Why? Well, just consider titles such as Blade: Trinity, Spider-Man 3 and X-Men: The Last Stand. These were big (Marvel) franchise films scuttled by their own grandiose pretensions; films that couldn't muster much energy, intelligence or heart the third time around. Not that they were Catwoman-awful or anything, just that the perhaps-inevitable "creep" of sequel-itis had infected their DNA...making the would-be "event" films feel overstuffed, shallow and lacking in thrills, not to mention originality. Even new Marvel film franchises such as Ghost Rider seemed to be running on empty, re-telling the same "origin" story we'd seen a million times before; with all the perfunctory bells and whistles we'd come to expect in this age of big-budget "superheroes triumphant," The genuine high of the original Spider-Man (2002) or DC's brilliant Batman Begins (2005) seemed absent from all of these highly-anticipated releases, and so I pinned my dwindling hopes on this summer's The Dark Knight.
Turns out I don't have to wait that long...
Jon Favreau's Iron Man (2008) is a boisterous and fun-filled roller coaster ride, an intelligent yet jaunty shot in the arm for a waning genre, and more so, one of the finest superhero films ever crafted. I still count Superman: The Movie (1978) as the very best, but Iron Man rockets to the upper echelons of my "top ten" list; vaulting itself over Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2 and even the amazing Batman Begins.
Iron Man's screenplay by Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby is a surprisingly sturdy (and witty) foundation for this franchise, but the film soars due to the inspired and electric lead performance by Robert Downey Jr., an actor I normally like, but don't love. I have enjoyed (at least intellectually...) Downey's work in films such as The Singing Detective, but I never felt the actor was really engaged with the material he was given. In other words, in some films, I felt Downey was above the material -- quirky, and out to amuse himself but not always the audience. However, this flaw is - amazingly - not at all the case in Iron Man.
With his staccato, whip-smart delivery, dynamic physical presence and deep, wounded eyes (which speak of a thousand heart-breaks), Downey totally inhabits the role of millionaire genius Tony Stark. It is an engaging performance, to say the least, and Downey's final line reading (the one that climaxes the film), is a burst of manic energy and humor so potent, so unexpected, so irrationally exuberant, you leave the theater riding a natural high. His enjoyment of the work here is positively infectious. I know the Academy doesn't consider superhero films serious business, but Downey has done the virtually impossible here: forged a multi-faceted, three dimensional character while vetting a crowd-pleasing, mainstream blockbuster. Someone nominate this guy for an Oscar. Seriously.
I realize that Iron Man/Tony is a different brand of hero from Bruce Wayne or Peter Parker, but at this point in superhero film history, it's a sigh of relief to encounter a hero who isn't overtly down-in-the-mouth, taciturn and angsty. Stark has his various and sundry pains, of course, (which he buries in drink and...other vices), but he's not a constant mope. It's clear he's "turned on" by the possibilities of life (whether sexy women, sporty cars, or the chance to develop the latest body armor) and that's a distinction worth noting. I hate how these days everyone with super powers or super resources mopes around like a loser, so sad at the "burden" they bear. Bruce Wayne might be a playboy millionaire, but next to Downey's Tony Stark, he's a lugubrious poser.
In fact, Iron Man's big theme ties directly into Stark's feisty persona: it's about taking personal responsibility for one's irresponsible actions (or even a lifetime of irresponsible actions); for making good when you've done bad, or have been just plain thoughtless because you were busy screwing around. Looking at Downey (and knowing his history with drink and drug addiction), you can guess the actor understands something about that notion. But Iron Man also isn't a straight-up vigilante like Batman is these days, and nor is the film about an abstract platitude, like "with great power comes great responsibility" (courtesy of your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man). On the contrary, Iron Man feels so real vibrant, so alive, so relevant, because the film's thrust is more "shit, I fucked up, now I gotta do something about it." I find that approach refreshing and more authentic to human nature than what we've seen in some recent superhero flicks. Iron Man wants to do good, but he's also having a hell of a time...
