Sunday, May 4, 2008

Iron Man

The Summer is off to a good start with Iron Man, a superhero film with a real head on its shoulders. As expected, there’s plenty of action and special effects along the way, but as countless terrible films have proven, smoke and mirrors aren’t enough. Almost all comic book movies have somewhat goofy premises, so it’s ultimately up to the characters to make or break such efforts. Iron Man understands these rules, and I’m pleased to report that characters take center stage in this quality comic adaptation.

Robert Downey Jr. gives a memorable performance as Tony Stark, a brilliant engineer who runs the world’s largest weapons manufacturing company. Stark comes across like a hodge-podge of other movie heroes: he’s a prolific, sharp-tongued, womanizing billionaire, and that’s an interesting place to begin a character’s journey. Much like Bruce Wayne, he has every luxury, but he doesn’t yet have purpose. When a terrorist organization holds Stark hostage and forces him to build missiles, he decides to stop manufacturing weapons of mass destruction and start building something else: something he can use to escape imprisonment and fight injustice.

The character of Iron Man reminds me of Batman mostly because of his origins. He chooses to be a superhero without any obvious powers or genetic mutations. His suit enables him to fly, have super strength, and use all kinds of weaponry, but it’s due to his own invention and craftsmanship. He doesn’t live by Spider-Man’s obligatory creed: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Tony Stark takes on the role solely out of personal conviction, and it’s a joy to see his character develop from a jerk into someone who really cares. Gwyneth Paltrow plays the “Money Penny-ish” Pepper Potts, Stark’s loyal assistant, and Jeff Bridges acts as Stark’s oldest friend and mentor.

Just as Batman Begins made a silly situation seem believable for the first time, so Iron Man succeeds in convincing us of an implausible idea. Iron Man isn’t quite as realistic as Batman Begins, nor is it as superb, but it does work on most levels. Robert Downey Jr. deserves much of the credit; in a difficult part that could have easily been performed all wrong, Downey Jr. makes Stark arrogant, yet lovable. He’s an endearing jerk, which is not an easy balance to achieve.

The visual effects are first-rate, and the story is genuinely compelling, but I’m sorry to say that the film takes some wrong steps in its final Act. Amidst a masterful blend of comic book thrills and genuine drama, the film resorts to a typical superhero finale, filled with some odd character choices and moments of cartoonish action. This mediocre climax feels very out of place, especially given the quality of action that has come before. When Iron Man first flies to the Middle East to unleash justice at the film’s half-way point, the combat scenes aren’t exactly realistic, but they are rewarding. The final battle just feels all wrong when compared to the rest of the film.

However, the last five minutes bring it all back, and the film ends on a fun and unexpected note. There’s also a bonus scene after the credits that will no doubt leave comic book fans cheering. Even though Iron Man takes place in an uncertain time period (combining modern technology like cell phones with futuristic elements like artificial intelligence and holographic computers), the film feels very modern and relevant. Iron Man deserves to be mentioned alongside other significant superhero films. It has its defects, but despite the weight of its flaws, Iron Man soars.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and brief suggestive content.

The violence in this film is on par with most James Bond films. There is one scene of sexuality, but it’s pretty tame. I think most young viewers would enjoy Iron Man, but the violence might be troubling for some. Kids aged 13-and-over will probably do fine; if they’re much younger than that, it depends on what they’ve seen before. People get shot, burned, blown-up, and more, but there isn’t much blood, nor does the violence linger. If you’re familiar with James Bond, you know how this works.

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