Sunday, May 4, 2008

IRON MAN - movie review


IRON MAN, the unquestioned opening gong, signaling the birth of the big 2008 summer blockbuster season, is upon us!

First, I'm going to tell you how good I thought it was, but after that I'm going to go into some detail about why I liked it, which will contain spoilers. So if you're planning to see this film, but haven't yet, don't read past the warning.

Iron Man is a super hero and an action movie with a lot of heart. I had heard a lot of rave reviews, and I have to agree that this film was completely enjoyable - on par with the first Spider-Man movie. And, like Spider-Man (2002), it is an origin story (possibly the first of its own trilogy), which always seems to have a powerful appeal in Super Hero films, be it Spider-Man, Batman or Superman (and to a lesser extent, X-Men (2000) and Hulk (2003)... to a MUCH lesser extent).

Iron Man certainly benefits - skyrockets to success, even - from the casting of the brilliant Robert Downy Jr., who, as the tech-prodigy-playboy-turned-rocket-man Tony Stark, can deliver a mediocre joke - scripted or improvised - dryer and funnier than almost anyone. And yet, he can turn around and be as passionate and convincingly determined as anyone, as well.   This guy's range is incredible. From comedic roles like Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005) or even Air America (1990), to tragic or otherwise dramatic figures in films like A Scanner Darkly (2006), Charlie Bartlett (2007) or Zodiac (2007), Downy far exceeds his real life drama with drugs and alcohol with his on-screen talents.

Downy defines his own portrayal of comic book author/legend Stan Lee's character thusly: "a challenge of making a wealthy, establishmentarian, weapons-manufacturing, hard-drinking, womanizing prick into a character who is likable and a hero."  (By the way, keep your eyes peeled for another great and endearing cameo appearance by Iron Man creator, Stan Lee, in this film - hilariously well done!)

Director John Favreau (who also gives himself a bit part as Stark's limo driver) demonstrates mastery of the art of "Hollywood blockbuster direction" after a few only-okay movies (Zathura, which I never saw... and Elf, which... actually, was pretty funny), and smaller, more personal comedies like Swingers and Made.  Favreau sets his world of Iron Man not in a dark, twisted fantasy plane like Tim Burton's Gotham City from Batman (1989) (or even that of the conservative Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins (2005)), but in a more realistic and plausible (even if far-fetched) reality, like Sam Rami's New York, in Spider-Man.

Terrence Howard is passable as the inside man in this film - "Commissioner Gordon" to Iron Man's "Batman" (although he has a much bigger role to play in the sequels, so his character is just subtly being set up here), as is Gweneth Paltrow in her role as (the more romantic and desirable version of "Alfred" -) Virginia "Pepper" Potts, Stark's personal assistant and sidekick. 

Jeff Bridges is dominating as the double-crossing villain, Obadiah Stane/"Iron Monger", Iron Man's biggest nemesis, but ultimately seemed an odd choice for the role.  The cast is well-rounded, with some other great villains (even if they're not "super"), like Faran Tahir (recently seen on TV's "LOST") and enabling sidekicks, like the notable performance by Shaun Toub (also from "LOST") as Yinsen, the man who makes Stark's prototype Iron Man suit ("Mark I") possible.

Apparently, Samuel L. Jackson makes an appearance in this film (stick around after the credits) as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury.  We can only assume that he's up for a major role in a sequel.

The score, composed by Ramin Djawadi, is always perfectly invisible. It's not that it's subtle or underscoring, but always perfectly appropriate, to the point that it never upstages the action or draws attention to itself, just as a good score does. From iMDB's comments, "[director] Jon Favreau advised composer Ramin Djawadi to keep the core of the music on heavy guitar, which he felt suited Iron Man best. Djiwadi composed the music on a heavy guitar before arranging it for the orchestra to perform."

This film also benefits by keeping the action sequences short, tight and evenly spaced apart, and surrounding them with engaging drama.  Although some scenes are predictable, they are obviously necessary and well executed.  Like, Spider-Man, Iron Man leans heavily on character development, resulting in a story about a character into whom we - the audience - are heavily invested... and it pays off.  

The film doesn't take itself too seriously, and it never gets too goofy, campy or, as we say in the business: "Batman & Robin-ish".  It's not dark, but it's not cheery and innocent.  There's a bit of language, a hint or two of sexual content, and plenty of violence. (So please, deadbeat Dads, don't take your 4-year old sons to this one.  He won't understand it and it's inappropriate for a child.  Just buy him the toy and keep him at home where his feet can't possibly touch the back of my theater seat.)

As Marvel's first fully self-financed film, and compared to the slew of super hero movies we've seen in the last decade, Iron Man is a winner.

4 and a half stars (out of 5)!  Check it out!

