Directed by Jon Favreau
Written by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway
Note that this review is going to go against traditional structure. As it’s something I’ve seen, I’m going to skip plot synopsis and go into examining why everything works. Also note that this review will contain spoilers, so be warned. Let me know what you think of this different style.
With Iron Man 3, which marks the beginning of Marvel Phase Two, less than a month away at this point, and the realization that Alex has never seen the Phase One Marvel movies besides The Avengers, now seems like the perfect time to rewatch and review the original series. The build-up to what’s arguably one of the best superhero movies ever made. And it all starts with Robert Downey Jr.
Let’s face it, with every actor playing a superhero (probably with the lone exception of Patrick Stewart as Professor X), there’s always doubts about whether they can be the hero. Even if you haven’t seen the hero in a comic, you know the TV shows, the mythos, the general look of the hero. But Robert Downey Jr. comes onscreen and from his opening moments of playing with a group of soldiers in a Humvee, he is Tony Stark. He’s arrogant but likeable. You know at the start he’s not quite a hero, and even once he becomes Iron Man, he’s still not quite your traditional hero. Instead you’re waiting to see what he does next, constantly surprising the characters around him with his attitude. This was something helped by the fairly loose production that threw out most of the script and let the actors improv, letting Downey add in moments like asking everybody to sit down during a press conference that work so well for the character.
And this is rounded out by an excellent supporting cast. Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, the woman behind the man, plays up the fact that Stark is too eccentric to even survive on his own and builds up a romantic subplot that has been an important part of Marvel’s other movies. Jeff Bridges as Obidiah Stane is inspired, letting Bridges play somebody rather against type for him: a conspiring, devilish businessman who clearly thinks he should be (and probably deserves to be) in Stark’s place. It’s also nice that, while the other Marvel characters went towards their big villains, Stane provides a villain who’s more surprising towards non-comic readers (like I was when I first saw this movie) while also fitting into the movie’s themes of the kind of hero Iron Man wants to be by showing the villain he doesn’t want to be. While he’s only onscreen for the first act, Shaun Toub as Yinsen is a human element that’s never quite been captured again. There have been tries in the other Marvel movies, certainly, but they never went as well as here. He has to give Stark his humanity. He has to show Stark the price of his war mongering. Yinsen gives the movie a beating heart before it starts blowing things up. The one thing I’m iffy about is Terrence Howard as Rhodey. I feel that Howard’s performance is almost too timid, too quiet. Where everybody else is gleefully going just a little over the top, Howard isn’t. Maybe Don Cheadle has just become more of the role for me, but we’ll examine this when we get to Iron Man 2.
The script, however much of it was actually used, shows the forming of that Marvel tone that would be captured. Every action scene and emotional moment is contrasted with a hilarious scene or line. Yes, superhero movies had plenty of funny moments before Iron Man, but they were ultimately leaning more towards tragedy at the time. Remember that Iron Man came out the same summer as The Dark Knight showed just how dark and serious a superhero movie could be. The Dark Knight is a reinterpretation of the comics, though. Iron Man is more like taking the best parts of the comics and putting what people love about them onscreen. Iron Man’s origin is slow, but we love spending time in Stark’s lab when we expect to see an awesome special effect and end up with slapstick. It’s all perfectly timed comedy, building the exact expectation, the exact timing of how long they can hold the suspense, only to turn it into humor. But then when the movie does pull out the special effects, well, even after 5 years this movie still impresses. The Iron Man suit is a wonder to see. And even when it dials down from that to small practical effects, it remains incredible. Pepper reaching into Tony’s chest is such a small thing, but you wonder how it’s done.
So what does Iron Man give to the Marvel style? Witty writing. A story that has emotion at its core. Getting actors who just slide naturally into their roles. And, of course, some great special effects and action sequences. Even after five other Phase One movies, Iron Man is an impressive feat.