Between Man and His Machine

    {grate 3.5/4} It’s safe to say that today’s filmgoers don’t expect much
    from Marvel films. “X-Men” and “Spider-Man” are the rare exceptions to the
    plethora of failed film adaptations of Marvel superheroes. For the record, Hollywood
    has successfully killed the film franchises of both “Daredevil” and “Ghost
    Rider” with abysmal casting and laughable plots. Enter “Iron Man,” an important
    and decently popular character in the Marvel universe, who has been given the
    silver screen makeover — oh boy.

    Thankfully, with a cast of Oscar winners and nominees, a
    competent director and an incredible marketing campaign, the movie has all the
    trappings of a sure-fire summer blockbuster. And, for the most part, it is.

    From the get-go, “Iron Man” is quick to set a humorous but
    serious tone. As heavy guitar riffs play in the background, the film opens with
    Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) — genius billionaire weapons manufacturer and
    complete rock star (is there any other kind?) — sipping on a glass of whiskey
    as he casually banters with a group of soldiers who are completely enamored by
    him, in an armored car traveling somewhere in the Middle East.

    The car suddenly comes under heavy fire and the soldiers
    introduced not five minutes ago die in several explosions. Stark scrambles out
    of the carrier to find shelter, then trails a missile falling from the sky
    before it lands three feet away from him. Before the missile goes off, Stark
    glances at the logo stamped across the missile that reads “Stark Industries.”
    The missile explodes, and shrapnel penetrates his Kevlar vest. As blood leaks
    from Stark’s chest, the camera pans out and the title flashes across the screen
    in bold letters. And so begins “Iron Man.

    The movie is generally faithful to its source material, but
    with a modernized setting. Whereas the comic saw Stark stranded in the middle
    of the Vietnam War, the film sees Stark stranded in the Middle East.
    Like the original story, Stark is recovered as a prisoner and is saved by
    Yinsen (Shaun Toub), a fellow prisoner who constructs protective armor for
    Stark’s heart. As the story goes, Stark constructs the Mark I, the first
    incarnation of the Iron Man armor, escapes from his captors. Upon arriving
    home, Stark realizes the harm his weapons have inflicted upon others and
    decides to rid the world of them. As the film progresses, Stark grows from apathetic
    womanizer to responsible industrialist and clumsily finalizes the Mark III Iron
    Man armor.

    If there’s anything the film does wrong, it’s overlooked by
    everything the film does right. Casting Robert Downey Jr. as the tragically
    flawed Stark was nothing short of brilliance. Downey’s
    portrayal is not only accurate but also hysterically funny. While Stark was
    always a cynical character, Downey’s
    portrayal adds a charismatic wit that makes the character completely his own.
    In fact, amid all of Stark’s unbelievable characteristics, Downey
    consistently makes Stark believable, making the character’s drastic shift in
    moral beliefs seem all the more likely. Perhaps due in large part to his
    offscreen persona and history, Downey brings an approachability to the character
    that would be left unfulfilled by another actor, and it’s largely due to Downey
    that “Iron Man” manages to hold even in its slowest parts.

    With Downey
    redirecting most of the attention, it’s easy to overlook the film’s supporting
    cast. Gwyneth Paltrow accurately portrays Pepper Potts as the sassy yet loyal
    assistant, and Jeff Bridges perfectly depicts Obadiah Shane as both charming
    and ruthless, even managing to steal some scenes from Downey.

    The only noticeable sidestep seems to be Terrence Howard’s
    portrayal of Col. James Rhodes, the straight-edge air enforcement colonel
    better known to fans as superhero sidekick War Machine. This is no fault of the
    actor’s but rather the character itself, who, unfortunately, was never quite
    fleshed out. Considering Howard’s reputation, it’s strange that he be relegated
    to such an unremarkable role. But due to the frequent hints of an inevitable
    sequel, perhaps the character was purposely downplayed, with more for him in
    later chapters.

    One of the fascinating things about “Iron Man” is that the
    story always revolves around Stark the industrialist, not Stark the superhero.
    As an original story, the film does an excellent job allowing the characters,
    especially our protagonist, to grow, thanks in large part to the direction of
    Jon Favreau.

    Because of the film’s ability to touch upon key aspects of
    the comic and its mythos, it’s evident that Favreau clearly understands and
    loves the franchise. Perhaps due to his experience with “Swingers” (a near
    character study of bachelors) and “Zathura” (a kiddy sci-fi spectacle), the
    actor-turned-director knows how to combine charming character interactions with
    stunning visuals, allowing “Iron Man” to stand out among its superhero film
    brethren.

    The film is not without some inevitable lows. It is peppered
    with atrociously sappy moments, particularly in Stark’s interactions with Potts
    and Rhodes. At times, the pacing is jumpy as well. It gives a sense of
    over-urgency, moving too quickly — especially in the beginning — as if there’s too
    great a need to get Stark into his Mark I suit and take off.

    Moreover, the climactic battle seems helplessly tacked on.
    The inclusion of Obadiah Shane made it necessary for Iron Man to duke it out
    with the Iron Monger, but at this point, it’s just hopelessly overdrawn and
    cliche. And considering the subject matter, the movie can seem absurdly
    light-hearted.

    As fan service, the film is one of the best of its kind,
    constantly making references that only the most passionate of comic book
    readers would notice. But the film has enough spectacular imagery and humor
    that such familiarity isn’t necessary. What else are you going to watch until
    “Indiana Jones IV,” anyway?

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