Iron Man is the strongest superhero entry since Spiderman 2 – Marvel Studios have made an extraordinary start to their unencumbered movie production roster, with tales of billionaire crusader Tony Stark set to be a formidable franchise and an iron-clad money-maker. The inspired casting of Robert Downey Jr. leavens the mythical aspect of the character, as ably demonstrated by the avalanche of pre-release trailers.
In fact the trailers have left very little to spoil: the plot of Iron Man is absurdly deducible from the footage we have all been gawking over for months: billionaire playboy Tony Stark gets kidnapped by nasty extremists whilst demonstrating some of his gee-whiz weaponry in Afghanistan, makes his escape in a pre-alpha, highly weaponised exo-skeleton that he cobbles together behind his captors’ backs and returns home a chastened man, determined to build suit 2.0 and protect the innocent from all that nasty Stark Industries tech that has gotten into the wrong hands.
This brings him into immediate opposition to second-in-command Obadiah Stane (Bridges), who locks Stark out of control of his own company and casts a more than envious eye over his boss’s flying war-suit, determining to build one of his own and clear all obstructions out of his path in the guise of the colossal Iron Monger…
After a low-key entry, the action ramps up quickly as we backtrack over the 36 hours leading to Stark’s kidnapping, a predictable but amusing gallery of rich-boy excesses – Stark eschews an industry award to play roulette, pulls a glamorous reporter from Vanity Fair (who presumably have paid well for the privilege in the real world) and buys a horrendously expensive work of art that he knows nothing about simply because he’s told it’s ‘overpriced’.
Once captive in the Afghanistan caves, Stark gets his first taste of the real world, as he awakens hooked up to a car battery – cellmate and surgeon Yinsen (brit Shaun Toub) has saved the tycoon’s life by drawing away fatal shrapnel with magnets. And handily given Iron Man the Achilles heel every superhero needs.
Yinsen helps Stark construct his prototype exo-skeleton right under their captives’ noses, and if you wondered how they sneaked a project like that past constant CCTV surveillance in the trailers, you’ll be no more enlightened by the film – these are very dozy militant extremists indeed.
The escape of the Heath-Robinson, jury-rigged Iron Man is one of the few pieces of eye-popping action not entirely revealed to us in advance publicity, and the flame-throwing, score-settling sequence is a notable cheer-point.
Repatriated, Stark resumes his awkward flirting with reliable but long-suffering assistant Potts and sets about making a new and better suit. It’s been reported that the suit is developed in 5 hours, but the often-hilarious R&D session in fact takes several weeks within the time-line of the movie. The first test-flight over Malibu is a stunning sequence, capturing the raw exhilaration of the flight-fantasy in a way that Bryan Singer failed to do in Superman Returns.
Thereafter the movie begins to lose its sure pace, as we discover the dark intentions of Stark Industries’ second-in-command Stane, who – as he is unable to replicate the miraculously miniaturised power-source of Stark’s Iron Man costume – builds a far larger exo-skeleton as a military prototype, but ends up testing it out on a besuited Stark.
Robert Downey Jr. was born to play Tony Stark – a combination of suavity and selfishness, energy and ungoverned sloth. It’s clear that Downey has brought everything to the part. It’s a neurotic/cocky persona that he has played a number of times (notably in 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), and here its bohemian excesses are pleasingly tempered by a big streak of humanity and repentance – such as we have seen Downey live through a number of times in his life.
The same can’t be said of Jeff Bridges, who frankly fails to convince as the upwardly-mobile and backstabbing Obadiah Stane. His acting is fine, but the aggressive instinct requisite for playing screen villains doesn’t seem to be in the actor’s nature. I love Jeff Bridges, but this wasn’t one for him.
Paltrow is excellent, as are the remainder of the supporting cast, and the ILM special effects are naturally flawless, albeit to slightly sickening effect in one scene where Paltrow has to reach into Downey Jr.’ s impossibly deep chest cavity to help him out with the internal wiring that keeps him alive (a man as rich as Stark could probably afford to have that Kryptonite-like shrapnel safely taken out with a little conventional surgery, but let’s not bicker on the point).
Stan Lee’s customary appearance is as jarring as ever, though I won’t spoil it for you. We owe Mr Lee a lot for the Marvel universe, but Hitchcock did a much better job of autographing his projects.
At two hours and 5 minutes, Iron Man proves to be 15-20 minutes too long, Stane’s machinations being where the pace slips. Scoring is frugal but well-done – the grunge guitars would be outrageously jarring in any other $200 million superhero epic, but Downey Jr’s marginal appeal lends the film enough street-cred to get away with it.
These are minor quibbles – I don’t know if Iron Man could beat Superman in a battle, but his debut beats any number of superhero origin stories – or for that matter, sequels – of recent years. Batman had better watch his ass.
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