Character and tone.

Maybe I’m an old man, out of touch with what the kids want out of their
summer movies, but these are the two things that matter most to me. I
don’t go to the movies in the summer expecting a deep examination of
the human condition, or a sou-baring performance. But I also don’t go
for mindless action and overdone CGI. This week I visited Six Flags
Magic Mountain, and while I hate the way some dummies talk about summer
movies as roller coasters, there is a comparison that can be made. Some
roller coasters are poorly designed, tossing out maximum thrills with
minimum fun, while some don’t have as many loops or head-rattling
change-ups but are more fun to ride because of a little spark of charm.

Iron Man
has that spark. It is personified in Robert Downey Jr, whose
performance isn’t Oscar worthy in the traditional sense but is surely
one of the best of the year in terms of sheer magnetism and joy. RDJ is
the film’s best special effect in the movie, giving every single line a
feeling of immediacy, like he just made it up on the spot, like he’s an
impossibly witty, laid back dude who happened to wander in front of a
movie camera. His best roles have always been the ones that feel like
they’re essential extensions of himself – see Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
and in Iron Man Tony Stark is just a finely sculpted goatee from being
our beloved, troubled actor. RDJ uses his personal history and our
affection for him to create this character who is a rascal, a problem
child, but one who we love and for whom we root. Flawed superheroes are
nothing new, but none have been flawed in just this way, and the most
remarkable thing about Downey Jr’s performance is the way he finds the
emptiness just under Tony Stark’s playboy ways, the unspoken (and maybe
unrecognized by himself) part of the character that is looking for
something deeper than dice and dames.

The magic of Downey Jr’s performance doesn’t end there. He lends his
charm and personality to Gwyneth Paltrow, melting the pre-eminent ice
queen of the modern screen. I haven’t felt the humanity in a Paltrow
performance in years (maybe a decade? At least since before The Royal
), but here she’s open and vibrant and alive. And real.
That’s the most remarkable thing about Iron Man – how real almost all
of these characters are without being actually real in any way. They’re
all big, archetypes that are bigger than life and… well, for lack of
a better term, comic booky, characters with traits and not nuance, yet
the actors bring an almost Promethean flame to them, finding depth
that’s not on the page. And it’s not just Paltrow; every actor is
better when sharing the screen with Downey, Jr. Terrence Howard is fine
as Rhodey, Stark’s military liaison, but when he’s in a scene with RDJ
he’s loose, a real guy, not an actor in a scene. Jeff Bridges has some
rough moments in the third act when he has to turn into a cackling
villain, but in the early scenes with Downey, Jr he’s visibly having

That’s the character work. Jon Favreau and his screenwriters – Mark
Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Art Markum & Matt Holloway – bring the
tone. I’ve read arguments that Iron Man is a naturally lighter,
gee-whiz super hero and I frankly don’t see that. The angst is there –
selfish, warmongering billionaire playboy who is mortally wounded and
must invent a power suit to keep himself alive – but Favreau and the
writers don’t bother with it. We’ve seen heroes brood about their lot
in life, we’ve seen playboy billionaires turned grim by their
misfortunes. What’s tonally delightful about Iron Man is that Tony
Stark barely loses a step when his heart is massively damaged – it’s an
obstacle to overcome, one that he, as an inventor and man with a
natural curiousity, sets out to work on and conquer. There’s room for
angst – or worse, heavy handed commentary – when Stark learns that the
weapons that injured him and that are being used against innocent
civilians are of his own design, but Favreau doesn’t dwell. It’s a
dramatic element, it’s acknowledged as something relevant, but the
director knows what kind of movie he’s making. Iron Man is fun, a movie
filled with the excitement and thrill of superheroes, the excitement
and thrill you felt as a kid picking up a flimsy four color comic at
the supermarket when you were nine. The tone is wonder and fun, and
nobody is trying to prove to anybody how adult or serious or
psychologically rich Iron Man is. Sometimes it’s okay to have a good
time, and to do it well.

Character and tone are so important to me that they’ll allow me to give
a summer movie a pass when it comes to the action. There’s no action
scene that’s as exciting as the moments when Stark is perfecting his
new armor in his basement workshop; I don’t know if that’s because the
scenes where we can see Downey Jr’s face are just better than the
scenes with a guy in a suit/a CG actor, or if it’s because Favreau’s
not really an action director. The final battle is certainly an
argument against Favreau; anemic and more than a little perfunctory, it
never takes advantage of the possibilities of two guys in heavily armed
flying suits fighting around Los Angeles. But then again I’d rather
have an hour and forty minutes of glorious character and correct tone
than forty minutes of slam bang action. I’ve already seen Transformers.

There’s been some talk about the bad guys in Iron Man, and I feel like
I should weigh in. In the beginning of the film Tony Stark is ambushed
and captured by a terrorist group known as the Ten Rings (an obvious
nod to original Iron Man villain The Mandarin, who wielded ten alien
rings of power). He’s kept in a cave and guarded by menacing men of
obviously Middle Eastern heritage (although the screenplay goes out of
its way to let us know that one of the men is speaking Hungarian –
there’s an international component to this group). To some people this
is another example of Evil Brown People – a cheap Hollywood shorthand
for villains. To me it’s just logical. Sure, Tony Stark could have been
delivering a new weapons system to some Eastern European breakaway
republic embroiled in a civil war, but there was a reason why comic
book Iron Man’s origin began in Vietnam – it’s current. And while Iron
Man isn’t some kind of commentary film, it’s being very specific in the
way it shows Americans arming terrorists in the Middle East. Tony
Stark’s problems are his own creation, in some ways. Familiar to anyone
who has been following what’s happening in Iraq and Afghanistan. In
fact I feel like having the Ten Rings be set up in some other foreign
troublespot would be a cowardly dodge of real world situations.

This review is a little gushy, but that’s just because Iron Man is the
best superhero movie since Spider-Man 2, and if the film doesn’t meet
Sam Raimi’s near-perfect work, it’s at least on the right track. The
origin story is always the lamest superhero film, and Favreau bucks the
odds by making his number one engaging, fun and exciting (if not in an
action packed way). I can’t wait to see what he and his cast have in
store for us in the sequel.

8.5 out of 10