NOW...

"WHY THIS FILM WORKS SO WELL"
*****SPOILER ALERT***** 
(IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE FILM, READ AT YOUR OWN RISK)

This film - and this story - lend heavily from proven methods.  The most notable comparison I made was with the story of "Batman".  

Tony stark is very much like a West Coast Bruce Wayne - a millionaire playboy, a brilliant engineer, head of a major company that bears his name, lives in a huge mansion that serves as a base of operations, and has a personal assistant who knows his secret identity and is his only family.  He is as human as you or me - that is to say, he has no "super powers" - and as such, he is as susceptible to injury and death as any man.  He creates a suit and secret identity with which he can defend the innocent people of the world, and as Batman can swing and glide, Iron Man can rocket around the globe in record time.  But the inevitable question comes up with this comparison, and the answer is simple: Iron Man could easily kill the dark knight.  Sorry, Bruce.

Also, Stan Lee's original story, as well as the film's screenplay, borrow from several themes of ancient literature and stages from Joseph Campbell's "Hero's Journey".  

The character of Tony Stark, who starts out in "conventional slumber" as a "merchant of death", caught up in his world of money, power and fame, is captured by soldiers of fortune ("The Call To Adventure") and imprisoned in a cave in Afghanistan, which Campbell may call "The Belly of the Beast": the place where things cannot possibly get any worse, and which serves as a chrysalis where a true metamorphosis may take place.  It is here where Tony Stark truly becomes Iron Man both physically and spiritually.  This is where he "grows a heart" (as Yensin builds him an electromagnet fixed into his chest cavity which keeps the deadly shrapnel metals in his body from entering his heart, killing him) and transforms him from a "merchant of death" to an "iron" MAN - solid and righteous; impenetrable.

Yensin, himself, is sort of wizard who embodies the role in Campbell's "Monolyth" of the "Helper with the Amulet."

"During the early stages of the journey, the hero will often receive aid from a protective figure. This supernatural helper can take a wide variety of forms, such as a wizard, and old man, a dwarf, a crone, or a fairy godmother. The helper commonly gives the hero a protective amulet or weapon for the journey."  This is exactly what Yensin gives Stark in the form of his protective chest plate.

Yensin's magnetic "heart" shines brightly, even through Stark's clothes, as an ever-present reminder of his metamorphosis.  Stark even makes it visible through every version of the Iron Man suit, radiating proof that - robotic as he may appear - "Tony Stark has a heart".  And when Obadiah Stane builds his Iron Monger suit, it can't even be powered without Stark's chest plate, reminding us subconsciously that, as Stane has no "heart", he cannot be an "iron man".  Thus, Stane is forced to steal Stark's "heart" to operate his Iron Monger suit, and ultimately it's still not enough.  Only the true hero's heart can win out in the end.

As Stark emerges from the caves of Afghanistan a new man, he announces that Stark Industries - his inherited, long-time war-profiteering company - will no longer build weapons.  Thus his peers, closest friends and board of directors all decide that he must be insane and suffering from post-traumatic stress.  But having gone through this death and resurrection in the cave, Stark is enlightened and sees what the sleeping masses cannot see.  He sees the bigger picture, that his weapons kill as many Americans as they serve, and that in the end, building weapons keeps no peace.  The separation from the superficial "self" that allows for this sort of clarity is the basis for all concepts of enlightenment, as Jesus, Buddha, Krishna and Rumi can all tell you.  Stark sees a "truth" to which all others around him are "asleep" or "unconscious."  When his good friend, James "Rhodey" Rhodes, suggests that "What you need is some time to get your head right," Stark struggles to hide the smile that washes over his face.  He cannot help but laugh at the backward logic, and the irony that he once would have agreed with it.

The film also plays the old fashioned "damsel in distress" card, as Iron Man battles to save the life of poor, helpless Pepper Potts from the grips of the evil Iron Monger.  If this had been a Quentin Tarrentino flick, or by any female screenwriter or director, Pepper would have kicked the villain's ass herself, but in classic fairy tale fashion, all she can do is stand there, look pretty and scream, "Iron Man! Save me!" (- not an actual quote... that's sarcasm).  And as politically incorrect as this scenario might be by today's standards, it still has an effect on the collective psyche based on the stories and images upon which we were all raised.  Iron Man becomes a classic "white knight" in this way.

For all those reasons and more, Iron Man is made a powerful story and screenplay through the use of ancient, proven story techniques which are so often forgotten in Hollywood today.  And that is why this film will do so well in the long run.  

Congrats, Iron Man.

1 comment:

bark2themoon said...

Wasn't John Favereau in another movie with Jeremy Piven, titled PCU? My g/f pointed that out when we saw it.