After months now of cinematic mediocrity and film-review drudgery, I wasn’t sure I’d ever get that feeling back. That magical tips-of your-fingers explosive sensation you get after seeing a movie that sends you fleeing out of the theater, hurtling toward your car, fist pumping and steering-wheel banging, giddy to share the experience, to in some way own it, and — like the poseurish Lavinge simpletons who cannot resist the urge to bellow-type “FIRST!” in a comment thread — proclaim yourself a first-comer, and ever-so-briefly experience the elation, the small window of euphoria a great throat-testicle blockbuster offers before the machinations of pop-culture chew it to death and spit it back out in ever-increasingly tired one-liners, sequel rumors, and frat-boy appropriations.
Iron Man has renewed my faith. It is the reales Abkommen, the real goddamn deal, y’all. Better than a film for cool kids, it’s a film that makes you feel cool for loving it. It is cinematic engorgia, a movie that will leave you gleefully priapistic. Or, for those of you who prefer unpretentious terminology: It will make your funny parts hard. Iron Man is the perfect storm of badassary, debilitating wit, tester-octane explosives, and tongue-in-cheek gnarliness.
And Robert Downey, Jr. is in the eye of it, motherfuckers.
If you’ve turned on the television or dialed up the www in the last month or two, you’ve no doubt seen Robert Downey’s visage plastered into every light-reflecting nook and crevice in the media atmosphere. So far at least, I can’t say I’ve tired of it. Rock-bottom-to-riches story aside, it’s gratifying to witness Downey’s buoyant talent finally rise to the mainstream surface, even if it is occasionally buried beneath the sweetest suit of armor this side of Excalibur. Has there ever been an actor who blends together narcissism and self-deprecation as well as Downey? And, as modern superheroes go, it’s nearabouts impossible to imagine a better actor to don a costume — he’s got Batman’s brooding good looks, Hellboy’s smartass attitude, the brains of Bourne and the cool of Wolverine. And, come on: He could squash emo Spidey beneath his iron foot. (Best of all, Iron Man has no need for tights or capes, thank you very much). Granted, a superhero movie that could contain Robert Downey, Jr. does not exist, and — given the limitations of big-budget action flicks — I doubt any script could match his talents. But Iron Man is a pretty goddamn decent vehicle for displaying a fraction of them. To wit: Downey owns Iron Man and, for once, this superhero movie is not about a man with a suit, but the man behind the suit.
That man is Tony Stark, a billionaire bedpost notcher with a keen intellect, a rapacious wit, and boyish good looks that belie his villainous chin stache. He’s an arms manufacturer who develops the Jericho, a high-tech missile system that “you only need to fire once” to make your point, if that point is destroying a small continent. Such is its power that the Jericho attracts the interest of an Afghan warlord who uses Starks-brand weaponry against him to abduct and lock Tony up in a cave prison and insists that he build a one of them newfangled missiles for himself. Stark decides, instead, to build himself a nice suit for the Fuck-Your-World Party he’s about to attend.
After his escape, however, Stark develops a crisis of conscience, realizing somewhat belatedly that guns don’t kill people; the military industrial complex kills people. Oodles of them. So, Tony decides to change his company’s mission statement, moving its aims from non-discriminative mayhem toward a more focused concentration on saving the Earth from evil. That, of course, raises the concerns of Tony’s mentor and his late father’s right hand man, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), who it turns out is the film’s real villain. And when you want an unconscionably mean, Cheny-esque asshole without an ounce of moral reservation, let me tell you this: The Dude abides. There hasn’t been a bad guy this deliciously evil with as little screen time to work with since Gary Oldman took two in the testes on White Boy Day.
Along for the shenanigans is Stark’s heavenly assistant, Pepper Potts, played with infinite grace by Gwyneth Paltrow, who hasn’t had a role this satisfying since her head showed up in a box 13 years ago. Terrence Howard, in a throwaway role, plays Jim Rhodes, the dutiful best friend, though he’s clearly mostly around as a setup for the sequel, as the comic-book geeks amongst you can attest. And then, of course, there’s this year’s eventual Oscar nominee for best supporting actor: The Iron Man suit, a gold-plated titanium outfit that can outrun a missile, fly 85,000 feet into the sky, deflect ammunition, and absorb the blows of a city bus.
It will make your nipples hard and thump them, then it will rock your face off.
Granted, Iron Man is still a comic-book movie, which necessarily means that Robert Downey’s nuanced, engaging performance; the crude but effective social commentary; and the cool geek bling must eventually give way to an over-the-top, CGI-heavy action sequence that goes on too long without fully providing the hoped-for payoff. But I suppose you gotta give something to the 14-year-old boys to cling to. Thankfully, at least, Jon Favreau is a skilled enough director to actually show us what we’re seeing rather than editing together a series of half-second shots that merely give the impression of frenzied chaos. Unfortunately, the climactic scenes also lose what made the rest of Iron Man so much fun to watch: Downey’s overindulgent sense of humor, which is sadly buried beneath an inch of iron.
Still, for all of its faults — the somewhat uneven narrative, the slightly anti-climactic finale, and the occasional dead space between the origins story and the third act — Iron Man succeeds because of the presence of Downey, heretofore to be known as the Greatest Actor of this Generation (with apologies to Daniel Day Lewis). Iron Man is not as impressive as this decade’s best superhero movie, Batman Begins, but if it’s possible, Downey is more impressive than Christian Bale’s Dark Knight. He’s more magnetic, and insanely likable not in spite of his bravado, but because of it.
More satisfying for laymen like myself, Iron Man never really feels like a comic-book film — sure, it follows the genre template, closely tracking the comic-book movie story arc, but it tosses aside the alter egos, the kryptonite, the typical you-killed-my-parents revenge fantasy, and the heavy-handed moralizing that seems to take up so much space in comic-book panels. Moreover, for all its implausibility, Iron Man feels grounded in a form of reality; the action is low key, without being underwhelming; and at no point does it feel like Iron Man is being weighed down by obligations to the fanboys. It doesn’t need to, anyway — five minutes after Iron Man escapes from the cave his captors have held him in, the fanboys will have blissfully rolled over and passed out in their own juices.
In other words, Iron Man is not just a great comic-book movie, it’s a great goddamn film, and I refuse to qualify that by saying, “for a summer blockbuster.” Any superhero film that can win over a genrephobe deserves unconditional exaltation. So bring along some WD40, folks — and when your concession stand attendant asks if you want butter on your popcorn, tell them to kindly go fuck themselves.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
Iron Man / Dustin Rowles
Film | August 28, 2008 | Comments ()