Director: Jon Favreau
Recall, if you will, summer of 2008. The excitement was building up for the most anticipated film of the year, a superhero film which played with the conventions of the genre whilst redefining it as accessible to all film fans, not just comic book nerds. Yes, it was The Dark Knight. The momentum was with Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster, so how does that summer’s other big superhero movie match up? It doesn’t, but it doesn’t really attempt to. Jon Favreau’s popcorn flick is a different beast to Nolan’s dark vision, a light, bright ying to Knight’s sobering yang.
It’s strange to think of Iron Man as a light film considering how it starts. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), weapons builder extraordinaire, is in a military convoy in Afghanistan and is being something of a conceited little prick when the convoy is ambushed, and Stark is injured and captured by Afghan rebels. Given an ultimatum to build a missile, and an assistant (Shaun Toub), Stark builds a super suit to escape. Throughout this part of the film, issues surrounding the war and those whom it affects are touched upon. Then the suit starts firing missiles and blowing shit up, Stark returns to the States, and those issues are largely forgotten about. The rebels are the same old Muslim bad guys so beloved of 90s action flicks (think True Lies), but placed in a specific location and called Afghans. Meanwhile, Stark attempts to redesign the suit to help those poor folks he left behind. Good for you, rich man! Stark is written as supremely arrogant and is often borderline unlikeable. The only reason that we remain interested in him is that he’s played by Robert Downey Jr. Any other actor would have been a boorish bore, but this is the kind of role Downey Jr.could play in his sleep; he’s so devilishly charming that we’re seduced by his quick wit almost instantly.
When he returns home, Stark has to contend with his disgruntled mentor Obadiah Staine (Jeff Bridges), whilst his military general buddy Rhodes (Terrence Howard) attempts to convince Stark to sell the suit to the military. The heck with that, it’s too much fun to give to soldiers! Howard is forgettable, though I think that’s due more to the writing of his character than Howard himself. Jeff Bridges is never forgettable, but he’s saddled with a stock villain role that underutilizes his considerable talent. Gwyneth Paltrow has some fun with the role of Pepper Potts, Stark’s assistant/love interest, and she and Downey Jr. share some sweet scenes. Jon Favreau enjoys himself with a cameo as Stark’s chauffeur, but he brings little of interest to the film as a director, meaning that there is little in Iron Man to keep it from flitting from your mind once it’s over. The action scenes are slickly rendered and deliver plenty of bang for your buck, but the CG effects are too polished and not particularly gritty or interesting. It all builds to an inevitable mano-a-mano between hero and villain, with little in the way of menace or threat.
Downey Jr. is worth the price of your ticket and, much like its star, Iron Man refuses to take itself too seriously. However, in the summer when the key question was “Why so serious?”, Iron Man may have shot itself in the foot. As it is, it’s decidedly entertaining, but disappointingly forgettable.