The first of this summer's endless stream of superhero movies screened for critics on Tuesday, after our press deadlines but in time for this review:
Cased inside his gold-and-titanium-alloy personal flying machine in Iron Man,
Robert Downey Jr. resembles many things: a sports car, an extra in Metropolis
, a sarcastic Transformer. But more than any of these items, Marvel's latest onscreen superhero looks like a metal colleague—The Iron Giant, the innocent, oversized extraterrestrial from Brad Bird's 1999 cartoon of the same name. The giant, as you may or may not recall, was faced with an existential crisis: Did the fact that he was loaded with weaponry mean he was destined to be a bomb? “I am not a gun,” he finally grunted, and sacrificed his great tin frame for the greater good. As industrialist-turned-industrial-product Tony Stark, Downey spends a good deal of time pondering the same quandary, before deciding that he will be—ah, but of course!—a good
gun, the kind that enters into global affairs only to mow down the villains.
Which doesn't mean the movie is a bomb. Iron Man
, loaded to the brim with snazzy special-effects and snappy dialogue, is a far smarter diversion than most of the summer fare that will follow it—smart enough, in fact, to be held accountable for its reckless ideas.
To begin with, it stars Downey, an actor who radiates intelligence even when he's forced to replay the end of Saving Private Ryan
inside a cave in Afghanistan. As Tony Stark, the wunderkind playboy who tinkers with rockets in his swank basement, Downey is called upon to be arch and snide while swirling whiskey in a glass. This is not exactly a challenge for him. But Downey is also asked to do something harder—to carry large swaths of an action movie by talking to himself. After Stark returns from an Asian weapons demonstration gone awry (he's kidnapped by thugs who officially are not supposed to be al Qaeda but are definitely supposed to be al Qaeda) he has a change of heart—literally, as he builds himself a futuristic pacemaker. Then he starts work on an exoskeleton that he can use for…well, to be honest, I was never clear on what exactly he intends to use it for, but it's certainly not war profiteering, because he is finished with that shit.
A good 30 minutes of Iron Man
's two-hour runtime are dedicated to Stark's puttering around in the garage—testing out the mechanisms that will allow him to fly, shoot missiles and not get caked in ice when he soars into the stratosphere. During this substantial portion of the movie, Downey is required to voice a wry, self-amused internal monologue, delivered half to himself and half to his computer (the same thing, really). Not only does Downey pull this off, he actually manages to make his solo scenes the most captivating segments of the film. Iron Man
is better when Robert Downey Jr. is alone on the screen than when he's sharing it.
It's when those inconvenient other people show up that the movie loses its way. Director Jon Favreau has an unexpected knack for superhero lore and battle scenes—comic geeks and teenage boys will presumably be pleased, and the rest of the audience should be satisfied as well—but he wastes several reels on power machinations inside Stark Industries (Jeff Bridges, bald and bearded, has shady designs) and handles the “kidnapped by terrorists” angle with maximum clumsiness. The heavies aren't Islamic fundamentalists, you see, because that would be racist; instead, they're swarthy Middle Eastern men with no motivation, because that isn't racist at all
Worse, the evil Middle Eastern men are merely red herrings for the Stark Industries intrigue—red herrings that can be dispatched in one massively irresponsible bloodbath, as Stark swoops in, kills his former tormentors with pinpoint accuracy, and blasts back into the sky, leaving previously helpless villagers to take their vengeance on the chief henchman. Freedom and justice for all!
is going to prove hugely appealing to an audience frustrated by five years of largely fruitless war in Iraq: It takes dead aim on the military-industrial complex and
it wastes the jihadists. But it's going to please the crowds with the same illusion that was used to sell the war in the first place: that combat can be quick and tidy, and that an American, acting unilaterally, can cure international ills by acting as a precisely guided missile—one that knows who the bad guys are and can eliminate them without creating more bad guys. The movie's fantasy is one of being alone in the world—as if America could wander as it pleases, locked away in a protective suit, talking to itself. AARON MESH.
Iron Man is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at Broadway Metro 4 Theatres, Century 16 Cedar Hills Crossing, Century Eastport 16, Cine Magic Theatre, Cinema 99 Stadium 11, Cinemas Bridgeport Village Stadium 18 & IMAX, Cinetopia, City Center Stadium 12, Cornelius 9 Cinemas, Division Street Stadium 13, Evergreen Parkway Stadium 13, Hilltop 9 Cinema, Lake Twin Cinema, Lloyd Center Stadium 10 Cinema, Lloyd Mall 8 Cinema, Movies On TV Stadium 16, Oak Grove 8 Cinemas, Pioneer Place Stadium 6, Sandy Cinemas, Sherwood Stadium 10, St. Johns Twin Cinemas and Pub, Tigard 11 Cinemas, Vancouver Plaza 10 Cinema, Wilsonville Stadium 9 Cinema.