Smart, sardonic and more than a little silly, Iron Man is a successful super-hero movie that never takes itself too seriously. Here is a popcorn movie with a will to entertain, at turns evoking James Bond, Batman Begins and Transformers; if it’s not in the same league as Batman Begins, it’s better (and shorter) than Transformers, with a redemptive angle foreign to James Bond.
Directed by Jon Favreau (Zathura), Iron Man is a rare superhero origin story that is also a conversion story. Peter Parker, Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne are sympathetic characters from the first time we meet them. Peter Parker might go through a selfish phase and have to learn the hard way about power and responsibility, but that’s because his sudden acquisition of spider-powers proves too much for his adolescent maturity level.
By contrast, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is pushing middle age, but like many super-rich jet-setters he’s never gotten past that high-powered adolescence. A brilliant industrialist entrepreneur and a tabloid celebrity, Tony is a sort of cross between George Clooney and Bill Gates — a figure more like Howard Hughes than anyone that’s come along since, which isn’t surprising, since Hughes was allegedly one of the principal inspirations for the character. Catholic blogger Mark Shea sometimes files blog posts under the topic “Paris Hilton people in an apocalyptic world.” That’s Tony to a T. His armor may be iron, but underneath he has feet of clay.
Although the armored Marvel Comics hero is often considered something of a counterpart to DC icon Batman, James Bond is in some ways a more apt comparison. Superficially Tony might resemble Bruce Wayne: a ultra-wealthy industrialist entrepreneur and media celebrity with a reputation as a ladies’ man, a hero without innate powers, who relies on high-tech arsenals of his own devising.
Yet Bruce Wayne’s millionaire-playboy persona is a subterfuge, much like Clark Kent’s nervous milquetoast shtick. Casinos, cocktails and beautiful celebrities are Bruce’s alibi, his cover story; he is in that world, but never of it. Tony, like Bond, is at one with that world. For Bond, seducing the villain’s woman is an end in itself, no less important in its own way than saving the free world. Tony doesn’t personally set out to save the free world, but he manufactures and sells weapons to the military, which he conveniently figures is the next best thing.
If Tony Stark leads something of a James Bond lifestyle, the movie he’s in is capable of critiquing that lifestyle in a way 007’s films aren’t known for. An early scene shows Tony casually seducing a beautiful reporter with a couple of suggestive lines during a passing interview, as Bond might do.
But the next morning the reporter, Christine Everhart (Leslie Bibb), wakes up alone in the cavernous emptiness of Tony Stark’s cliffside mansion in Malibu. Instead of Tony, she finds only his executive secretary Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is authorized to offer her a ride wherever she wishes to go. Belatedly feeling used, Tony’s latest conquest takes a swipe at Pepper’s relationship with Tony — prompting Pepper to observe that her duties include doing whatever Mr. Stark needs done, “including occasionally taking out the trash.”
Once Christine is gone, we learn that Tony was in fact working in his basement workshop the whole time. “How’d she take it?” Tony asks neutrally, and Pepper, though clearly disapproving, gives the cad the answer he wants. All this morning-after discomfiture would have no place in a 007 film.
Nor would anyone in Bond’s circle chide him as insightfully as his friend and military liaison Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard): “You don’t respect yourself,” Rhodey says ruefully, “so I know you don’t respect me.” Only Tony’s right-hand man, Obadiah Stane (a bald and bearded Jeff Bridges), is completely supportive — perhaps too supportive.
Tony’s lifestyle is more dramatically cross-examined when, during a trip to Afghanistan pitching his latest weapons line to the military, he is kidnapped by Afghani insurgents armed with his own products. In the mêlée Tony is nearly killed by shrapnel from one of his own missiles, and shrapnel buried in his chest threatens to work its way to his heart.
Fortunately, a fellow prisoner, a medical doctor named Yinsen (Shaun Toub) saves his life with a rather grisly bit of comic-book field surgery: Tony now has an electromagnet implanted in his chest, powered by an old car battery. Understandably concerned about the stability of this power supply, Tony cannibalizes the bad guys’ supply of Stark Enterprises tech to whip up a high-tech “arc reactor,” an ultra-powerful generator device his company has been working on. Then he gets to thinking that that arc reactor could power other things besides the electromagnet in his chest… things that might get him out of his predicament.
As the captives work together, Yinsen, a family man, asks Tony whether he has a family. No, Tony replies. “Ah,” Yinsen replies. “The man who has everything… and nothing.” In the end, Yinsen urges Tony not to waste his new lease on life.
The whole experience opens Tony’s eyes, not least because he sees his own merchandise being used against American troops. When he returns from his ordeal, he wants to take his life — and his company — in a new direction… much to the consternation of the board of directors, not to mention the stock market.
Before long, Tony begins to suspect that his company is being used for illicit profiteering. What political implications there are include bones for both sides of the aisle: The film suggests the dangers of ill-advised American meddling in the Middle East, but also underscores the barbarity of the insurgents, above all in a fantasy-fulfilling set piece in which Iron Man drops into an Afghan town under assault and takes matters into his own gauntleted hands.
Throughout all this, Iron Man’s biggest asset is the gusto of Downey Jr’s performance. The actor chews his snappy lines with relish, embracing Tony’s take-charge personality without losing sight of hints of insecurity beneath the façade. Paltrow gives Pepper more strength and personality than Batman Begins’s Rachel Dawes or Spider‑Man’s Mary Jane Watson; there’s real chemistry between Tony and Pepper, something missing in many recent comic book movies. Bridges, too, brings cunning and charisma to Obadiah Stane; only soft-spoken Terrence Howard makes little impression as Rhodey, though to be fair he isn’t given much to work with.
Fans will enjoy a number of in-jokes, most obviously a scene during a crisis in which Rhodey looks fleetingly at a spare Iron Man suit and says regretfully, “Next time, baby.” In the comics, Rhodey takes over as Iron Man for an extended time while Tony succumbs to his longtime Achilles’ heel, alcohol — falling off the wagon, becoming a homeless wino, and losing his empire to a ruthless rival.
The film draws on this storyline (notably for its chief villain), but although Tony drinks a fair bit, his alcoholism has been omitted, at least for now. Perhaps Rhodey’s line foreshadows that darker plotline as well. (Another possible in-joke: Toward the end of the first-act soirée scene I noticed that the band was playing what sounded like an orchestral version of the theme song of the cheesy old TV cartoon: As Iron Man, all jets ablaze / He fights and smites with repulsor rays!)
Like most super-hero origin movies, Iron Man falls a bit short in the final act. Having spent most of the film establishing the hero, the film has no time left to do justice to the villain and their third-act confrontation. (The same pitfall can be seen in Spider‑Man and the 1978 Superman film; the best efforts to overcome the problem remain the first X‑Men movie and Batman Begins.)
Still, the first two acts are strong enough to power Iron Man above most recent Marvel adaptations, placing it comfortably beside Spider‑Man among the more enjoyable superhero origin stories — and, with the origin out of the way, opening the door wide for an even better sequel.
Iron Man in 60 seconds: my “Reel Faith” review.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.