Friday Film Focus: Iron Man

Image Source: Screen Rant

With many superhero movies, all you get is the surface of the illusion. With Iron Man, you get a glimpse into the depths. No spider bite or genetic mutation produces him. Rather, he springs from good old American ingenuity. Tony Stark is a character modeled in part on genius-playboy Howard Hughes. Tony Stark is created from the persona Robert Downey Jr. has fashioned through many movies: Irreverent, quirky, self-deprecating, wise-cracking. All the while, he wears his characters’ flaws like badges of honor.

The fact that Downey is allowed to think and talk the way he does while wearing all that hardware represents a bold decision by the director, Jon Favreau. So comfortable is Downey with Tony Stark’s dialogue, that the screenplay seems almost to have been dictated by Downey himself. The entire film (written by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, Matt Holloway), is devoted to how Tony Stark — the top U.S. weapons manufacturer and all-around playboy — becomes Iron Man. A kidnapping by insurgents in Afghanistan forces Tony to invent a crude prototype to escape captivity (his captors are a little too dumb for belief to think he is actually assembling a weapon for them.)

He uses the three months of lockup by insurgents to build an iron suit that powers his shrapnel-shattered heart and helps him escape back to his L.A. workshop. Back in his Malibu home, having witnessed U.S. soldiers slaughtered with his weaponry, he declares himself out of that business for good. While his partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) seizes control of the company, Tony perfects his red-and-gold weapons suit with a somewhat ill-defined plan to use it for good. It’s quite spectacular to rewatch this film knowing how far the Marvel Universe has come. The film neatly borrows from a raft of both real and science-fiction technologies (as well as previous sci-fi movies) to propel the fast-paced two-hour film.

In his home basement, Tony can talk to his computers and robotics while his suit starts to resemble RoboCop on human growth hormones. One of the film’s most delightful scenes has him making a trial run in his warehouse; seamless visual effects allow an encased Tony to hover and rocket around via boot and glove jets. He zooms out of his Malibu headquarters and shoots above Santa Monica on his way to testing the limits of his marvelous invention. Meanwhile, the bad boys back in Afghanistan are patching together the broken remains of Tony’s original improvised suit and wreaking havoc on the local populace with a cache of stolen Stark weapons. It’s easy to see where this is headed. Downey plays off his own bad-boy image wonderfully.

Some superheroes speak in a kind of heightened, semi-formal prose. This isn’t the case with Tony Stark. Iron Man doesn’t seem to know how seriously most superhero movies take themselves. He’s flippant in the face of disaster, casual on the brink of ruin. This is why I think it’s prudent that Favreau positions the rest of the characters in a more serious vein. The supporting cast wisely does not try to one-up Tony. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Pepper Potts as a woman who is seriously concerned that this goofball will kill himself. Jeff Bridges makes Obadiah Stane one of the great superhero villains by seeming plausibly concerned about the stock price. What a horror show it would have been if they were all tuned to Tony Stark’s sardonic wave length. Otherwise, we’d be back on the Swingers set.

Another of the film’s novelties is that the enemy is not a conspiracy or spy organization. In most films in this genre, the goal would be to create bigger and better weapons. How unique that Tony Stark wants to disarm. It makes him a superhero who can think, reason and draw moral conclusions. In revisiting Iron Man after Endgame, the stakes of the Iron Man films are downright quaint. In this one, as with the others to various degrees, Tony’s not out to save the world — but rather his close friends, his business, and his legacy. The movie is largely founded on its special effects. When somebody isn’t talking, something is banging, clanging or laying rubber. The armored robotic suits utilized by Tony and Obadiah would upstage lesser actors than Downey and Bridges; it’s surprising how much those two giant iron men seem to reflect the personalities of the men inside them.

At the end of the day it ‘s Robert Downey Jr. who powers the lift-off separating this from most other superhero movies. You hire an actor for his strengths, and Downey would not be strong as a one-dimensional mighty-man. He is strong because he is smart, quick and funny. Iron Man works tremendously well because Favreau is too funky to settle for slick. Lastly, Downey does something even more resonant for this flying hunk of metal: He gives Iron Man a soul.