By the end of his film Jon Favreau’s Iron Man is a light and fluffy character, a superhero colored in with bright bits of crayon, but he doesn’t start out that way. Ironically it’s early on in the story when Tony Stark, the man inside the bright red suit, is still a carefree playboy and globe-trotting arms merchant that he has the most edge. It’s there that Favreau’s superhero movie works best, as Stark is captured by a group of terrorists known as the Ten Rings (nod to all you Mandarin fans), injured, and forced to work in a dank cave designing weapons.
Left with no choice Stark sets to work making killing machines as they demand, he just doesn’t make the killing machine his captors expect. Robert Downey Jr. is understated and complex as Stark, slaving away in the dust, working in secret for his own freedom under the threat of death, turning his grave injuries into triumph. Favreau seems to know that this early origin story is indeed the best part of his script, since he lingers on it, spending nearly half of his unexpectedly lengthy film on this well staged and acted setup.
If you’ve seen the trailers then you know that Stark eventually gets out of the cave and you know how he does it. It’s the kind of moment that’s bound to elicit cheers from the audience, and it doesn’t hurt that we know he’s kicking terrorist ass. Once he gets home, Stark sets about re-evaluating his role in selling weapons to the murderers of the world. Deciding he’s had enough of it, he puts his mind to the task of figuring out how to stop it. Tony Stark isn’t just a wealthy arms dealer, he’s beyond brilliant. We believe that this charismatic man, this wealthy inventor with an oversized ego, might really come up with this particular answer. His answer is Iron Man.
It’s there that the movie starts missing beats. We meet Tony Stark’s assistant, the plucky Pepper Potts, played by terribly miscast Gwyneth Paltrow. Their scenes together are agony, and often seem utterly misplaced, as if they belong in an entirely different movie. We meet Stark’s business partner and mentor, Obadiah Stone played by a bald and bearded Jeff Bridges. There’s nothing subtle about Stone, or any of the limply mysterious plot devices surrounding him. You know what he’s up to the minute you see his chrome dome. We meet Stark’s best friend Jim Rhodes, the best character in the film’s supporting cast. His role is limited, but Terrence Howard acquits himself well and leaves us wanting more of Rhodes.
And eventually we meet the movie’s obligatory villain, an uncreative, familiar riff on the notion that every superhero must face his exact opposite and equal. The Hulk must fight the Super Hulk. Superman must fight three Supermen. Iron Man must fight the Super Iron Man. It’s not very creative, and their final fight leaves something to be desired.
The problems are all in the second half of the movie, where Iron Man stops being different and settles for being ordinary and at times even silly. It becomes a well put together, well polished, but very standard, paint by numbers superhero origin story. There are no surprises, and even while it remains immensely entertaining that’s somewhat disappointing after the first half of the film where we sit down and get to know a man who describes himself as a merchant of death. I wanted to see how such an obvious villain becomes a hero, and the answer is apparently that someone simply flips a switch in the script.
Yet I don’t want to sound like I’m down on this movie. Iron Man is a lot of fun, especially for a superhero origin story, since they so often end up going awry. While I wasn’t blown away by the final battle between Iron Man and the film’s baddie, there are other great action sequences. Unlike most superheroes, Iron Man isn’t about stopping petty criminals or stalking city streets. His mission is global, and his big coming out party happens in a dusty Afghanistan village, saving villagers and farmers… where absolutely no one is looking. It’s the best action sequence in the entire film, and the place where you’ll want to cheer, even though there’s no over muscled robot for Iron Man to face off against.
It’s also refreshing to see a superhero flick in which the hero isn’t some angsty teenager or a borderline underwear model. Tony Stark is a mature man, with deep rooted flaws. Unfortunately, Favreau’s movie chooses to ignore most of them when things really get moving. My hope is that with this as a setup, we’ll get more of the screwed up egomaniac lurking inside Tony Stark’s helmet, and maybe even a more worthy, creative villain as well. The film is filled with all sorts of geeky references hinting at things to come. Iron Man is good enough that you’ll look forward to seeing them brought to fruition in whatever sequels drop from this tree.