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* cue finger snaps* Tony Stark/ makes ya feel/ he’s a cool exec/ with a heart of steel. For those too young to recall, those words form the opening lyric to the Iron Man cartoon theme song from the 1966 Marvel Superheroes anthology, a crudely-animated, yet canon-faithful daily after-school treat. My fascination with the exploits of multi-zillionaire industrialist Tony Stark began with that jazzy theme. Stark was a cat no one would ever believe would do something as selfless (and insane) as don a super-powered suit made of - guess what? – iron, and jet off via “repulsor” power to fight the world’s crime and corruption. For the many formative years I spent greedily tearing through Ion Man’s solo comic adventures and his team-ups with The Avengers, never could I have fathomed how intensely enjoyable a movie based on this character would be.

For every Spider-Man 1 & 2, there’s a Howard the Duck. For every Batman Begins, there is Batman Forever. It’s just hit or miss. And in the wrong hands, the Iron Man story could have gone either way, turning into some big screen version of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, or even a quasi-Robocop remake. Thank goodness for director Jon Favreau, who gets inside the metal skin and delivers a story of a hero troubled, dramatic and funny balanced with the good sense to hand the audience the action and special effects spectacle a story like Iron Man demands. Bravo, Mr. Favreau, you’ve made the first blockbuster of the summer.

But Jon Favreau isn’t alone in this praise; I am convinced that this picture could not have been made if not for the presence of Robert Downey, Jr. in the lead role as Tony Stark. Finding the key to the character in the wastrel life Stark leads as one of the richest men in the world to whom life has no value, Downey’s doe-eyed sensitivity and stiletto-edged dry wit makes this one of the performances of the year. The comedy kills and in the dramatic scenes Downey is all in, expressing the cynicism and ennui of a man who realises for all his wealth, his life has no meaning and the ferocious empowerment when he finds a purpose and a way to redeem his failings. I’ve rarely seen such a symbiotic relationship between actor and role.

Here’s the rundown; jaded, devil-may-care playboy Tony Stark makes weapons for a living. A genius, Stark takes pride in his high-tech inventions, believing they have helped to make the world a safer place. Burning through an ever-growing collection of toys, fast cars, overpriced artwork and over-heated blondes, Tony consumes with no joy or satisfaction. Tony only learns to value his life when a sales pitch in Afghanistan goes terribly wrong: He is violently abducted by terrorists and tortured into retooling a stolen cache of his own devices to benefit the enemy. With the guidance of a kindly Afghanistani doctor also imprisoned, Stark’s eyes are opened to the realities of the damage his creations really do. During the explosion that initiated his kidnapping, shrapnel was embedded into Stark’s body and he and the doctor devise a magnetised power source to keep the fragments from entering his heart and killing him. Through that invention, the roots of a bigger, more powerful weapon take shape in Stark’s mind, one that will free himself and the doctor from the clutches of the weapon-centric terrorists. With a surprising lack of stealth, the first crude gray Iron Man suit is born, huge and clunking; it’s more effective than it looks. Stark escapes back to America where he vows to change the mission of Stark Industries from being a destructive force to finding new mechanisms to build and improve life. Having made a hobby of refining the technology that created the armoured suit, Stark makes precipitate use of his new sleeker, faster, better, stronger, redder and gold-er model and rights some wrongs done in the name of his company.

Not so fast, Mr. Epiphany, apparently there were folks who had a lot invested when you built things that killed people. Stark discovers some deep skullduggery within his company and under-the-table arms dealing with the very folks killing our troops and this just won’t do. Stark has to face his own war closer to home when the war-profiteering division of Stark Industries uses the remnants of the first gray suit to design the ultimate war weapon; their first target, Tony Stark.

Fun, fun, fun kids. What a pure blast this was on every level. Of course, we must discuss the suits, the gray and the red and gold final suit and are masterpieces; exactly as anyone who ever read the Marvel comic would have pictured it. Can suit designer and special effects legend Stan Winston do no wrong? Not tonight, Josephine. Having only seen comic panels of the original clumsy, outsized gray suit, the amount of love it’s given in the film was downright heartwarming and gave me a new respect for it. The red and gold suit looks heavy and clunky enough to convey its weight, but moves well enough to keep you in mind that there’s a person in there and it’s not some automaton. The suit’s weapons, from the repulsor rays in its gloves, to the jet boots and the uni-beam shooting out of its chest, all are perfect and they pack a wallop.

The effects of Iron Man flying are seamless and breathtaking. We see the suit’s limitations and are as engrossed as Stark reconfigures the shortcomings using some nifty 3D holograms and some unlikely adorable robotic assistants. As an origin story, Stark comes full circle from irresponsible gadfly to someone involved and caring who wants to change things for the better because he can, and it reads believably. Using Tales of Suspense #39 as an outline, the kidnapping here takes place in Afghanistan and the film is careful to show us both evil local villains as well as brave, heroic folk as equally tormented by the terrorists as Stark. Even though we head into the Middle East for his kidnapping and torture, Stark realises there is no fiercer enemy than the one in plain sight back home.

The fight scene between Iron Man and the villain’s metallic creation, the Iron Monger is slightly reminiscent of the aforementioned Robocop - particularly when Robocop takes on his bulky nemesis, ED-209 - and is probably the weakest action sequence of the film. However, “weakest” is completely relative. Watching Iron Man’s first burst of heroism as he decimates an insurgents’ camp is completely riveting (NPI); ditto to the thrilling first appearance of the gray suit and Iron Man’s exhilarating first flight. I could’ve watched for hours, endlessly entertained. Iron Man the movie made me want to dig out my old comics again for the first time in years and immerse myself in those fantastic stories just like when I was a kid.

Besides the amazing performance by Downey, Jr., Jeff Bridges, almost unrecognisable in gray beard and chrome dome, chews up the scenery to proper comic book effect as Stark’s trusted mentor and business partner, Obadiah Stane. Neither Terrence Howard as Tony Stark’s closest friend and military advisor, nor Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark’s super-efficient, beleaguered loyal secretary have much stretching to do, but they look fabulous and they admirably hold up their energy against Downey’s kinetic performance.

Iron Man was a gamble. Making a mega-budget film about a hero who isn’t quite as known outside the world of comic book fans as Batman, Spider-Man or even the Fantastic Four, could have fizzled like a faulty Stark Industries rocket. In the proficient, worshipful hands of Jon Favreau and abetted by a magnificent performance by an energised Robert Downey, Jr., not only does Iron Man's gamble pay off, but it raises the stakes for not only comic book movies to follow, but for the entire summer film season.

Extremely well done.

 

~ Mighty Ganesha/The Lady Miz Diva

April 29th, 2008

 

Click here for our review of 2010's Iron Man 2

Click here for our review of 2013's Iron Man 3

 

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Photos

(Courtesy of  Paramount Pictures)

 

 

 

 

 

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