WFTB Score: 9/20
The plot: Weapons manufacturer Tony Stark nearly becomes the victim of his own products on a visit to Afghanistan, though the life-saving equipment he makes to effect his escape gives him a new purpose in life. Back in America, his decision to cease weapons manufacture comes as a nasty surprise to Stark’s business partner Obadiah Stane, while Stark’s lovelorn assistant Pepper Potts just wants to keep him safe. Tony, meanwhile, is preoccupied with perfecting his natty new suit.
Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is the archetypal playboy billionaire, dividing his time between living the high life and designing and selling Stark Industries munitions with his partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), friend of Tony’s late father. However, a jolly to Afghanistan to demonstrate the devastating power of the new Jericho missile takes a terrible turn when his convoy is hit and he’s kidnapped, close to death, by rebel forces. The attentions of fellow detainee Yinsen (Shaun Toub) save Stark’s life by attaching a car battery to his heart, a situation Stark improves upon by using his own arc reactor technology; and when his captors, led by Faran Tahir’s Raza, demand that he build them a Jericho, he instead devotes his time to making a weaponised, flying suit which he uses to escape.
The experience convinces Stark that his company should stop making armaments, an announcement which alarms Stane and Stark’s Marine buddy Rhodey (Terrence Howard) enormously, while Tony’s PA Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is just glad to have her boss home. With the help of well-spoken computer Jarvis (voiced by Paul Bettany), Stark works on his ‘iron man’ suit and uses it to right wrongs in Afghanistan, though the real enemy may be lurking closer to home.
I’ve tried to watch Iron Man on a couple of previous occasions and really struggled with it, though I couldn’t define exactly what it was that bothered me. Having now paid attention throughout, I think I know what the feeling was: déjà vu. Not for this film specifically, you understand, but for most of the things that happen in it. For while it’s slightly unfair on Jon Favreau’s movie, its release after both Batman Begins and Transformers has to invite comparisons: like Batman, our hero is a wealthy industrialist with a secret identity; and like Transformers (though more specifically, the later Revenge of the Fallen), the film gets very excited about military hardware and the explosive power of clashing metals and detonating missiles.
Furthermore, I’m uneasy with actual wars being used as backdrops in movies which don’t have anything to say about the conflicts, and while the picture regarding the Taliban-like Afghans isn’t quite as clear-cut as it might first appear, the film is still quite happy to depict them as brutal, incompetent and entirely disposable.
This also impacts on our view of Tony Stark. We’re clearly meant to like him, but whatever epiphany Stark has following his ordeals, it doesn’t turn him into an instantly relatable comic-book hero. It remains hard to tell whether he’s on anyone’s side bar his own, since he’s hardly a friend to the military or to the plebeian population – you wouldn’t call Iron Man to rescue your cat from up a tree.
On the other hand, Stark’s ambiguity is filtered quite brilliantly through Robert Downey Jr.’s performance; the actor has had an extraordinary life and has frequently looked likely to squander his talents in spectacular fashion, but here he hits pay dirt with a performance that is in part glib surface and mumbled quips, but also contains a determination and depth of feeling that distinguishes Stark from most superheroes. He’s the heart of Iron Man in a way that Bale patently isn’t in Chris Nolan’s Batman films. In particular, Downey forges a strong relationship with Paltrow, who is effective if unexciting (sorry Gwynnie). Jeff Bridges, disarmingly bald, proves he can act any way he’s asked, while Terrence Howard apparently isn’t Cuba Gooding Jr*; he is adequate, though nothing more.
I wouldn’t disparage Iron Man as a piece of film-making. It’s longish but carefully paced, and the action set-pieces are put together with considerable skill, the effects used to good effect to give a clear steer on what’s happening. I gather, too, that there’s a decent amount of fan service given by the various iterations of the Iron Man suit as it’s coming together – Tony’s test runs are livened up with some smart physical comedy. The problem is that the tests are also the venue for a massively signposted plot point, and although I understand that this is how these movies work, I would have liked some originality from at least one of the four writers. Sadly, formula appears to be king, right down to the cute but by-now hackneyed Stan Lee cameo.
I suppose the one word I’d use to describe Iron Man is ‘competent’. That’s really not bad going, when there are plenty of comic-book movies that don’t work at all: Elektra, say, or The Green Hornet (which, on the evidence of the first half hour at least, is clearly miscast and tonally all over the place). However, if the word also implies a lack of excitement, that’s not entirely accidental. Downey Jr. does what he can to make the lead role fresh and funny, but this adaptation is hamstrung by its slavery to comic book convention.
NOTES: This isn’t remotely a race thing; I simply wasn’t aware that Terrence Howard existed and assumed he was Cuba. I made exactly the same mistake with Elaine Hendrix, who isn’t Missi Pyle, when watching The Parent Trap.
Also to note (in late 2018) that this review was written in the innocent days of 2013, when Cinematic Universes were barely even a thing. I have signally failed to keep up with events since and am unlikely to do so in the next 10 years.