Batman has a lot to answer for. Not that I’m holding DC’s finest responsible for the entire glut of superhero franchises flung our way with neither thought nor care for the quality of the final product, so long as it sates our allegedly unquenchable thirst for boys and girls in costumes lobbing stuff at each other – how long can it be until Captain Rectitude gets his big screen debut?
But what the Dark Knight has done with massive success is open up that old ‘who’s the real villain here?’ chestnut with absorbing big screen outings, at least since Christopher Nolan took the helm. Director John Favreau’s take on Iron Man places the same debate at its very heart, often with woefully tired results.
Here’s the short version for the uninitiated. Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey Jr.) is the super-rich, super-intelligent playboy genius behind global weapons giant Stark Industries, selling weapons to all and sundry in an opening sequence that’s more Lord of War than superhero movie.
Kidnapped by terrorists who attempt to force him to build them a big pile of WOMDs, he builds an iron suit to facilitate his escape. Vowing never to fuel the global arms industry again, Stark builds a swish super-suit to help him fight crime wherever it rears its ugly head.
So far, so predictable, and the warlords who kidnap Stark are tiresomely paralleled with mysterious cave-dwelling Al Qaeda types, replacing the Cold War stylings of the original: Favreau stops just short of chucking a towel on the lead terrorist’s head and calling him Osama. And – guess what? – the top brass at Stark Industries, drunk on wealth and an insatiable mania for flogging guns, turn out to be the REAL VILLAINS of the piece.
Naturally, Stark ends up falling for his beautiful assistant, the one woman who truly understands him, and the final face-off is between Stark (representing truth, justice and the American Dream) and his erstwhile colleague Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), who represents THE EVIL WITHIN US ALL, because he’s dressed in a giant black robot suit. It’s almost suprising that the DVD package doesn’t come with a free ramrod emblazoned with the stars and stripes at one end to help you ram the point down your own throat as you watch.
The film’s at its best when it undercuts and subverts its own overcooked ponderousness. Downey Jr. is effusive throughout, rattling through the dialogue and peppering it with wisecracks and super-caffeinated ebullience, though the original Stark’s lifelong battle with alcoholism is apparently overlooked in favour of a charming rake-cum-scientist.
Even in solo scenes, he’s bouncing off the scenery (sometimes literally), arguing with his robotic minions and even taking on a bit of light slapstick. Obstreperous fire extinguishers and overenthusiastic CPU voices offer a couple of smart, genuinely funny moments that bring this closer to being a brash, bright, effective comic book action movie. It seems odd to be offering praise to what are effectively props, but when Gwyneth Paltrow is on such characteristically bloodless form as Pepper Potts, you take your laughs where you can get ’em.
Iron Man also picks up plus points in its use of models for some of the key action sequences instead of the cartoonish, insubstantial CGI effects that give the action sequences in something like Hulk a flimsy, unsatisfying feel, like they’re taking place in a parallel universe in which physics works differently, or make entire sections of the Spiderman trilogy feel like you’re watching an extended video game cut sequence.
Instead, the key set pieces here feel chunky, satisfyingly destructive, and refreshingly old-school, like in the eighties when they used to fling actual cars at each other instead of spending three months drawing it on screen first.
A couple of nice action sequences and two or three snappy one-liners, though, aren’t enough to justify the two-hour running time, of which more time is spent hammering us with painfully obvious moralising than thrilling us with relentless action. Depressingly predictable and a wasted opportunity on the whole. It’s a comic book adaptation, so I’m not expecting Proust, but I draw the line at Andy McNab.
A pretty standard array of what you might expect: a ‘making of documentary’ of the kind you might see on a cable channel on a Sunday afternoon; a slightly-more revealing piece about the background to the comic and the character; Robert Downey Jr.’s screen test; and an interesting rehearsal of a scene showing the actors, writer and director discussing how it should play out. Perhaps the highlight, though, is a video from The Onion’s spoof new channel, outraged that the globally-popular high-octane Iron Man trailer is to be dragged out into a full-length feature.
|Iron Man (2-Disc Ultimate Edition) at Amazon.co.uk|