More and more these days, the films advertised on show at the local multiplex are coming to resemble the racks of Forbidden Planet or any other such comic-book store. Superheroes, once Spider-Man ushered in the new wave of cinematic incarnations, have been coming thick and fast - and, believe me, there is no end in sight to their colourful cavalcade! Which is only a good thing, as far as I am concerned. With the big screen outing for Iron Man - the first of a scheduled series featuring the powered-up, techno-boffin-cum-brawler - Marvel now own exclusive film rights to their product, and are able to finance and produce adaptations of their own extensive catalogue of heroes and stories without big studio interference hampering their creative decisions. Director/actor Jon Favreau, who once cajoled with Daredevil, takes the reins and does an admirable job of bringing the metal-headed one to blitzkrieging life with energy, style and a liberal dose of wit. Never quite the icon that many of his associates became, engineering wunderkind Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, has nevertheless been around for a long time and established for himself the ubiquitous cult following, garnered from comics, animated shows and fabulous team-ups with the likes of The Avengers. But there was always something a little wayward and dangerous about this hotshot tycoon that set him apart from the usual costumed crusaders flinging themselves through Marvel's hyper-kinetic pages. For one thing, he was totally self-absorbed - a domineering, arrogant go-getter who thought of little more than his own fame and celebrity. Multi-million dollar deals over champagne in the daytime, a different cutie in his luxury pad every night. Living the dream, eh?
“What's going on here?”
“Let's face it, this is not the worst thing you've caught me doing.”
But Stark has something else that made him a more rounded and more credible character than the likes of his fellow Avengers - a true vulnerability. Iron Man's famous dicky-ticker is precisely the thing that makes the stereotypical comic-devouring kid positively champion him. He may be able to knock seven shades out of skyscraper-sized villains, harness enough power to demolish a mountain and zip through the skies like a red and gold Exocet missile - but he is still grounded by his own mortality and a dreaded weakness. Once his batteries go flat, so does he. Yet, as the superhero-by-proxy ethic goes, if even he can get up to fight and overcome his disability, then so can the legions of under-privileged, less-than-heroic fans that follow his adventures. At the core of Marvel, this nobly simple message sings loud and clear. It is the eternal mythological Yin and Yang of courage and humanity - and the ace up Favreau's sleeve is the inspired casting of Robert Downy Jnr in the title role of the afflicted and conflicted Tony Stark because Downy, more than anybody else I think of, epitomises the confident-yet-wounded demeanour of a man who has had it all and lost it all and, in the process, struggled to rebuild himself and fulfil his potential. But more on his considered and engaging performance later.
Updating Stark's conversion from detached egotist to metal-encased hero, the script from Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby has the rich-list cover-boy selling weapons technology to the US military in Afghanistan rather than the comic-based Vietnam, his high profile presence almost immediately dropping him into the hands of a sadistic terrorist cell, The Ten Rings - which obviously means that fan-favourite Mandarin is lurking in the shadows somewhere - who order him to construct them a mighty missile from his cave-set prison. Aided by a sacrificial Shaun Taub as fellow incarcerate Yinsen, who even, in a glorious bout of surgical genius keeps the initially severely wounded Stark alive with an impromptu, and highly unorthodox heart transplant, the technological maestro sets to work not on the militants' missile but on a prototype robotic suit that will help them blast, burn and batter their way to freedom. Once back in the States, Stark seeks to improve and modify his desert-born ideas, streamlining his armour and hardwiring its capabilities until his gleaming humanoid shell is not only a life support system, but a weapon of versatility and devastating firepower. Eat yer heart out, Lord Of War!
