Looking Back: Stark Raving Brilliant

With IRON MAN 3 only days away, and a half-dozen Marvel big-budget blockbusters having taken place since the summer of 2008,  I thought it’d be fun to look back at my original reaction to that first IRON MAN movie, back when the notion of an AVENGERS movie still seemed like pure fantasy…

It always seems like it should be easy, doesn’t it? Just stick to the source material, make only the changes that are necessary, and hire the right actors, and just about any comic-book character should make a great movie. And yet more often than not, it doesn’t happen. Someone decides, “oh, this is for kids, so we should dumb it down.” Or “superhero costumes look stupid, so let’s lose the tights.” Or “let’s put Dr. Doom on Reed Richards’ rocketship and give him electric powers.”

Jon Favreau stuck to the source material, made only the changes that were necessary, and hired the right actors. And IRON MAN is a great movie.

And best of all, it’s a great movie for everyone, whether you’re a longtime IRON MAN fan or someone who’s never read a comic book in your life. Much of the credit goes to Favreau, who seems to really know how to get the best out of his actors, as there’s not a single scene that seemed forced or didn’t ring true. Favreau clearly did his research, deftly weaving elements from four decades’ worth of IRON MAN comics into a film that, to be honest, feels more like Iron Man than any Iron Man comic I’ve ever read. Favreau also seems to have a light touch with his visual effects, letting them take over when they needed to but not letting them overrun the movie. Sure, this is a big special-effect blockbuster, but it’s still all about the people, and Favreau doesn’t let you forget that.


As great as everything else in the movie is (and it is pretty great), this movie lives or dies by its star. If you don’t believe in Tony Stark, then all of the high-tech SFX wizardry is just going to feel like a big video game. Robert Downey, Jr., finally has the blockbuster hit here that’s eluded him his entire career, and it’s well deserved. Downey’s Stark is charismatic, charming, funny and conflicted, and you can’t take your eyes off him. For the first time in one of these big-budget super-movies, you’re not just counting the minutes until the protagonist climbs back into his superhero suit. I could have watched a whole movie just with Downey’s Stark and never been bored.


Favreau absolutely gets the most out of his supporting cast as well. I’ve always found Gwyneth Paltrow to be a little cold and unappealing in most things I’ve seen her in, but she’s absolutely adorable here as Stark’s assistant Pepper Potts. Terrence Howard brings just the right mix of humor and military toughness as Jim Rhodes (here taking the role of Stark’s government liaison and handler), and Jeff Bridges provides an outstanding performance as Obadiah Stane, Stark’s mentor and father-figure.


This very much feels like the first in a series of “Marvel Universe” movies, by the way, whether it’s the casual way the movie throws around the term “super-hero,” or the presence of a certain many-initialed government spy organization throughout the movie. (And by the way, just in case you haven’t heard yet, make sure you stick around until after the credits.) There are also plenty of nods to longtime fans, from Stark’s British-accented major-domo computer to the longing glance Jim Rhodes gives to a silver suit of Iron Man armor hanging in Stark’s workshop.

One of the tricky things about most of these superhero movies is the whole matter of the origin. You’ve got to do it in that first movie, just to get it out of the way. The problem is, a lot of times, the origin story is one of the least interesting things about the character. And even when it is important, there’s a tendency to overdo it. After all, did SPIDER-MAN really require half the movie for the origin story?

In the case of IRON MAN, the origin actually makes for good drama, as wounded weaponsmaker Tony Stark is kidnapped by terrorists and forced to make them their own unstoppable weapon. And sure, the setting has changed from Vietnam to Afghanistan, but otherwise, the story is right out of the comic book, how Stark devises a method to keep himself alive with the help of a fellow prisoner, and instead of building a weapon, creates an armored suit to allow him to escape.


And here’s where Favreau and company actually improve on the original tale; by making the experience so integral to Stark’s life from that point on. Following his return from captivity, Stark has seen the damage his weapons are doing, and wants no part of it; the scales have fallen from his eyes. This in turn prompts him to create the Iron Man armor to allow him the power to make amends. The origin story informs everything Tony Stark does: it matters, and in a powerful, emotional way.

It even extends to the way Stark thinks about the armor. Iron Man’s most powerful weapon, his repulsor rays, are conceived not as a weapon at all, but as a flight stabilizer. The moment when Stark is at his most tortured, when he truly sees the carnage his work has created, is when he lashes out, and realizes that the repulsors can be used to help right his wrongs. It’s a great scene.


All of this, meanwhile, is balanced with the right amount of humor, whether it’s from Downey’s quips or Favreau’s clever cutting (there’s a transition with Stark and Rhodes on board Stark’s corporate jet that is positively hilarious), as well as a very funny YouTube-flavored sequence toward the middle of the movie as Tony Stark tries to teach himself to fly. Unlike some other superhero films, though, none of these laughs come at the expense of the characters. There’s also a surprising amount of heart, as the relationship between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts is more affecting than you’d expect, with one scene in particular where Pepper has to help Tony with his new medical situation ending with a simple, almost nondescript line that could still break your heart. Hire good actors, and let them go to work. That’s all you need.

I keep coming back to Downey, but that’s just because he’s so damned good here. I’m sure there was pressure from studio types to go with someone younger, or considered more “bankable.” This very much felt to me like Johnny Depp in PIRATES, a career-making role that seems absolutely obvious in retrospect, but must have made all the suits extremely nervous. Well, the gamble paid off, and paid off big. Bravo.

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