Ever since Spider-Man and X-Men reiterated that superhero films could be sources of massive revenue, the summer movie landscape has become increasingly stratified. Between May and September, releases tend to fall into a mold that has less wiggle room every year: sequel-friendly explosions of action and color that feature just enough character to justify A-list talent. (In case the paycheck wasn’t enough.) But the movies seem a lot less fun now than they did a few years ago.
That being the case, a smart and infectious dedication to entertainment is enough to make Iron Man seem like a slam dunk. With low-key direction that proves surprisingly appropriate, Jon Favreau harnesses every charming smirk in Robert Downey, Jr.’s repertoire to forge an icon from a self-made jerk who sees the light and transforms into a self-made hero. He’s the ultimate symbol of modern masculinity. From early scenes of smug corporate debauchery to the movie’s final, crowd-pleasing line, this is a movie that knows exactly how to make us identify with and elevate the fantasy figure at its core.
Wunderkind Tony Stark (Downey) is a mechanical genius and the inventive brain behind weapons manufacturer Stark Industries. When Stark is wounded and taken captive by an extremist group in Afghanistan he creates a power supply to keep his heart beating and a mechanical suit to facilitate his escape. Upon his return to the States, the budding hero discovers his conscience, discontinues Stark Industries’ weapon production and consequently butts heads with company chairman Obediah Stane (a bald, bearded and ferocious Jeff Bridges).
Robert Downey, Jr doesn’t just fit the suit; he owns the movie. As Tony Stark, he’s the heart and soul of this machine, and with no qualifications represents the best match between actor and role in any superhero movie. I’ll reiterate that what distinguishes Iron Man is that it is tremendous fun, and most of that is due to the sheer charisma of the movie’s lead.
Downey is so seductive that it’s easy to overlook a raft of evident shortcomings. I’m not talking about the score, which blatantly pines for the strains of Black Sabbath’s ‘Iron Man’ (not heard until the closing credits) by indulging in comparatively weak guitar riffage at every opportunity. Nor the plot’s weak foundations, which include Obediah Stane’s quick descent into madness or the homicidal militants who give Stark ingredients to concoct a weapon and allow him to work unsupervised, the better to make something that suits his needs rather than theirs.
OK, fine. The militants do represent the issues I’m mentally stamping out in order to see and enjoy the movie again. In effect I’m compartmentalizing some of my reactions; while on the surface I had a great time with Favreau’s movie, underneath there are some deep misgivings about the war it wages.
Some critics have expressed resentment with respect to the fact that Iron Man will no doubt be the only movie about the war on terror to find a massive audience, but it’s not that point that irks me. Instead, it’s the same old thing: Hollywood movie = bad brown people. When you’ve got a character as relatively well-realized as Tony Stark there’s no excuse for the one-dimensional extremists that represent evil in this world. This group is complex enough to negotiate arms deals with major Western powers and smart enough to dominate a region, yet so brutally simple-minded that Golan and Globus would swell with pride.
What’s more, as Iron Man, Stark takes up arms against the evil insurgents with crushingly violent force. Jon Favreau is tasteful enough to not shower the screen with viscera every time a bad guy is demolished, but ‘demolished’ remains the fate of Iron Man’s foes. Stark fights evil with repulsors meant to reorient jets in flight, with rockets and flame, and often with fists enhanced with the most sublime military technology in the world. We don’t see soldiers splattered into goo, but what do you think happens when Iron Man meets regular man?
That, of course, is exactly why a lot of fans will be ecstatic. The superheroes substitute clever non-lethal force for killing technology, but regardless of good intent, Tony Stark’s suit is the most lethal thing we’ve yet seen fighting for ‘good’ in a comic-book movie. Should it be this much fun to be vicious? It’s easy (and one-sided) for me to type out a screed about how Iron Man treats our ‘enemies’ but I can’t lie and say I didn’t feel a surge of ‘Oh, yeah!’ well up when Stark punches men out of their shoes. That’s right: this movie can make a jerk-off liberal cheer like a conservative Kool-Aid Man.