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Iron Man

dir: Jon Favreau
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The only real criteria I had initially for whether the flick would be great or disastrous shite was the demand that the guitar riff from Black Sabbath’s Iron Man had to be used at least once during the whole experience. So I watched it all, forgetting my initial charge, until the film ended on a deliriously funny high note, with the riff then booming out of the theatre’s speakers. I was pretty damn happy about that.

Still, it shows at the very least how profoundly low my expectations were.

The most surprising element of this whole Iron Man extravaganza is not that Robert Downey Jr is great in the title role (he’s a great actor, fully comfortable with a role that is a gift to him), or that the flick itself is very entertaining. The surprise is that Jon Favreau has now finally made a flick worth watching.

As an actor, he makes a mediocre director, and as a director, he makes a mediocre actor. If you’ve ever seen him, then you know what I mean. He’s a perennial friend to main characters, raising the status of the side-kick to new lows. Generally, except when he’s directing the film, you might see him dangling from the side of taller actors like Vince Vaughn and Vince Vaughn and, um, Ben Affleck. He even has a little role here for himself as the main character’s limo driver. Start swooning now, ladies.

I’m getting far from the point, which is completely and utterly unlike me. The point is, whatever stars converged, whatever forces aligned appropriately and rendered this tidy super hero flick very enjoyable.

Downey Jr seems so comfortable in the role that you wonder if it’s what he’s been waiting for all his career. The role is predominately comedic, but there needs to be substance beneath the characterisation to give it anything more than transitory worth. It’s not a character that lends itself to the painful (and for me, boring) gothic introspection of the Batman character, or the ubermensch isolation of the Man of Steel. But there’s enough to sink one’s mental teeth into the character for his transition from regular joe to super hero to be a meaningful one.

Not that he’s really a regular joe. Tony Stark (Downey Jr) is the engineering genius who sits atop the world’s most advanced weapons manufacturer, Stark Industries. His father worked on the Manhattan Project, and his vast wealth and identity are tied in to how he sees the world (USA #1 and must be militarily strong, the rest can go fuck themselves with his weapons). His mentor and surrogate father figure Obadiah (Jeff Bridges, with shaved head and wispy beard), indulges him as long as company’s stock price remain high.

Stark is a slightly manic, indulgent but brilliant arrested adolescent in a dapper gent’s body. He loves the ladies, but only so long as it takes for one of his assistants, especially the very Miss Moneypenny-ish Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), to dispose of the corpse. I mean, to send the young ladies on their way with a rose and a gentle pat on the derrière.

The company has the latest weapon in freedom’s arsenal to unveil in Afghanistan, being the Jericho, a mountain-destroying missile. Stark is captured by some vaguely Taliban-ish looking jihadi warriors and things look very grim. He is seriously wounded by, you guessed it, on of the very weapons his company created. In fact, the jihadis seem to be very well equipped with the latest weapons in the Stark Industries catalogue. Their very evil leader (Faran Tahir), who we know is evil because of the angry expression on his face and the creepy music that plays whenever he’s on-screen, commands Stark to build a Jericho missile out of the various components they have just lying around.

Instead, with the help of a nice man in similar dire straits working as his doctor/interpreter/assistant, Yinsen (Shaun Toub), he constructs a crude sort of Ned Kelly outfit in order to effect their escape.

Since this is what is known as an origin story, we get to see both the transformation of the person into the super hero, and the development of their philosophy as to why they’re planning on doing what they’re doing. Since Stark operates on the global scale, his task or beat isn’t, I guess, strapping on the armour in order to go after purse snatchers and bank robbers locally. He doesn’t take it upon himself to protect Gotham City, or to fight crime on the local level by swinging through the streets of New York. His job, at least initially, is to stop the harm caused by his own company.

If this film is a towering financial success, and it looks like it’s going to be, you’ve got to wonder what ideologues and warmongers are going to make of it. It’s a pretty potent condemnation of a particular “might makes right” mentality at the heart of many of the world’s conflicts starring the United States in either leading or supporting roles. And it is critical of companies doing what they do without caring about the consequences whilst paying lip service to corporate governance and accountability.

Wow, this sounds about as exciting as the set up in The Phantom Menace, which The Simpsons parodied as being about a war started over elements of trade tax codes and tariff violations. How could audiences fail to masturbate openly in cinemas with such a plot?

But of course no-one should mistake such a setup for being anything like an excoriating, devastating critique of US policy or the military-industrial complex. It’s superficial (it is, after all, a super hero movie) at best, but it does give us something to hold on to intellectually.

The main thing the flick gets right is tone. It avoids camp without going for high seriousness. It’s really quite funny, but not in a way that ridicules the base concept so much that it seems like a satire (like pointing out just how unlikely any of this kind of stuff is), but nor does it wallow in bathetic seriousness so much that it forgets its purpose is to entertain (Batman Begins, Hulk, guilty as charged).

Downey Jr’s interactions with every member of the crew, be it good friend Jim Rhodes (the always dependable Terrence Howard), Pepper, Obadiah, the computer he uses to help him design the Iron Man suit or even a robotic fire extinguisher, all work in ways that rarely work in these kinds of films. We expect and allow for a certain amount of emptiness in these kinds of summer blockbusters, but it’s nice to see it’s not obligatory.

Of course a flick like this is supposed to be about the action, and I have to say that it’s generally pretty strong. The early stuff and subsequent battle in Afghanistan, and Iron Man’s return visit to help out the poor people in some non-descript village, with the US Air Force taking umbrage, is all handled in a careful and sparing manner. The final conflict at the climax of the film, seeing as it plays out a father/son Oedipal battle in literal form in something that could have been out of a Japanese mecha cartoon perhaps wasn’t as interesting to me, but the flick had already won me over by then, and managed to cap everything off with a surprisingly strong ending line.

The CGI is excellent but doesn’t dominate the story. Of course they’re going to spend as much time with Downey out of the suit as possible, since it’s hard to identify with a suit of armour, but they really do nail the suit and the character. The early and Mark II suit construction scenes are all pretty strong, and that great comic book moment where a character experiments with their powers for the first time is really well handled.

There are a few geek moments (as when Rhode’s mobile rings, and the ringtone is the intro from the Iron Man cartoon of the 60s), and, since it’s based on a Marvel comic, the obligatory Stan Lee cameo (very funny in this instance), but mostly the movie is made to appeal to an audience beyond the ranks of basement-dwelling dateless wonders, which is to the flick’s advantage. Basement-dwelling dateless wonders are people too, allegedly, so they’re catered to in a way that isn’t insulting or condescending.

It is a function of every American summer that movies based on comic books are going to come out around this time every year. Most of them are crap. Even the Spider-Man and X-Men franchises have petered out with lacklustre third instalments. Soon there’s the Dark Knight and a Hulk sequel that no-one asked for to look forward to. These flicks are generally forgettable, and for every Iron Man you’re going to get twenty Fantastic Fours, which is a mathematics I can’t understand or calculate.

Iron Man stands above the morass. It’s a strong flick both because of and despite its origins.

And it manages to be bloody entertaining, most of all. That’s all I ever ask of you, Hollywood, you cockteasing bitch.

8 times Robert Downey Junior is an iron god of acting who walks among us out of 10

“They say the best weapon is one you never have to fire. I prefer the weapon you only need to fire once. That's how dad did it, that's how America does it, and it's worked out pretty well so far.” – Iron Man.