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Sunday, May 04, 2008

Iron Man (2008)

Unlike his contemporary Marvel characters Spiderman, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, Iron Man has never ranked as one of America’s premier superheroes. Similarly, Robert Downey Jr., though praised by critics for his work in such films as Chaplin, Restoration and Zodiac, has never been counted as a great actor or blockbuster superstar. In addition, Iron Man's alter ego, Tony Stark, is deeply troubled and an alcoholic--and we all know about Mr. Downey Jr.'s struggles with addiction. It seems perfect, then, that he would be cast as this flawed and underappreciated comic book character.

Iron Man originally appeared in Tales of Suspense #39 in March of 1963. The character was originally created by Stan Lee, who was interested by eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes and wanted to create a “businessman superhero.” Thus he created Tony Stark, a weapons developer who gets a taste of his own creations when he is kidnapped by Communist insurgents in Vietnam using weapons made by his company. He builds a metal suit with the aid of fellow prisoner and physicist Ho Yinsen. Stark breaks free and returns home a changed man.

The film version of Iron Man brilliantly tailors the origin story for modern times: Vietnam becomes Afghanistan, the Viet Cong become the Taliban, Ho Yinsen becomes an Afghan named Yensen, and virtually everything about the story remains the same. After all, we are still in an arms race, we are still selling weapons to the enemy under the table, and we are, yet again, stuck in a quagmire overseas. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a brilliant industrialist with a penchant for scotch and a weakness for beautiful reporters. During a routine missile test in Afghanistan he is kidnapped by a group called The Ten Rings, who brandish his own weapons at him and tell him that he must build a missile for them or face a gruesome death. Stark is already facing death, as his initial kidnapping left him with pieces of shrapnel next to his heart. He designs a mechanism called the “arc reactor” which powers both an electromagnetic pacemaker to keep the shrapnel from entering his heart, and the giant mechanical suit that he builds in the relative isolation of his cave prison. He escapes and is rescued by his military friend Colonel Rhodes (Terrence Howard).

After his return, Stark makes an announcement at a press conference that he doesn’t want to be a war profiteer anymore and that his company will no longer manufacture weapons. Hi s business partner Obadiah Stane (a terrifyingly bald and bearded Jeff Bridges) disapproves and freezes Tony out of the company, telling him he needs therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. Stark takes the opportunity to perfect his suit and fight the Ten Rings, one small desert town at a time.

One of the best things about Iron Man is the way it handles Stark’s origin story. Most superhero films are required to spend half the movie just setting up how the hero got his powers in the first place. The audience has to wait to sit through the set up in order to see our hero fight the villain. In Iron Man, the film’s chief focus is on Tony Stark’s creation of the Iron Man Suit with less screen time given to villains. This origin story is a great adventure in itself—we have explosions, escapes and several very funny sequences showing how difficult it is to pilot test a robotic suit in the first place. There is no lumbering back-story filled broken hearts and childhood trauma. Rather, the origin is action from start to finish. The screenplay by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway wisely avoids long monologues and expository paragraphs. They show us, rather than telling us, what kind of person Tony Stark is. The final line of the film, in all of its subversive glory, sums it all up—but you’ll have to go see it for yourself.

The amount of money I would pay to see this film: $8


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