Comic-book movies—like sodas, secret sauces, and chili recipes—have always been defined by their formulas. Most have followed the accepted generic formula: nice guy finishes first by becoming a hero, conquering a bad guy for all the right reasons, and getting the girl. These stories have traditionally unfolded in a parallel universe where the men are men, the women are women, and the colors are all primary.
The more “post” our “modernism” becomes, though, comic book movies have aged into something like maturity. With studios at last convinced of the marketing power behind these modern myths, they’re willing to invest in the sharpest of pop-cultural talent to best exploit such properties for years to come. It’s still a tricky prospect—sometimes the studios score with a Chris Nolan (whose dark relaunch of Batman suits general audiences and critics alike); sometimes an auteur crawls too far into art for general consumption (Ang Lee with his undervalued Hulk).
These are the gambles worth taking. What’s the alternative? If you’ve ever seen Daredevil, you know. We can all breathe a sigh of relief that Marvel Studios and Paramount leapt off the cliff with director Jon Favreau (Elf) to shepherd Iron Man to the screen in a film that immediately flies into the stratosphere of comic-book movies. Though the requisite ingredients haven’t changed, Favreau has taken his cues from Nolan to make Iron Man, the film, true to Iron Man the character while still relevant to the present moment.
Favreau fully respects the material, and brings to the table a highly developed sense of humor and—praise the heavens—taste. He’s assembled a cast comparable in quality to that of Batman Begins: Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man, Gwyneth Paltrow as his personal assistant “Pepper” Potts, Terrence Howard as U.S. Army Weapons Development coordinator James “Rhodey” Rhodes, Jeff Bridges as the troublesome Obadiah Stane, and Shaun Toub as Dr. Yinsen. All contribute mightily to the film's success, with Bridges a particular delight in a role with twisted allusions to his work in Tron and Tucker: The Man and His Dream.
Of course, the key element is Downey, who gives another of his ever-brilliant, seemingly improvised performances. An added frisson comes from Downey contributing his inimitable, nutso style to such a mainstream franchise: you just can’t get this anywhere else. It’d be like setting Jack Nicholson loose—in his prime—in the role of Spider-Man. Consider this exchange between Downey's Stark and Leslie Bibb's reporter Christine Everhart:
Everhart: You've been called the DaVinci of our time...
Stark: Ridiculous. I don't paint.
Everhart: What do you say to your other nickname, the Merchant of Death?
Stark: That's not bad.
And yet Downey’s performance is so expertly calibrated that it never seems like a gamble: he’s a comic force, but whenever matters get unavoidably serious, the actor hones his chi into a central “arc reactor” of soulful focus. He’s just the guy to play a larger-than-life industrialist/scientific genius/social dervish/iron-armored superhero. I mean, who else would play it? Ashton Kutcher?
Iron Man begins with an involved origin-story passage set mostly in Afghanistan, where the CEO of Stark Industries blithely unveils a new weapon of mass destruction, then discovers how easily his weapons can be acquired and “repurposed” by less moneyed extremists than himself (led by Faran Tahir’s Raza). Wounded within an inch of his life, then taken hostage, Stark is, at first, forced into action: he must rely on technology (most of it his own) to save his life and live to fight another day in an armored supersuit (despite the title, it's "gold titanium alloy"). With the new ability to fly and to harness powerful defensive weapons, Stark has some thinking to do about the great responsibility that comes with great power.
Stark’s worldview reorientation gives the film a strong modern-myth hook. Unlike Bruce Wayne, this playboy isn’t just pretending to be a wanton rake: he is one. And so it’s a figuratively sobering jolt to his system to recognize how deeply he’s implicated in global unrest—and he’s twice as heroic for not just being innately good, but actively and repeatedly choosing it after a largely misspent life (a witty montage narrated by Will Lyman shows Stark’s rise alongside business partner Stane).
What's perhaps most surprising about Iron Man is how well paced it seems for a 126-minute movie with a three-act structure (origin, training, and showdown with bad guy) that delays what is arguably the central conflict. Favreau never lets the film indulge any one idea for too long at a stretch, though he's keenly aware that certain relationships must be developed in largely predictable ways. Like its hero, the film impressively jets along to, well, the inevitable metal-on-metal climax. As with so many superhero movies, the pressure of the big finish gets to Iron Man a bit, especially in what seems a rather lazy solution to defeating Iron Monger, a well-matched opponent.
