Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Iron Man

Dir. - Jon Favreau

Viewed: From the Balcony

I look at a comic book movie the same way I would any other adaptation. If I'm not familiar with the source material I might simply want a good story with good characters told in an entertaining, cinematic fashion. If I am familiar with the source material of course I'll be coming in with greater expectations (that is if I'm a fan of said material). I'll be looking with a much more critical eye to see if the filmmakers captured the characters the same way I pictured them in my head when I read the book; see if the dialog and pacing still capture the same tone that I liked. These are the same questions I ask if it's an adaptation of a novel, an autobiography, a comic book or the back of a cereal box.

And I don't think comic books, superhero or otherwise, have to be treated as silly material only to be dealt with in a check your brain at the door way. Batman has always been the moody bastard of the DC clan. Marvel has always been about the brighter color pallet and one-liners while DC sprung from horror comics and is more about noir influences and pulpy narration. But these aren't steadfast rules, they both have characters that are boy scouts and self-loathing basket cases. I enjoyed Ang Lee's Hulk, a Marvel creation. It comes in a strong first for movies that have come the closest to capturing what it's like to read a comic book on the big screen. I mean, the big green guy should never be handled with anything but serious intentions. The only problem with Hulk was that he didn't get to smash heads with anything but his own daddy issues (and some tanks). Just because you treat a story from a superhero comic book with the same seriousness you would a Jane Austen story doesn't mean it's going to not be fun. On the contrary, please see example A -- Joel Schumacher. He was just trying to have some fun with some silly characters and nearly destroyed a million dollar franchise. Christopher Nolan gives the material the respect it deserves and the world once again respects the material. If you don't like self-seriousness then you probably don't like Batman. But that's ok because there's a lot of other characters out there.

Iron Man doesn't fall in to the same schizophrenic moodiness that plagues Batman. Tony Stark didn't watch his parents get gunned down in an alley-way. But Tony Stark, the alcoholic, womanizing war monger that becomes Iron Man does have a few issues. Unfortunately for him it takes getting held hostage in a cave and being forced at gun point to build your newest weapon of mass destruction for the enemy to get him to open his eyes. Fortunately for us Iron Man does a near perfect job of establishing the characters and the back-story in a brisk way that doesn't take up much more than a half hour of the movie. This has always been the crutch of the first movie -- they usually tend to take up 3/4 of the movie with the "origin story" and pick up speed in the final act. Iron Man successfully reverses that equation and still leaves you wanting more at the end.

All this success is due in large part to the casting. We always reward good casting here at RFC. I've written ad nauseum about the important role casting plays in an action movie and Paddy wrote about the importance of casting to create that instant back-story that Wes Anderson does so well. Here we have Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark), Gweneth Paltrow ("Pepper" Potts, his faithful assistant), Jeff Bridges (spoiler alert, bad guy) and Terrence Howard (his only friend Jim Rhodes) -- all people who if they haven't already won an Oscar they will soon enough. Paltrow and Downey have that instant chemistry and bring an unexpected poignancy to their semi-romance. Bridges brings the respectable hamminess to the villainy and they all bring out actual laughs and oohs and ahhs when you absolutely know lesser talent would let those lines and moments fall flat. And because of this I suppose a good deal of respect should be given to Favreau -- who shows up here and there as Tony's driver (get it?).

I'm not exactly sure what the perfect superhero comic book movie would be. I put the second X-Men and the second Spider-Man movies up there as touching greatness, and I always hold a spot in my heart for the first two Superman movies. Basically, what I look for is what I said up in the second sentence. But of course in a movie like this you're expecting some razzle dazzle; a stunning action sequence or two, a successful piece of storytelling that makes you believe, for an hour or two, the impossible -- that a man can fly, shoot webs out of his wrists or adimantium claws out of his hands. In these regards, Iron Man is a complete success. It's downright amazing the work that went into making the complex Iron Man suit look like it really is something that was created in Stark's lab.

Favreau has stated from the beginning of his directing career that he'll always favor a practical effect over a CGI effect when it's possible. And the scenes when Iron Man is out doing his thing, whether it be the prototype he creates to knock his way out of the cave in Afghanistan or the real deal dogfighting with F-11s, it all looks surprisingly real even when you know it isn't. There were a couple shots with those jets where I was simply impressed with the aerial photography on display. A lot of movies simply recreate those shots with miniatures or CGI and it was great to see the effort being put forth and the money being spent wisely. Hell, like I said, I might be getting fooled here -- and even so I'll be happy to admit to it. This movie simply does a fantastic job at making you believe it. I'll be in line for the sequel.

Oh, and stick around 'till after the credits.

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