Long-time readers of this site are probably aware that I've been waiting for the film adaptation of Iron Man since it was announced in 2006. In many ways, I've been waiting for it my whole life.
I remember quite vividly where my infatuation with Iron Man began - at a truck stop on I-35.
I was 10 years old, traveling with my parents on a weekend get away to Kansas City. We pulled over at a truck stop to stretch our legs and pick up some snacks. Looking through the magazine rack, I saw the cover to Iron Man #218 peeking through. A man in a metal suit diving underwater. "Mom? Will you buy this for me?"
For the rest of that drive, I was glued to that book. I flipped through it over and over. I knew nothing about Iron Man at that point, but the concept of this high-tech man in shining armor struck me immediately and I haven't really looked back since.
Over the years, my affinity for the character grew largely in part to his look and evolution, but also for the character flaws that are a staple of all Marvel characters.
Tony Stark, more than most, exemplifies this mold of the flawed hero. An alcoholic, a womanizer, a reckless risk-taker, a weapons designer and war profiteer. On paper, there's not much to admire. But it's how Stark overcame those flaws to become Iron Man that makes him one of the most emotionally rich characters in the Marvel universe.
Fortunately, all of these elements translate beautifully into Jon Favreau's big screen version of Iron Man thanks, in large part, to his talented cast and the expert performance of Robert Downey Jr.
Downey Jr. plays Stark with his trademark detached charm. With a glass of bourbon in his hand, he jokes and kids - but all of it masks a profound disinterest and boredom with the fame and success his genius brought him. It's not until a fateful trip to Afghanistan that Stark's view of reality comes crashing down around him.
After demonstrating the destructive force of a newly designed missile to military brass, his convoy is attacked by insurgents armed with weapons of his own design. Mortally wounded, he is kidnapped, but kept alive by his attackers who employ another captured scientist named Yinsen to install an electromagnet into Stark's chest to keep shrapnel from entering his heart and killing him.
Seeing first-hand the human toll of his weapons, Stark upgrades his power source and sets out to build a bulletproof suit of armor to aid in his escape. While the build up is slow, the unveiling of the Mark I armor is especially brutal and you get a real sense of the clunky, ground-shaking power of the crude design.
Back home, Stark immediately announces the end of weapons manufacturing days. As the value of his company plummets, Stark holes up in the basement garage of his cliffside Malibu home and begins to refine the suit that led to his salvation.
The second act of the film deals almost exclusively in this refinement, and it's a joy to watch. Iron Man isn't a hero who is delivered his power by circumstance. He literally builds it from the ground up. So it's interesting to watch the process. After a serious of tests, when Stark decides to take the fight to the warlords who held him captive and destroy their weapons depot, the movie kicks into high gear.
Meanwhile, at home, Stark's business partner (played with a "trust me" grin from a bald and bearded Jeff Bridges) tries to wrestle control of the company away and introduces the threat of the hulking Iron Monger to Stark's Golden Avenger.
That's a lot of exposition and, if anything, it's Iron Man's biggest hinderance. Origin stories are typically laborious and die-hard fans are left chomping at the bit for more superhero action while the rest of the audience catches up.
Iron Man is redeemed from this common pitfall thanks to the effervescent pop of its principal cast. Watching them all on screen together instantly brings credibility to the piece.
Downey Jr. is Tony Stark. There is no question about it. He understands the folly of ego and the valor in redemption. As his adversary, Bridges is a credible threat - as ruthless as Stark is brilliant and barely keeping his a seething torrent of angry and resentment in check.
Terrance Howard as Stark's friend James "Rhodey" Rhodes plays an excellent straight man to Downey Jr's wisecracks and Gweneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts matches wits round by round with Stark and is more winning and enjoyable in this performance than she has been in years!
If I have a complaint about the film it's that the final confrontation isn't as long as I would like. Also, Iron Man heads into battle at half power. I understand why the filmmakers did this in order for Stark to overcome the odds, use his brain instead of his brawn and come out on top looking like the hero... but there is a more satisfying display of the armor's power at the end of the second act that feels much more cathartic.
Still, leave the audience wanting more, right? It's probably a big reason I plan on seeing the film a second time. Not just to see more action, but to process everything more thoroughly. After 5 months in cold storage, Hollywood has awoke with a bright and bold action movie. It was like a feast and I was absorbing all of it. Now that I know where some of the punches land, it will be easier to go back and watch the film a little more relaxed.
As a reviewer, I've probably diminished my credibility when it comes to Iron Man. Even if the movie had been terrible, I probably still would have recommended it. So some of you might take what I say with a giant boulder of salt.
But the further away I get from it, the more I appreciate the simple elegance of it. Iron Man delivers in the ways that a big summer action movie should. It's shot with a sense of urgency and impact, the set design is gorgeous, the performances are entertaining and the effects work is jaw-dropping.
After a crippling lack luster first quarter, Iron Man is the movie we've all been waiting for and it more than lives up to the hype.