Of course, life is hardly going to get easier for any aspiring superhero. Friends and colleagues - namely the equally brilliant, but altogether more devious and heartless (ironic, that, considering that his nemesis-to-be has glowing circuitry in place of his own) Obadiah Stanes (a great villainous turn from Jeff Bridges) - have ulterior motives and greedy schemes involving global pain and wreckage that will put him directly in harm's way ... again. So, when Iron Man charges his batteries and goes out to do battle, it is with a conflict of interests as much as it is to do with the selfless desire to do good deeds. Tony Stark is going to have to take a good, long look at himself and reconsider his own motivations in a new of garish chivalry. And when you've been responsible for arming half the world's terrorists and unwittingly aiding the creation of a bigger and even more formidable armoured warrior - Bridges' fearsome Iron Monger - the hedonistic lifestyle of women, cocktails, women, sports cars, women and, er, more women may suddenly have to take a back seat.
It's gonna be a gear-busting, gasket-blowing grapple of the grungy gargantuans!
Whilst the emphasis may not be purely on action and pell-mell set-piece destruction, there is still a sense of ferocity to the skirmishing and the evil-bashing, and such scenes are hugely exciting and highly accomplished. ILM have worked wonders with the Iron Man effects, capturing the whirlwind credibility of wild metal spinning and smashing, skimming through the clouds and ripping up the town with mini-Transformers precision. Stark flying in a red and gold blur through the skies is a sheer cathartic treat, with taut CG blending, excellent cinematography, whiplash dynamics and a steel-denting brutality that has you feel each and every wince-inducing impact. The oft-seen shot of Iron Man blowing up a tank and simply turning around and striding away as it burns behind him is something that sums up Favreau's attitude to the action - short, sharp and shocking. Iron Man's abilities are certainly showcased - love the Robocop-style target-gathering as a gaggle of terrorist goons hold innocent families at gunpoint - but there is sense that this guy is not prancing around for the cameras. Stark may love the limelight, but his alter-ego just wants to get the job done quickly. He's still finding his big-booted feet in this first instalment and this, in no way, harm's the pace of the film or its thrills. Just don't expect the non-stop tedium of CG overload that Spider-Man ultimately provided. And, unlike the web-slinger's third outing which seemed overly eager to ditch the masks of Parker and Venom at every opportunity - Venom's terrifying face was never on-screen for more than a split second before melting away to reveal Topher Grace's grinning mug underneath - Stark and Iron Monger like to keep their visors down. And even when Stark's face does pop up from beneath the mask, the image is exactly that of his comic-book inspiration during a moment of downtime.
The film is also surprisingly vicious. Enemies are blasted into high walls, vehicles are sent cart-wheeling rapidly through the air and each body-hurling instance has that violent emphasis that leaves you under no illusion that they have been offed with considerable force. There's none of that A-Team-style head-scratching as survivors clamber up from what should have been their graves that even dogged Ang Lee's The Hulk, once the Jolly Green Giant started lobbing tanks around. And a savage beating, pre-intended execution also adds a tangible sharpness to the film's message about evil begetting evil, power being corrupted.
““I'm Agent Phil Coulson with the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division.”
“That's quite a mouthful.”
“I know. We're working on it.”
One of the splendid little asides that helps solidify Iron Man's film longevity and fuel the fan's expectation of some full-bore Avengers action in the years to come.
But what anchors this Iron Man with conviction is the absolute gemstone-casting of Robert Downy Jnr, who nails the part of Tony Stark with precision. Stark - Marvel's most celebrated playboy, even surpassing DC's Bruce Wayne - is a godsend of a superhero role because of the somewhat unusual credentials that go into his makeup. Combining charm with smarm, accomplishment with arrogance, insight with naiveté and a confident swagger that struts headlong into the all-too-necessary reality-check that bases his strength with a believable fallibility, Downy finds both the fun and the eccentricity of what makes Iron Man tick. Someone of the always-charismatic Downy's clout is not just fortuitous casting - back when New Line were trying to get the project off the ground, it was supposed to be Tom Cruise in the role - but downright vital to the success of this particular character. Bale found the heart of darkness for Batman, Maguire essayed the downtrodden heroism of Spider-Man and Jackman discovered the appropriate rage and pathos of Wolverine, and now Downy proves that his own personal troubles may actually have enabled him to leap into a red and gold metallic battle-suit that seems have been built for him all along. His wide-boy sass, kid-in-a-candy-store expressions and often battered and doped-up plight are second-nature to him. After trekking, injured, through the Afghan desert and finally returning home, he sums up his condition and spirit in the simple, but heartfelt, “Give me a Scotch. I'm starving.” Priceless. Hardly the muscle-bound, honed and toned type - then again, he doesn't need to be when he's encased in armour - Downy still exhibits some textbook moves, as evidenced when a TV news report about militant atrocities in Afghanistan angers him to the point of utilising his powerful energy blasts to redecorate his bachelor-pad. And it is nice to see that he does look like the archetypal Tony Stark with that now-dated goatee beard and slick black barnet.
