Sunday, May 4, 2008

The 100 Million Dollar (IRON) Man - Iron Man: Reviewed!

- What's up, True Believers ... so here's a very special edition of the blog, as we take a look at the first BIG movie of the 2008 summer movie season, Iron Man. Before I dive into the actual review, I just want to say how cool it is that the movie did so well this weekend. $100 million +, baby. The reason that, to me, this is so cool is because this is an instance where a somewhat underdog movie defied the naysayers and really kicked some box office ass. Sure, a big-budget superhero movie in 2008 is never really an underdog, exactly, but still ... I guess Iron Man was one of those movies that was kind of divisive, in a way - it was a movie where people who love great action movies were chomping at the bit to see it. All of us film geeks and fanboys have been spreading the gospel of Iron Man for a year now, ever since the incredible footage shown at San Diego in '07 blew the roof off the joint. But ask around - a lot of people never seemed to get why this one would be special. The cynics said it was a second tier character. The cynics said that movie-going had been down the last few weeks. The cynics said that everything from Grand Theft Auto to Made of Honor would limit the box office fortunes for Marvel's latest. Well, to me Iron Man grossing over 100 million in its opening weekend is a win for the good guys. This is a movie that was impeccably cast with REAL actors, SEASONED actors, Oscar-caliber actors. It's a movie that respecte the source material while also updating things for 2008. It's a movie that used viral and internet marketing to great effect, without ever pandering or feeling desperate. To me, Iron Man was precisely the antithesis of some of the crap films us genre fans have had to endure: Fantastic Four, Ghost Rider ... need I say more? So while those films all did well at the box office, it's awesome that the film that did the BEST, that defied expectations and set records, was one that for once was more than deserving of such accolades.

And for the record, I argued with anyone who over the last few weeks thought Iron Man would underperform. I hate to say I told you so, but ...

IRON MAN Review:

- In a genre where so much can go wrong, I am still amazed at just how much IRON MAN got right. And let's face it, folks. Marvel needed this one, and maybe the whole comic book genre needed it too. After a string of duds like Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Ghost Rider, and yes, Spiderman 3, it was high time that us fans and the whole movie-going public were reminded why we love us some superheroes in the first place. But worry not, True Believers, for salvation is here, and he's wearing a suit of red and gold steel. Because Iron Man wipes away any doubts that the genre is dead or dying. And the reasons are anything but rocket science. Jon Favreau stuck to a very simple and basic plan - match a good script with great actors, respect the source material, deliver heroes, villains, and slam-bang action, and deliver a film that would make the likes of Lee and Kirby proud. Like I said, not rocket science, but it's amazing how many films have ignored these basic tenets, taking some of the most fun and creative fictional characters every created and churning out half-assed adaptations. Again, Iron Man is the antithesis of those films - a fun, action packed tale full of great actors and larger than life fun.

The most obvious upside here is the incredible cast. Robert Downey Jr., to start, is as good as everyone has said. I don't know if it's even so much that this is a great performance by him, per se. It might very well be that this is just Downey being Downey. You definitely get that sense here, as its certainly one of the most naturalistic performances ever seen in a superhero movie. But that just reinforces the notion that the casting of RDJ as Tony Stark was a stroke of genius. The guy's own offscreen troubles certainly parallel those of Stark, and that allows RDJ to bring something to the role that few others could - a world-weariness masked by a kind of manic humor. There's a charismatic presence about RDJ here that I've heard a few compare to Johnny Depp in the Pirates films, and it's true: Downey is constantly animated here - you can't take your eyes off of him, wondering what he'll do or say next. In Entertainment Weekly, I believe, it was said that Downey goes through Iron Man like a guy who's having one long conversation with himself, and I kind of agree. Whether it's seamless acting or just an extension of his own personality, there's no question about it ... Robert Downey Jr. IS Tony Stark.

It doesn't hurt that the supporting cast here is completely A-list. Jeff Bridges, as Stark's rival / mentor Obediah Stane (a name that could ONLY have come from a Marvel comic book), is off-the-chain great. The Dude abides, baby ... Bridges chews up the scenery with much awesomeness and looks suitably badass with the bald head and goatee thing going on. Terrance Howard plays the role of Stark Industries' military liason, Jim Rhodes, with a kind of bottled-up glee. His role here isn't huge, but Howard brings an enthusiasm to the role where he seems to be screaming out "damn dude, get me into the War Machine suit already!" Said enthusiasm is totally contagious, and when Rhodes admires the Iron Man suit with a glint of mischief in his eye, we can't help but give an amen to Howard's exclamation of "next time, baby." Gwyneth Paltrow is really exceptional to boot as Pepper Potts (another classic Marvel-style name, to be sure). As Stark's loyal assistant and potential love interest, Paltrow mixes comic book pluckiness with real pathos to make us care more about Pepper than any comic book hero's special lady friend in quite some time. Sure, her competition includes Jessica Alba, Eva Mendez, Katie Holmes, and Kate Bosworth, so, not too hard for Paltrow to shine in comparison. But she really is a lot of fun here, with some great chemistry with Downey Jr. and some nice dialogue as well. And screw the haters, I've always been a Paltrow fan - from Sky Captain to The Royal Tannenbaums, she's a great actress. Finally, Paul Bettany was great a the voice of Jarvis - Stark's highly advanced computer / electronic butler. Some of the best scenes in the film come about thanks to the interplay between the two, despite one being an inanimate computer system.

