As subjects for superhero summer movies go, Marvel Comic’s Iron Man seems made-to-order. He may lack the deep multimedia adaptation history of a Batman or Superman, and the sprawling cast of a Spider-Man or X-Men, but he’s essentially a giant toy that causes explosions.
So it’s easy to see what Hollywood sees in the character, but, somewhat surprisingly, it’s hard to resist the film that director Jon Favreau and his four-man screen-writing team have built around it. Iron Man stands atop the increasingly large heap of superhero movies; in fact, it may be the current king of that particular hill.
Credit goes largely to Robert Downey Jr., who plays Tony Stark, the ingenious sake-swilling, womanizing weapons-manufacturer playboy billionaire (picture young Howard Hughes as a modern celebrity CEO running Lockheed Martin). Downey is not only perfect for the role of bad boy trying to atone on a meta-level, but he has the wit, charm and hyperactive delivery to play a guy a few times smarter than everyone around him.
Favreau, who’s probably still best known as the “the guy who made Swingers,” seems to have learned from his last few family films (Elf, Zathura) how to properly balance character and story with set pieces and special effects, and the results are a crowd-pleasing movie in which the latter always serve the former. It’s a blockbuster with brains.
Part of what makes Iron Man work so well, however, is a matter mostly beyond the control of its makers—timing. Not only did film-making technology have to be where it is now to make the complex Iron Man suit and its million moving parts look cool and convincing instead of like, say, Robocop or one of the Terminator robots, but the whole concept of the film seems apropos of right now, and would have lacked impact had it come much earlier.
The comic book Iron Man debuted in the early ‘60s during the Cold War, when Tony Stark was captured in the jungles of Vietnam. This Iron Man is the product of the War on Terror, and while it’s too bad for the world at large that the first decade of this century has so much in common with the ‘60s, (geopolitically speaking), it sure helps Favreau’s film to encapsulate a certain aspect of the zeitgeist, making it feel like it’s a lot more than a charming actor wearing a toy that makes things blow up.
Riding through Afghanistan after demonstrating his latest missile system to the U.S. military, Stark finds himself in an ambush, and notices his own name stamped on the shells he’s being bombarded with.
He’s taken captive by a generic terrorist group called “The Ten Rings” (standing in for al Qaeda) and forced to build them a missile system of their own. Instead, he builds an improvised suit of armor, and, once free, decides to devote his smarts to “protecting the people I put in harm’s way.”
That doesn’t sit especially well with his best friend Terrence Howard, personal assistant (and love interest) Gwyneth Paltrow, or Stark Industries establishment man Jeff Bridges, playing a bald, bearded character named Obadiah Stane (in the first draft, I think he was called Evil von Villainstein). All think he’s suffering a bit of PTSD, leaving Stark with no one to rely on save the robot voices and arms in his lab.
Is it crazy to think that American military might, wealth and innovation can be used as a force of good in the world, particularly considering the current state of it? Not after watching Iron Man it’s not. The film manages a little modern American myth-making without resulting to the billowing American flags of the sort Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man seems to swing in front of at least once a movie. A self-made superhero, a fallen celebrity celebrating a successful second act, the military-industrial complex solving its own problems without being captive to events on the ground or the political process—Iron Man deals in our national fantasies, and it does so without pandering.
All that, and explosions too.