire playboy and a brilliant engineer. While in Afghanistan to demonstrate his new weapons system to American military brass, including his old friend Lt. Colonel James "Rhodey" Rhodes (Terrence Howard), Stark is severely wounded during an attack on his military convoy and is taken hostage by the Ten Rings terrorist group and their leader Raza (Faran Tahir), who wants Stark to build a weapons system for him. Stark and fellow captive Dr. Yinsen (Shaun Toub), who creates a device to keep Stark alive despite his injuries, instead construct a metal battlesuit that Stark uses to stage an escape. Returning home to America, Stark finds himself changed by his experience as a captive and decides to stop manufacturing weapons. His decision puts him in conflict with his mentor and corporate second in command, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), who challenges Stark for control of the company and uses his battlesuit designs to become the villainous Iron Monger. Can Stark save the day as Iron Man?

Director Jon Favreau (Elf, Zathura) completely gets what this film and by extension the superhero genre are all about, injecting high flying action, a sense of humor without getting campy, and a respect for the genre into a thoroughly entertaining two hours of cinematic fun. It's a tightly constructed film that effortlessly succeeds on all intended levels. It doesn't break any new ground, but it's a satisfying and high quality production that ranks among the best of the superhero films. I was initially concerned when Favreau was hired as director because his previous films just seemed to lack a certain spark, but that spark is here in spades.

The screenplay by the writing teams of Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby (Children of Men) and Art Marcum & Matt Holloway (Shadow of Fear), along with a final polish by the uncredited John August (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride) and some uncredited additional dialog by comic book writer Brian Michael Bendis, is top notch and faithful in tone to the source material. The script was more of a guide for the director and actors, with much of the dialog improvised on set, giving a much more naturalistic feel to many scenes.

Cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain) provides a sleek visual style as polished as Iron Man's armor, matched by the sets of production designer J. Michael Riva (Zathura, Spider-Man 3). The three versions of Iron Man armor were created by Stan Winston Studios, with the final form based on designs by artists Adi Granov and Phil Saunders. The score by Ramin Djawadi (Blade: Trinity, Mr. Brooks) is perfectly suited to the story, with just the right amount of bombast befitting of the film's title (the Black Sabbath song of the same name is used over the end credits). The visual effects by Industrial Light & Magic are up to their usual high standard of work, featuring seamless CGI.

Downey is absolutely perfect as Stark/Iron Man. The roguish charm, the ego, the determination, and the transformation into a hero...it's all here, and Downey's presence lends weight and believability not only to his role but to the film as a whole. While Bridges' performance isn't on that level, it's still a solid counterpoint to Downey's as Stark's mentor turned foe. Howard captures the personality of Rhodey. Gwyneth Paltrow has fun with the role of Pepper Potts, Stark's enamored personal assistant.

The rest of the cast is also well chosen for their roles, including Toub as Yinsen, Tahir as Raza, Leslie Bibb as a reporter Stark has a one night stand with, Bill Smitrovich as General Gabriel, Clark Gregg as SHIELD Agent Coulson, and director Favreau as Stark's bodyguard/driver Happy Hogan. Iron Man co-creator Stan Lee has a cameo as a benefit party guest mistaken for Hugh Hefner. Paul Bettany is another nice touch as the voice of JARVIS, an advanced artificial intelligence program that Stark uses (in the comics, Jarvis is a human butler).

The summer film season just got kicked off in a spectacular fashion. Whether you're a comic book fan or just an action movie fan, Iron Man will leave you completely satisfied and then some. Just be sure to stay past the end credits for a special bonus scene that sets up future developments in a fan-thrilling way.

[4.5 out of 5 stars]

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