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Friday, Sept. 19, 2008
Unlikely superhero delivers
Hollywood likes big, loud comic-book movies and the critics mostly don't, and that's just the way life is, like cats and dogs, or cows and McDonalds. But lately the studio execs who package these "branded media products" are getting downright devious. They've always wanted these movies to be all things to all people, and now they're even trying to disarm the critics.
Why else would we be seeing edgy, risk-taking directors from the independent realm — Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronofsky, Sam Raimi — suddenly thrust into the most formulaic and big-budget Hollywood tent-pole movies? Why else would critics' faves like Heath Ledger, Maggie Gyllenhall, Kirsten Dunst or even Christian Bale — all with extensive careers outside the mainstream — be cast in roles where they barely need to act?
Critics find it a lot harder to pull the trigger when it's someone they respect wearing the bull's-eye.
Nobody has pulled this off better than the makers of "Iron Man," the latest Marvel Comics franchise to hit the big screen. With a hero who's a billionaire playboy by day, and a crime-fighting superhero in a high-tech suit of body armor by night, there is little here that "Batman" hasn't already covered. But with Robert Downey Jr. in the lead, and Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges and Terence Howard supporting, who's complaining?
Downey Jr. has had such a long and fruitful career in off-beat roles — in films like "Short Cuts," "Two Girls and a Guy" and "A Scanner Darkly" — that the very thought of him playing a superhero is enough to raise a smile. This is a guy who once said, "I've always felt like such an outsider in this industry. Because I'm so insane, I guess." And now he's playing a superhero in the year's second highest-grossing film. It's the kind of feeling you get when the class nerd hauls off and lands one on the jaw of the jock who's been bullying him all year.
Directed by Jon Favreau, himself an indie darling once upon a time (anyone remember "Swingers"?), "Iron Man" sticks pretty close to convention, and to the character's origins as detailed in the March 1963 issue of "Tales of Suspense." In that story, the United States was fighting a colonial war in Vietnam, which Favreau has no problem updating to Afghanistan. That's where Tony Stark (Downey Jr.), genius weapons designer and CEO of Stark Industries, goes to demonstrate a new missile system to a group of U.S. generals.
Stark is drawn as a pretty irresponsible guy: He sees an antiwar demonstration and comments: "Yeah, peace. I love peace. I'd be out of a job with peace." He goes gambling in Las Vegas and seduces a Vanity Fair reporter (Sharon Stone lookalike Leslie Bibb) before heading off to Afghanistan, drink in hand. There, his convoy is ambushed — blown up by one of his own bombs, actually — and Stark is captured by jihadi who force him to design a missile for them.
Stark has shrapnel in his chest, and fellow prisoner and doctor Yinsen (Shaun Toub) implants an electromagnet to keep the metal from entering his heart. Stark refuses to work for the terrorists, but they water-board him (and it's funny how this sure looks like torture when the bad guys do it). Stark agrees to work, but instead secretly designs a primitive, powered-armor suit, which he uses to take on his captors. Once back in the States, he has a change of heart, and decides that his company will no longer make weapons, something which really pisses off his business partner, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges.)
The film delivers a few slam-bang action sequences, including one in which a flying Iron Man attempts to elude some intercepting F-16s, and another where he fights his bigger, badder nemesis, Ironmonger. A large part of the movie's charm comes from the whip-crack dialogue between Downey Jr. and his much put-upon PA, Pepper Potts (Paltrow), who give the film some quite welcome humor. Favreau also scores bonus points for actually using Black Sabbath's protometal classic "Iron Man" on the soundtrack.
Not all cylinders are firing, though; the film's denouement is a bit too reminiscent of the recent "Transformers." And more problematic is a scene set in Afghanistan where a bunch of jihadi attempt to hold off Iron Man by taking civilians hostage. Sure enough, Iron Man uses his smart-bomb rockets to take out the bad guys without even scratching a hostage. This just comes off looking like more Hollywood war propaganda in a month where U.S. free-fire has killed scores of civilians in Afghanistan, to zero public concern or discussion in the States. Misguided faith in "smart" weaponry and "surgical" strikes does not need any more reinforcement.