It's tempting to turn this review into a (very long) laundry list of all the things that Iron Man gets absolutely right. In terms of presentation, it deploys picture-perfect CGI to create its armor-plated heroes (and you all know how I hate CGI, but I've never seen better...). The film is truly exhilarating in the action scenes, and some of the Iron Man flight scenes are jaw dropping. Additionally, Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr. share great romantic chemistry and their moments together crackle with energy.
Delightfully, Iron Man isn't overstuffed with over-the-top villains either (again, see Spider-Man 3), and Jeff Bridges is impressive as the primary antagonist. There's also some great social commentary about America's role in the War on Terror world. It's not heavy-handed, it's not mindlessly dark, and it is surprisingly even-handed, not overtly liberal or conservative on its face. On this front, it champions unilateralism but - unlike our current Administration - responsible unilateralism. Tony Stark's desire to do right emerges not from ideology or politics, but from his human heart (ironic, no?) and his connection to other human beings, some of whom he has harmed through his utter thoughtlessness. Stark has grown wealthy by making and selling weapons of destruction, but he's been so busy acting the playboy he never saw the real lives those weapons destroyed. Until now. Given this set-up, Iron Man is a story of redemption.
The best superhero films are those that speak to their times in a potent way. Superman: The Movie commented on Watergate, most notably in Superman's line to Lois Lane that he would never "lie" to her. It also served as a Christ metaphor, speaking to the secular 1970s' longing for a messiah..someone to save the disco decade American citizen from such looming crises as the Energy Crisis, Watergate, Vietnam, Inflation, etc. I believe Iron Man will similarly stand the test of time, because it examines the uneasy and double-edged sword of American military and technological might in this post-911 world. In Gulmira (a town in the Middle East), Iron Man is indeed greeted like a liberator. He frees the people there from brutal warlords. But at the same time time, Iron Man's Halliburton-like company is selling WMDs to terrorists who would oppress the very same poor and the weak people of Gulmira. Iron Man ultimately decides to clean house at home, as well as internationally, but that's a step America hasn't yet taken. Instead, that internal cleansing is coming in November 2008. Whether we install Obama or McCain in the White House after the election, millionaire Darth Cheney with his unsavory connection to Big Oil, Halliburton and the craven Neo-Cons will be history. He is the corrupt, craven "stain" (the Obidiah Stane?) America must cleanse as we navigate our role in a complex world.
Going further, Iron Man suggests something interesting about the state of modern technological warfare. The flow and development of weaponry in the post-911 Age has been towards less and less direct human involvement. Today we have pilot-less flying drones dropping bombs on cities with "shock and awe." We have cruise missiles launched at cities from distant ships at sea. There's a widening disconnect between the man who controls the weapon and the decision to kill, even the kill point. But most importantly, the man who presses the button isn't up close and personal to see the victims; to judge the results of his actions. Now, these technological advancements have saved American lives - a very noble cause - but they have also made warfare infinitely easier and cleaner. And ultimately, that's a terrible thing, because war should be the last available option, right?
Iron Man comments on this trend beautifully because Tony Stark's invention - a titanium, flying mechanical suit - puts man front and center again, in control of the technology and present on the field of battle. And as soon as man is back in war face-plate to face-plate...he sees the horrors of war for what they are, and realizes it should not be engaged in lightly. Iron Man is simultaneously pro-American and anti-war, and it identifies two potent enemies of our age: those dictators who would oppress the weak (Middle Eastern here...), and those bastards in big-business, in the military-industrial complex, who would profit by selling destructive weapons to those self-same dictators.
Of late, even the best superhero movies have veered off track in the third and final act. Even the laudable Batman Begins turns to a confusing mess in its busy, loud, overlong climax. Iron Man avoids this pitfall, and with Downey as the master of ceremonies in this particular circus, that means the film is a wild, enjoyable ride from start to finish. Iron Man never missteps and so - when Downey memorably utters his final, giddy line and the end credits roll, you feel jazzed and inspired instead of beaten down. Iron Man is a great superhero film, a great time at the movies, and one hell of a summer ride.