Friday, May 7, 2010

Iron Man

Action movies aren't usually noted for their characters, and that is usually for good reason.  Do we really want to see Stallone, Schwarzenegger, or even Van Damme try to grapple with subtle emotion?  No, we usually just want to see them punch through the bad guy's face.  Iron Man is very different because it is an action movie starring an actor that can actually act.  What a concept!

The story here is better than most comic book adaptations.  Sure, it's an origin story, but Iron Man isn't so much about a man gaining super powers as it is about a man deciding to take responsibility for his actions.  At the beginning of the movie, we see Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey, Jr.) being the world's coolest billionaire ever; he is a genius, rich, funny, good with the ladies (even when they want to hate him), the head of a corporation, and he gets to play with stuff that explodes.  Stark's company sells cutting edge weapons to the military, but Stark finds himself on the wrong end of those same weapons when he visits Afghanistan to demonstrate some new missiles for the military.  Stark's convoy is ambushed, and he is taken prisoner by terrorists that want him to create weapons for them.  As a prisoner, Stark sees the weapons that he thinks are being exclusively sold to the US government in the hands of these terrorists.  Understandably, this changes his view on weapons manufacturing.  Since he's a genius, Stark builds a robotic exoskeleton to overcome his captors and escape.  Life's good when you're smart.  And thus, Iron Man is born.  That might be enough for most origin movies, but that just acts as the setup for the film proper.  From this point, Stark tries to find ways to help people instead of hurting them, and this has financial, business, personal, and public repercussions.

This sounds like a fairly action-free action movie, and that's because it kind of is.  There is a lot of talking in this movie.  When there's action, though, it is awesome.  The original Iron Man suit looks and sounds frighteningly heavy.  When Iron Man punches a regular person, they go flying across the room...and it looks like a feasible result.  That is how good the special effects are in this movie; the fighting doesn't come across as cartoony or stylized, but as the logical end result of being punched by a hulking robot.  The first Iron Man suit is pretty sweet, but the later model that Stark sports for the rest of the film is even better.  Sleek and stylish, it just makes sense that it sports the kind of technology that can blow up tanks with missiles the size of a pencil.  The Iron Monger suit used by the villain takes the idea of the original Iron Man suit to the other extreme, showing a preference for pure power that makes Stark's escape scene look like the work of an amateur.  In short, a guy wears a cool robotic suit and stuff gets blown up.  Nothing wrong with that.

Even with the great action sequences, Robert Downey Jr's acting is what makes this movie.  He doesn't play the typical tortured super hero.  He's not trying to be stoic like Superman, scary like Batman, or jokey like Spider-Man.  Instead, he comes across as a very smart man that is constantly making quips because he's smarter than everyone else.  He does whatever he wants because that's how the world works for him and because what he wants to do will work, and Downey is great playing up that intelligence, humor, and confidence; when the character has a realization or a moment of doubt, all those shields are stripped away and Downey shows his range as a dramatic actor. 

Credit for Downey's performance and casting should (at least partially) go to director Jon Favreau, who is able to make a smart, funny, and action-packed blockbuster with actors that had not been in a big hit in years.  Favreau probably didn't have to do much with the actors except encourage their own instincts, because they are all pretty good.  Gwyneth Paltrow does a good job as Stark's right hand; this can be seen with the romantic tension between Paltrow and Downey, which relies heavily on her performance.  I also like her delivery on the quips she uses to undercut Stark's cockiness.  Terrence Howard is okay (at best) as Jim "Rhodey" Rhodes, the resident military straight arrow.  Howard doesn't get to do much except gripe about Stark's casual attitude toward protocol.  When he gets the opportunity to say or do something entertaining, he usually under-performs, particularly with the foreshadowing of him someday wearing his own armor suit.  Part of this is due to his character being essentially a straight man to Downey's antics, but I'm still not sold on Howard as a charismatic actor.  I enjoyed Paul Bettany's voice-over work as Stark's computer more than I liked Howard.  Heck, I enjoyed Leslie Bibb as a judgmental reporter more than I liked him.  The other primary character is Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), Stark's current business partner and former mentor.  Bridges is realistic as the guy who always has to smooth Stark's antics over with the press and the business sector.  When he turns nasty, though, the frustration that must come with his job rises to the forefront.  Personally, I thought Bridges overacted a little toward the end, but he was still fun to watch.

Iron Man is the type of movie that benefits most from the revamped Oscar nominations.  This movie was well-received critically (because it's awesome) and made over $500 million in theaters (because it's awesome), but could only get nominated for technical Oscars.  This movie was deservedly in many Top Ten lists of 2008 and its success will hopefully lead to well-rounded and acted action movies getting a little more respect from critical award shows.

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