But this minor quibble won't leave audiences dissatisfied. Crucially, the film's focus on social responsibility makes it pleasingly thoughtful, especially given what's bound to be a young-skewing audience. Though not as subversive as Paul Verhoeven's blockbuster satire Robocop, Iron Man comes similarly medicinal, but with heapfuls of sugar in the forms of rollicking humor and muscular action sequences. It's a popcorn movie with a powerful artificial heart and, with its franchise in good hands, the promise of at least two more summer flings.
Paramount has delivered one of the most anticipated Blu-ray & DVD releases of the year in Iron Man, and the breathless anticipation of comic-book film fans pays off in a terrific A/V presentation and generous bonus features. As expected, the image is completely clean, vibrantly colorful, and exceptionally detailed. In keeping with director of photography Matthew Libatique's visual design, the Afghanistan sequence has a stylized contrast, but the later, glossier scenes have a snap, crackle, and pop that make Iron Man leap off the screen. The reference-quality Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround soundscape packs a wallop, with thunderous effects and (of equal importance) crisp dialogue mixed to audible levels. The special and sound effects work dominated by ILM and Skywalker Sound get a brilliant showcase here.
Disc One of the two-disc Blu-ray set includes a fairly comprehensive documentary (in HD) on the character's comic-book history, with a special focus on his most celebrated stories and recent trends in the character. "The Invincible Iron Man" (47:04) gathers an impressive brain trust from Marvel: Stan Lee (natch), Gerry Conway, Gene Colan, Tom Brevoort, John Romita Jr., Bob Layton, Warren Ellis, Adi Granov, Joe Casey, Joe Quesada, Dan Knauf, Charles Knauf, and Patrick Zircher. These writers, artists, and editors speak with affectionate insight about Old Ironsides. Though organized into six parts ("Origins," "Friends & Foes," "Definitive Iron Man," "Demon in a Bottle," "Extremis and Beyond" and "Ultimate Iron Man"), it's easily digested with a "Play All" option.
Disc One continues with a surprisingly cool selection of Deleted/Extended Scenes (23:56 in HD), including a Dubai house party that provides cover for one of Iron Man's missions.
The "Robert Downey Jr. Screen Test" (6:03, HD) is a beautifully presented look at Downey's first moments on film as Tony Stark--as always, Downey's unpredictable take on a scene is riveting. In a similar vein, the disc presents something dubbed "The Actor's Process" (4:13, HD), a behind-the-scenes snippet of a rehearsal (in February of 2007) of the public confrontation between Stark and Stane. Though too short, it's a pleasure to see Downey and Jeff Bridges parry (in a friendly collaboration) under Jon Favreau's watchful eye.
Last up on Disc One is the not terribly funny video from The Onion TV: "Iron Man Trailer To Be Adapted Into Full-Length Film" (2:38, HD). While it's certainly nice to see this included, don't expect guffaws.
Disc Two kicks into high gear with the seven-part feature-length making-of documentary "I Am Iron Man" (1:49:00, HD). This is one of those pull-out-the-big-guns docs generally reserved for high-profile movies: it's no EPK fluff piece. In chapters titled "The Journey Begins," "The Suit that Makes Iron Man," "The Walk of Destruction," "Grounded in Reality," "Beneath the Armor," "It's All in the Details," and "A Good Story, Well Told," the cast and crew reflect on the film in candid interviews interspersed with all-access production footage from the film's many exciting sets and locations. Among the obvious participants (Favreau, Downey, Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard) are producers Avi Arad and Peter Billingslea, production designer J. Michael Riva, the legendary (recently late) Stan Winston, Shaun Toub, Leslie Bibb, design consultant Granov, and numerous representatives of the stunt and effects teams. Downey's loose-lipped interviews are particularly entertaining, as he cops to being so beaten down by the suit work—and given the onscreen evidence, you won't blame the hard-working actor—that the production made a costly switch-up (more special effects, less time in the suit) to accomodate him.
Next up is "Wired: The Visual Effects of Iron Man" (27:01, HD), with Favreau and the visual effects wizards on the film explaining in detail how the digital models were designed and the effects sequences executed. Rounding out the disc are four Trailers and Galleries of Concept Art, Tech, Unit Photography, and Posters. Like everything else on the discs, all are presented in glorious full HD. Plus, Blu-ray users can enjoy an exclusive quiz presented through the set's BD Live capability. I can unreservedly recommend this disc on Blu-ray (or in its 2-Disc DVD counterpart): what's not to like about an enormously entertaining movie in an impressive special edition?
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