Short Version: Best superhero film I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen them all. How can I say that? Well, let’s think about it. Contemporary superhero films were really born with 1978’s Superman, a sappy, sentimental film–yet loved by millions. After a peak with the second film, that series quickly devolved into painful-to-watch schlock, culminating in the unwatchable Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1986). Batman started fresh in 1989, but followed the same pattern: weak start, better second effort, then crashing and burning with 1997’s Batman & Robin. We won’t even mention what Marvel had going on through these years. So essentially, between 1978 and 1997, there were only four superhero films worth paying any attention to, and all four were from DC’s flagship properties. Then, in 1998, Blade redefined what was possible with the genre by taking things seriously and placing the stories in the real world (which has always been one of Marvel’s strongest appeals). Spider-Man and X-Men soon followed, providing strong flagship titles for Marvel. But, as with DC’s franchises, each of the Marvel properties started strong though not perfect, then seemed to peak with their second films, only to slide downward in quality with each of their third outings, though admittedly, not to point of self-satire that Superman and Batman wallowed in. And if they weren’t a part of the two big franchises, Marvel’s outings were met with decidedly mixed responses. Then, by the release of Blade: Trinity in 2004, Marvel films were no longer even breaking new ground. Films were hampered by both budgetary and conceptual problems. The studios didn’t seem to know what to do with these properties anymore, and we were “treated” to a string of nice-looking films, most of which were fairly vacuous when it came to story, vision, and scripting. Again, the Spider-Man and X-Men sequels were the strongest outings, but even they weren’t very well received. DC then struck gold with Batman Begins, essentially borrowing the original Marvel plan for success, with its blend of realistic characterization and high quality acting, script, and direction. Audiences were still hungry for believable superhero action that treated the subject matter seriously. The poor response to the overly nostalgic, and at times, silly and poorly conceived Superman Returns seems to bear this out. Then, in 2005 Variety reported that Marvel would begin producing their own films, retaining the rights to the characters and situations. This opens up all kinds of possibilities regarding a shared Marvel Universe and crossover possibilities in years to come. However, all of that depends upon Marvel being able to successfully bring their films to fruition, and if Iron Man is any indication of how they’re going to go about this, then things look very, very good. Hulk has me worried, though. But, as I said, this is the best superhero film I’ve ever seen. But what’s so great about Iron Man, you ask? Just about every element of the film. And I’m not exaggerating. Plus, there’s a cameo by Rage Against the Machine’s guitar god, Tom Morello as the first terrorist to feel Iron Man’s big metal fist. The script is a solid piece of work (by the writers of Children of Men) that does an excellent job of pacing the development of both the character of Tony Stark and the process of creating Iron Man. While this is a standard trope for the origin film, what makes Iron Man stand out for me is Tony Stark and his journey. What could be boring and tedious is creative and at times, downright hilarious. It was also refreshing to see a hero develop from the self-obsessed lothario, without actually losing the qualities that made him interesting to begin with. Stark isn’t tortured and putting on an act to disguise the hero inside. Stark is the hero. Yes, it takes a dramatic set of circumstances to awaken his sense of moral outrage and personal responsibility, but character isn’t sacrificed to reach this stage. Stark is confronted with a horrific situation, faces his own culpability in that situation, and chooses to change how he lives his life. There’s death and some guilt involved, but it’s about social responsibility more than personal tragedy. This empowers me as the audience in a much more satisfying and less cliché way than your typical superhero mythology. Iron Man is about self-empowerment through intellect and responsibility rather than through accidents of birth, childhood tragedies, or absurd coincidences. Of course, oodles of cash don’t hurt the process. But this is really an ensemble piece, and it’s also about teamwork and friendship, because Iron Man wouldn’t win this fight without Pepper Potts actually lending a physical hand and Rhodey providing military clearance. Sure, Pepper gets threatened and chased around, but she’s never the hostage, used as a pretty weakness with which to threaten our hero. In fact, when the going gets rough, she’s there to blow the roof off the place and save Stark’s life. The friendships work so well thanks to the performances. Terrence Howard plays Rhodey against type, softly, almost effeminately. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts is confident (most of the time) and naturally intimate. Both actors find ways to make you believe that their characters have known Stark for years, just with inflections, glances, and a casualness with each other that seems completely real. This is then driven home by Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as Tony Stark, which is at turns, manic, sleazy, funny, deathly serious, determined, frightened, and filled with childlike wonder. When you see Downey interacting with robots and making it work, you can see just how talented he really is. And if he can make inanimate objects seem like characters, it allows Howard’s and Paltrow’s work to shine all the more. The improvisational interactions and the way the characters speak over one another (in much the same way characters did on The West Wing or Studio 60) also lends to the believability of the relationships. These people talk to each other the way longtime friends talk to each other. The crosstalk is conversational rather than melodramatic, natural rather than forced. These characters don’t spout trite dialogue or bad catch phrases. These people speak and relate to one another in ways you rarely find in a genre film. The special effects, a mixture of wearable costumes, models, and CGI, only slip a few times in action sequences late in the film, drawing attention to themselves as effects. For the most part, thanks to the subtle, and again, casual, inclusion of a variety of advanced technologies (security doors, computer terminals, holographic design software, etc.) when Stark actually builds the Iron Man armor, we can buy it, hook, line, and sinker. This film creates a world where the Iron Man is not only possible, but is absolutely believable. This is further enhanced by the amount of time that is spent on the development and testing of the armor. Whereas in Batman Begins, this process of becoming the hero sometimes came off as a bit too convenient and easy, having Wayne Enterprises developing the variety of items that he needs for his costume and devices or even ordering them from other manufacturers, with Iron Man, there’s a hands-on quality that makes it much more effective. He’s not just buying the toys he needs. He’s building them from the ground up. And anyone who’s ever put their own computer together, upgrading and improving the machine as you need to, knows how much more satisfying it is than just buying one off the showroom floor. Thanks to John Favreau’s direction, this whole film feels effortless, like a love letter to old fans, and an intelligent, sexy seduction to the new. The thing that I like the most about this film, though, is the last spoken dialogue before the credits roll. When Stark looks at the press conference, comments on the absurdity of trying to pass off Iron Man as his bodyguard, and just says, “I am Iron Man,” it’s a kick in the teeth of every mainstream superhero film ever made. It says screw the tired, cliché of trying to find a place to change without anyone seeing; trying to make excuses for why Stark and Iron Man are never in the same place at the same time; pretending to be a vacuous billionaire playboy with a tortured, secret personality (and possibly profound mental illness). Not this time. Stark is the hero. Stark is Iron Man. Stark makes the conscious decision to change his life and be a better person. This isn’t about fate or guilt; it’s about personal responsibility and self-determination. For that alone it goes to the top of my list of favorite superhero films. Throw in the outstanding performances, virtually seamless special effects, and the groundwork that is laid for future films in both its own franchise and as part of a larger Marvel Universe and there’s just no argument. Outside of sentimental attachments to certain characters, I don’t see any way to claim there’s been a better overall superhero film. And then the credits finish rolling and one final scene plays. And it doesn’t get any better than that. You know the scene. Perfect. Iron Man (2008) Review5.0Overall ScoreShare this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.