“Pepper, I've been called many things. Nostalgic is not one of them.”
Even Gwyneth Paltrow doesn't grate anywhere near as much as usual. I'm not a fan of hers at all - I believe her best moment was her performance as an unseen severed head in Se7en - so I will admit to being biased in this department. And when I heard that she was appearing in Iron Man I feared the worst. In fact, she turned out quite the opposite of my expectations, for her Pepper Potts is briskly charismatic - nice brush off of Stark's first act one-night-stand with Vanity Fair's gorgeous journo with the exquisite “I even take out the trash” line - and slightly more three-dimensional than many other female hangers-on to their superhero loves. What's more, there is a genuine chemistry between her and Downy that makes their wittily dry exchanges all the more enjoyable. In fact, there is a slight whiff of the fifties in their flirtatious banter that adds yet another level to the film's wry sense of humour. All this, of course, doesn't mean that she manages to avoid becoming the typical damsel-in-distress once the raging Iron Monger goes on the rampage.
“Anything I can do?”
“Keep the skies clear.”
Terrence Howard's Col. Rhodes - who should develop quite excitingly as the series carries on - is the unappreciated lid on Stark's, and especially Iron Man's steadily more outrageous antics. Taking his buddy Stark down one minute and then partying with him onboard a private jet equipped with pole-dancing air stewardesses, the next, Howard's foil is best exemplified in the terrific scene of Iron Man's mysterious blip on the radar suddenly coming into contact with a pair of scrambled US jets whilst the two are talking to one another on the phone. Classic editing soon after allows Howard to elicit more laughs as attempts to talk his way out of a press conference. In many ways Rhodes has assumed much of the role that the comics' Happy Hogan used to have as Stark's friend, confident and comedy sidekick. Hogan is here though, and actually played by Favreau, himself, but I doubt that this relationship will actually develop much as the series moves on. Oh and listen out for Paul Bettany's clipped English butler-style tones as Stark's robotic in-suit aid, Jarvis.
“Where do you think you're going!”
Another joy of the movie is having the once so-laconic Jeff Bridges as the big villain Obadiah Stane. One of Hollywood's greatest hippies, it is an awesome shock to see him with a shaved head and a vast, almost Amish beard. He looks intimidating just standing there in a business suit and a smile, let alone when he's using his frightening paralysis signal to render his victims powerless to intervene as he gleefully taunts and dominates them. Donning the fearsome Iron Monger suit he becomes not unlike one of the iconic ABC Warriors from the pages on 2000AD, let alone his own 2D incarnation. But there is a truly sinister air to his actions and even if he does actually have some valid - at least in his own mind - reasons for his ongoing campaign and is not merely a homicidal maniac, Stane is a powerfully frightening character. Plus, it is good to see an actor from the older generation getting to play a comic book villain with relish.
“Do not turn my music down!”
