In the old days, people looked to the weather, or possibly Stonehenge, to determine the coming of the seasons. These days, the pop-culturally savvy need only flip to the movie listing. May is here, and with it comes another gloriously goofy FX extravaganza with a budget big enough to make Bill Gates balk. This year’s summer-blockbuster herald is Iron Man, a comic-book hero in a snazzy red and yellow robo-suit. As cinematic metal men go, Iron Man doesn’t quite deliver the marshmallow-cereal-powered jolt of last year’s robo spectacular Transformers — but then, this film nearly makes sense. As with all things in life, there are trade offs.
Well, unless you’re Tony Stark — a nattily dressed defense-industry playboy whose sense of self-worth would be massively inflated were it not actually somewhere in the bazillions. It is perhaps not coincidental, and certainly appropriate, that his name sounds a lot like Tony Snark, particularly since Robert Downey Jr. plays the role. Like his superheroic alter-ego, Downey’s Stark is something of a machine, cranking out a continuous stream of Triple-A rated hipster irony (or is it iron-y?). Watching Downey breezily quip his way through the film is a great pleasure, and no matter how bad the inevitable sequels are, I will enthusiastically line up to see them just to watch him operate.
Tony Stark is both the genius engineer behind Stark Industries and its chief salesman, and as we first meet him, he’s overseas riding across a desert in a convoy of Humvees. Afghan terrorists attack the convoy spirit Stark away to — where else? — a cave. The brutes have no specific ambitions — world domination is mentioned in passing — but eventually they order Stark to build a missile for them. Despite being supervised by his captors, Stark builds a clunky (though powerful) suit of armor instead. How the villains missed this, exactly, is unclear — though in their defense, they were living in a cave.
Stark escapes the cave and returns to his palatial, glass-walled Malibu mansion. There, aided by his loyal assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, returning to the big screen in a role so old-fashioned it might be insulting were it not so cute), he builds another suit — this one a trimmer fit — and gets into an escalating series of disputes with his Stark Industries business partner, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges). The name alone should let you know he’s up to no good, but if not, the bald pate and prominent beard should do it. Bridges towers in every frame he’s in; he clearly beefed up for the role. Add in a wide tailored suit, a fat class ring, and a ubiquitous cigar, and he comes across as a cross between James Gandolfini and a gorilla — top-notch supervillain material.
Director Jon Favreau is a less obvious choice. Known mostly as the lovable shlub in Swingers, he’s been building up his cred behind the camera of late. As a stylist, he’s functional, and occasionally witty — though not much more. But he keeps the pace brisk enough so that the regular doses of nonsense barely have time to register, and gives the production a cheery, four-color feel — like it was inked by a seasoned comic-book hand. And for those with a taste for winking self-reference, there’s a kitschy heavy-metal soundtrack throughout — the movie-score equivalent of deadpan — but, to his credit, Favreau delays playing Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” until the closing credits. (Clearly, the man has heroic reserves of willpower.)
Of course, it’s not all ironic pop-pastiche. Iron Man makes a pass at politics, but they’re as clunky as Stark’s first suit. There are the aforementioned Afghan terrorists, but without a plan, they’re robbed of any real political purpose. And just in case you were tempted to think of them as conventional Middle Eastern terrorists, we’re told that some of them speak Russian and (for some strange reason) Hungarian.
After his escape from their clutches, Stark quickly develops a hatred of war profiteering and the military-industrial complex (which, if the movie is to be believed, his company leads). This might make things a little more clear, except that he continues to delight in building outlandish weaponry and deploying it against the sneering Afghan baddies. Only in Hollywood can you charge millions of people ten bucks to gape for hours at extravagant gee-whiz weaponry while simultaneously decrying capitalism and U.S. militarism.
Sadly, the gee-whiz displays aren’t really as extravagant as they ought to be. The film’s finale — a hasty, underwhelming robo-on-robo that barely destroys enough cars to fill a corner parking lot — lacks the oomph to truly amaze. Of course, “amazing” has always been an adjective associated with Spider-Man, while Iron Man’s modifier, instead, was “invincible.” The difference in the choice of descriptors is revealing about the film’s most glaring weakness.
The traditional superhero paradigm has a repressed alter ego who can only fully let loose in his spiffy-looking, super-powered guise — think nerdy Peter Parker, glowering Bruce Wayne, or mild-mannered Clark Kent. But Tony Stark already has the world at his fingertips; becoming Iron Man merely gives him an expressionless outer shell, hiding away the devilish charm beneath. Iron Man is invincible, but boring. Unlike that other Man of Steel, this hero’s actually less interesting in costume.
In other words: More man, less machine, please. Iron Man’s got the gizmos, but Tony Stark makes the movie.