Kicking off a movie season that just keeps getting earlier, Iron Man rocks and roars into summer as the latest Marvel comic book film to score big at the box office. Former Oscar nominee Robert Downey, Jr. stages a blazing comeback as Tony Stark, bad boy weapons expert turned hero, by donning a mechanical super suit that’s powered by the world’s classiest pacemaker. The suit is Downey’s most constant costar throughout the film as Iron Man flits back and forth between close-ups of Downey and then of the suit flexing and flying, thus ensuring maximum audience drooling.
Even before the suit makes it appearance, Iron Man opens with a bang when Stark’s weapons demonstration in an unknown desert region is hijacked by a gang of Middle Eastern baddies packing heat. The origin story is set in motion when Stark realizes that his kidnappers are using his own weapons technology to hold him captive as they vie for world domination. Our would-be hero just ain’t having that and so he forges a rough draft of his super attire out of some scrap metal he cobbles together in the cave where he’s being held. We ask many things from our superhero origin stories but plausibility isn’t one of them.
As a real life former bad boy himself, Downey glides easily into the role of Tony Stark, the playboy behind the armor, flirting aimlessly with random women and guffawing with all the envious guys. Grown-ups familiar with Downey’s checkered past are supposed to wink at each other knowingly when Downey waxes less than poetically about how Stark is more rakish cad than hero. But it’s Downey who gets the last laugh by adding his name to the growing list of bankable everymen — from Toby Maguire as Spider-Man and Christian Bale’s Batman to Edward Norton’s turn in this June’s The Incredible Hulk — all redefining who audiences today picture when they ponder their supermen.
Unfortunately, Iron Man’s cartoonish dialogue leave Downey’s long regaled acting chops severely underused. In this superficial special effects extravaganza, his charisma and simmering smile garner only some weak laughs before a few pratfall gags really grab the audience’s attention. As is so often the case in superhero storytelling, the man behind the mask is clearly upstaged by the stellar computer graphics that fashion the man’s super suit and super toys. Iron Man’s superb hyper-realistic special effects are an awe-inspiring tribute to the gift that computer graphics has been to the big screen and namely, superhero films. Still, vivid shots of the hot suit or not, it’s hard to overlook Downey’s smooth delivery of imminently droll lines. Luckily, the raging rock and roll soundtrack cues in at just the right spots to prevent most audience eye rolling.
And yet, despite the weak dialogue, ever since Halle Berry followed an Oscar win with a return as X-Men’s Storm in X2, more distinguished actors have been taking time off from more Shakespearean pursuits to make appearances in even the most staid superhero flicks. After all, just what was Jennifer Connelly doing in the last Hulk? Iron Man’s boasts an all-star cast that includes Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow, a yawn-worthy love interest/personal assistant; past Oscar nominee Jeff Bridges appears as the bald and bearded, smarmy villain (no really, Jeff Bridges); and past Oscar nominee Terrence Howard hunkers down as the buddy, a military contact who eyes the Iron Man suit with longing. Though Paltrow’s role as bland caricature Pepper Potts makes Kirsten’s Dunst’s turn as Mary Jane in Spider-man seem particularly meaty, it seems to be industry standard these days to prop up the main attraction with a group of more than formidable equally bankable talent.
In the end, the loud smash ‘em and bash ‘em rock-and-roller that is Iron Manresembles neither Batman Begins nor (thankfully) Fantastic Four, lacking the depth of the first and the more cotton candy aspects of the latter. It’s merely a serviceable but entertaining addition to the burgeoning list of superhero franchises and their never-ending sequels. Iron Man gets the job done by offering up the thrilling taste of the fun and vapidity we’ve come to expect from our summer blockbusters while teasing us gloriously about summers to come. Stay after the credits roll and it becomes clear that this caramelized movie vehicle was only meant to whet our appetite: Iron Man 2 is already a go.