The score from Ramin Djawadi has been just as surprising as the tone of the film, causing some consternation amongst soundtrack lovers and superhero buffs who demand memorably big orchestral themes. Now, I happen to be both - as numerous reviews of film scores and superhero movies and animated shows testify - and I can say, quite wholeheartedly, that I love what Djawadi has done with the music for Iron Man. Perfectly in-keeping with the heavy metal aspect of the character - who clearly likes his music loud and rock-based as well - and the emphatic, hard edged visuals that the film likes to polish up for us, the score is based around two distinct motifs. The first, and most prominent is for the electric guitar, whilst only the secondary, and considerably lesser, element is orchestral. Both work well together and suit the film and its heavy-handed themes of character redemption, greed and violence. Whilst we may not receive the kind of heroic fanfare that many seem to have expected, the signature cue for Tony Stark does actually evolve as the film progresses until we have the Robert Downy Jnr-style hero-cue that is crafty, sly, wise-ass and addictive - hitting just the right note for this slightly offbeat, iron-clad avenger.
“You got a family?”
“Yes, and I will see them when I leave here. And you, Stark?”
“So you're a man who has everything, but nothing.”
It certainly isn't perfect. One or two brushstrokes feel a little too neat and the film has that undeniable need to trot out the backstory that is beginning to mire so many superhero franchises when most of us just want it to cut to the chase. But this is still smash 'n' bash mayhem of the highest order, made even better by the involvement of top-flight stars and a knowing screenplay that adds just the right nods to the fans and a surfeit of touches alluding to a far bigger umbrella story to entice us back into Stark's grinding milieu. Rounded off with a pitch-perfect post-credits pay-off - so stick around, folks - Iron Man is topflight super-heroics, the perfect blend of action, humour and character and a terrific hook into a series-to-be. Be sure to check out Stark's appearance in The Incredible Hulk, as well - further proof that Marvel Studios fully intend to make the costumed tag-teams a thing of cinematic reality.
Iron Man gets a very strong 8 out of 10.
PictureRed and gold - a powerful combination.
Iron Man's 2.35:1 image is aglow with colour. The parched, arid deserts and rocks of Afghanistan have a sheen that is bright and burnished, the caves within them provide a solid foundation of deep black and textured shadow - great elements to test Iron Man's hi-def image later in the year. Fast action is beautifully rendered and the CG elements are seamlessly blended with the surrounding elements. There is a great depth of field to the film, from scorching deserts, vast cityscapes, the terrific pull-back shot of Stark's cliff-top abode in Malibu to the aerial action, metal crunching urban frenzy and the few explosive interludes. Detail is at a premium, too, with the intricacies of the metalwork, equipment, devastation and action in tip-top form and some deep levels of close-up imagery on show. I would expect this to be one of the most luscious-looking transfers around when it arrives on Blu-ray.
SoundPersonally speaking, I wasn't overly wowed by the sound of Iron Man. But this may well be down to the presentation where I saw it, as I have heard other people rave about its deep bass impacts and whip-around dynamics. Basically, the action sequences really stood out with aggressive bombast - flames, gunfire and explosions etc - but what I wasn't really getting was any sort of detail within the overall cacophony. Voices and dialogue were always clear and intelligible, however, as were the numerous clickings, whirrings and mechanical noises of Stark's tinkering, building and try-outs. The fly-bys of the jets were reasonably forceful, but I didn't hear anything that particularly amazed me or had me making notes to check up on the eventual Blu-ray release.
The score from Ramin Djawadi was pretty whipped-up though, so maybe it was this being mixed too prominently that detracted from all the subtleties and steerage on offer. Either way, Iron Man still provides plenty of raucous activity around the cinema and I just hope that home viewing will unleash its true potential.
VerdictHighly entertaining and boasting marvellous visual fx, dynamic set-pieces that aren't put there at the expense of plot or character, and wonderful turns by both Downy Jnr and Bridges, Iron Man is a pummelling, punishing heavy-hitter that gets the summer blockbusters off to a terrific start. As a franchise-in-the-making, this debut couldn't be better - smart and exciting, and a spot-on origin story that gets to the root of the saga with lean, mean and sure-fire direction from Favreau. It also sets in motion enough of the forthcoming events to get you drooling for the next instalment ... almost as much as Casino Royale did. The hero crossovers now sound far more appealing and the prospect of a proper, full-on Marvel universe brought to the screen feels that much closer to becoming a live-action normality. Iron Man rocks!
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