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

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

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?