In general, props to Iron Man for having the balls to make unconventional (for Hollywood) casting choices that are, in reality, total no-brainers. While some braindead studio execs might prefer that Iron Man be played by the latest "it" teen actor or whatever, kudos to Favreau and co for going with actors who have true talent, who look and fit the parts, and who proved this weekend that you don't have to be 22 and on the cover of Teen Vogue to draw big box office.

As for the script, where Iron Man really excels is in its fast paced, adult dialogue. Many of the back-and-forths felt more Swingers than Spiderman, which was really cool to see. With overlapping conversations, legitimately witty humor, and a lack of cheesy one-liners, Iron Man certainly blended its comic book aesthetic with a pretty mature and sophisticated storytelling style. Now, did that maturity at times give way to some cliched bits? Sure - the big end battle in particular seemed from a different movie, all action movie cliches and been-there, done-that action. But for the most part, Iron Man was better and stronger than it's competition.

Now, despite that aforementioned maturity, one thing I loved about Iron Man was that it never forgot its roots. The movie reveled in the sheer coolness of the Iron Man suit - when Tony first whups ass with his Mach 1 prototype armor, when he goes on his first flight, kicks his first round of badguy butt while donning the classic red and gold, fires his first repulsor rays and makes $#%# blow up real good - these are all moments to make you stand up and cheer. Give credit to the f/x guys - the suit looks awesome, as does Tony's lab and some of the other high-tech set design. And man, there are a ton of great geek references in here to make the Marvel fans giddy. Not only do the characters, the suit, the locations feel lifted straight out of the comics, but things go into total overdrive thanks to the running subplot involving Marvel's staple covert-ops supergroup, S.H.I.E.L.D. (I'm not even going to try to spell out the acronym). Let's be honest - every fanboy worth his salt has been chomping at the bit for one of comicdom's most beloved ideas - the concept of the shared superhero universe - to finally make it onto the big screen. Without spoiling anything specifically, the final, post-credit bonus scene, involving a certain eye-patched Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., played by one bad mutha', is one of the most geek-out-worthy things ever put to film. As Stan Lee might say: 'Nuff Said.

Without a doubt, Iron Man has so much going for it that it is instantly worthy of being hailed as one of the best comics-to-film adaptations to date. Unfortunately, to me it JUST misses the mark of being an all-time classic action flick, period. The biggest flaw to me is that at times, the narrative can be a bit flimsy. More and more, it's becoming noticable that a big weakness of comic book flicks is that the setup to the climactic hero vs. villain confrontation often feels rushed. Iron Man is guilty of this lack of proper build-up, quickly having Jeff Bridges morph from ruthless businessman to homicidial maniac over the course of a few measly minutes. It makes his final showdown with Iron Man much goofier-feeling than it should have been. That same final fight is also marred by its relatively small scale. It seemed like a much bigger, more epic brawl was in order before movie's end. I guess time and budget ran out before a proper climax could be included? It's a shame, too, because the movie sure does take its sweet time establishing Iron Man's origin - if only the same could be said for the second half of the film in which he's actually in the suit. Last complaint: I echo the sentiments of some other reviews that it would have been icing on the cake if Iron Man had a truly memorable musical score. Not to say that there weren't some appropriately metal tunes sprinkled throughout (including great use of the Black Sabbath song of the same name), but the soundtrack did seem a bit lacking at times.

In any case, I only critique because in most respects, IRON MAN was one badass movie, and an incredible way to kick off the '08 summer movie season. As I said, so much of the movie was done the right way, it's amazing that Favreau got this thing made the way he and fans everywhere wanted to see it happen. It's a movie that begs for a sequel, and if that buzz-worthy ending is any indication, it's a movie that may well change the face of superhero flicks altogether. But the best I can say about Iron Man is that, wow, right out of the gate, this is the standard-setter. And I'm not just talking about dollars, though there's that too. Aside from measuring up at the box office, it's going to be a mighty challenge for the rest of the summer's big-guns to stack up quality-wise to Iron Man, it's that good of a blockbuster. That goes for Speed Racer, Indy, and even The Dark Knight. A bar has been set, and it's cast in iron.

My Grade: A -

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