Iron Man, partly through sheer entertainment but more so through quality, highlights the deficiencies of Spiderman and its ilk. There is little hiding my dislike of Sam Raimi’s Spiderman franchise, a set of films which, along with X-Men, Hulk, Ghost Rider, Superman Returns and a long list of others, have turned me away from Hollywood’s penchant for the superhero. Small mercy’s aside – Hellboy, Batman Begins/The Dark Knight, Fantastic Four, Unbreakable – the new breed of superhero lacks the sort of creative muscle Superman and Batman were brandishing back in the 1970s and 1980s. What Jon Favreau’s Iron Man highlights is the fact superhero films can still be good movies under the merchandised gloss of their action set-pieces. It also examples the glaring flaws of the Spiderman franchise, a set of films only worthwhile to film students as a guide to contrived teen romance.
Tony Stark is the genius inventor and owner of a military weapons manufacturing company. He’s got everything he ever wanted – women, money, power. When the convoy he’s travelling in is ambushed in Afghanistan, he’s captured and forced to build weaponry for a violent insurgent group. Instead of building a weapon for the group holding him captive, he creates a device he can use to escape with. The device, a reinforced iron suit powered by a tiny nuclear reactor, provides the user with power, protection and ammunition. Finishing the suit, Stark escapes, heading home to perfect the design and add some innovative touches. But, when he thinks all is safe, the iron suit is put the test once again when he discovers the real reason why he was held captive in the Middle East.
Favreau’s Iron Man stakes its claims in a grounded reality governed by technological advancement. This makes the titular character a more authentic proposition. But Favreau also underpins the fantasy with a very contemporary theme – how technology interacts with our lives, and the endless moral dilemma of military weaponry.
Some have criticised Favreau for taking the more realistic elements from the comic book for Iron Man’s first cinematic endeavours but that’s what makes his film so successful. Iron Man, far from being a superhero with supernatural powers, uses technology to dominate his enemies. This in turn highlights the film’s theme of power and greed. If the world’s most powerful weapons can be made, bought and used by the most powerful nation on earth, their mere existence (and destructive capabilities) becomes attractive to those with less than humane ideals. As Stark questions after his captivity, should weapons of strategic and/or mass destruction be built in the first place? For all their protective capabilities, they are only non-destructive if left unused, and as he finds out, no matter what policies are put in place to ensure weapons are in the right hands, they can and indeed do fall into the wrong ones.
Iron Man’s penchant for authentic if far-reaching science is also seen in Jeff Bridges’ cyborg monstrosity which becomes Stark’s chief villain. It’s a predictable plot line – Bridges hardly hides his hatred for the man who has everything: it’s all in those cold, calculating eyes – but he makes a sadistic and believable baddie in the mould of Lex Luther. When the two metal Goliath’s go hammer and tongue there’s a real sense of crushing steel that culminates in the film’s high octane finale. And the iron-crushing battles of the film’s final reels maintain the story’s organic good versus evil motif. And it’s this distinction – greed and commercial extremism versus Stark’s new found values – that puts the film a cut above the rest.
Much of Iron Man’s appeal is down to Robert Downey Jr., an actor who has always had the qualities to be the best of his generation. His problem has been his excessive personal life, but recently, he appears to have got himself back on track. Downey Jr., shows the likes of Tobey Maguire how it should be done with the controlled, confident arrogance of a man who has everything. His transition to prisoner from rich and cultured media God is authentic and restrained. His later obsession with the iron suit is one that comes from a man fighting his own genius, while the flirtatious sexual innuendos between him and Gwyneth Paltrow’s sultry assistant are funny and sexy without degenerating into predictable romance.
What Favreau lacks in visual style he more than makes up for in wit, characterisation and pacing. The film never gets bogged down, as Favreau doesn’t waste the talents of a quality cast. Downey Jr. makes a perfect Tony Stark, and Gwyneth Paltrow a perfect muse. Their interplay provides some of the movie’s finer moments.
At least with Iron Man, unlike so many others, you can safely look forward to the sequel.