Note: In the following joint review, both John and Jason provide their opinions of the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.
The Film According to John:
Is it a contradiction to say that "Iron Man" is an intelligent superhero movie, maybe the most intelligent such movie ever made? After all, superhero movies are by their very definition fairly silly affairs about people or creatures with impossible powers or impossible capabilities. Yet sometimes a movie transcends the silliness and offers up a vision of such credibility that one can forget how absurd it all is. This is what the best films in any genre try to do, of course; they want to make you suspend your disbelief and go along with the story. Only a few movies succeed, however, and fantasy and science fiction only make the job harder. In the superhero category, Tim Burton's first couple of "Batman" movies accomplished the feat, as did Christopher Nolan's more-recent "Batman" entries and the first couple of "Superman," "Spider-Man," and "X-Men" films. Now, I think it's fair to add director Jon Favreau's 2008 "Iron Man," based on the original 1963 Marvel Comics character created by Stan Lee and others, to that league of distinguished motion pictures.
As with the first installments of most superhero movies, this one spends most of its time providing a background on the origins of the main character. Fair enough. A lot of viewers find this kind of exposition boring and want simply to get on with the action, but I find it fascinating, often more interesting than the cartoonish plots that follow. So it is with "Iron Man," wherein we witness the conversion of a dissolute playboy into a man of conscience and humanity. Add in a slew of attractive supporting characters and big-budget effects, and you get a film that holds one's interest from start to finish.
Yet no amount of background information, CGI special effects, fancy sets, or prestigious cast members can make up for a boring main character or a bland actor inhabiting the part, and it's here that "Iron Man" separates itself from its competitors. It stars Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark, alias Iron Man. "Robert Downey, Jr.?" I hear some people asking. Isn't he the guy with all the offscreen troubles with alcohol and drugs? Yes, and he's also the guy who's never put in a bad performance in any film he's been in. Indeed, he is almost always the best part of any film he's in. Think of the romantic comedies "Chances Are" and "Only You"; the Oscar-nominated performance in "Chaplin"; the underrated performance in "Restoration"; or his great roles in "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" and "Good Night, and Good Luck." You get the idea. The fact is, Downey turns the part of Tony Stark into a character worthy of another Academy nom. Anybody else in the part, and maybe the film doesn't succeed as it does. He's that good.
For the uninitiated, Tony Stark is a billionaire playboy who inherited from his father the world's biggest weapons corporation. He's a hard-drinking, wisecracking womanizer who just also happens to be "a visionary, a genius, and an American patriot," as well as a mechanic, a physicist, an electrical engineer, and a computer whiz. Too bad he cares only for himself, living in a mansion high above the Pacific on the cliffs of Malibu, driving a fleet of exotic sports cars, and thinking of no one but Tony.
All that will change.
While Tony is in Afghanistan peddling one of his latest weapons of mass destruction, terrorists blow up his convoy with one of his own bombs and take him hostage. They want him to build them a missile, which Tony reluctantly agrees to do. Instead, Tony secretly puts together an armored suit and blasts his way to freedom. The three-month ordeal changes his life.
The whole first third of the movie recounts Tony's capture and ingenious escape, tribulations that force him to take account of himself and rehabilitate his profligate ways. He realizes for the first time in his life that he's "a man who has everything and has nothing." He decides from here on to devote himself to helping rather than hindering Mankind. With his unrestricted resources and brilliant mind, he decides to become a superhero, not with any special superhuman abilities but with the special talents of brains and imagination.
Understand, while most comic-book stories simply pile on as many fights, gun battles, chases, and explosions as possible to keep the viewer's attention, "Iron Man" is different. There is a surprisingly small amount of violence in the story, the plot content to develop its characters, their personalities, and their relationships. Huh? Sure, there's action in the movie, but it's secondary to the character drama, something I found refreshing in a superhero flick. In fact, the one thing I liked least about "Iron Man" was a prolonged struggle at the end with the movie's villain, which comes almost as something secondary to its main intent. I'm sure the filmmakers threw in this climactic conflict because they knew audiences required it, yet the movie probably could have come off just as well without it.
There's further joy one can find in Tony's one-liners, particularly the way Downey delivers them, and they brighten up every scene. "If you douse me again and I'm not on fire," he says to his robotic helper, "I'm donating you to the city college." Or at a party, "Give me a Scotch. I'm starving." Wonderful lines.
Then, there's the supporting cast. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Tony's devoted, prim-and-proper personal assistant, Pepper Potts, and she's a delight. Her best scene with Tony is maybe the one where he asks her to carefully remove a wire from a chest implant that's keeping him alive. The scene is delicate, funny, and touching at the same time. An almost unrecognizable Jeff Bridges plays Obadiah Stane, an old friend of Tony's father and now a bigwig with Tony's company. Obadiah does not take kindly toward Tony's sudden desire to turn the business from weaponry to peace. And Terrence Howard plays Col. James "Rhodey" Rhodes, Tony's best friend and his liaison with the U.S. Air Force.
Enjoy "Iron Man" for its visual effects, sure, and its knockout of an armored suit Tony creates; for its action sequences; for its elaborate sets and intricate machinery. Enjoy it for its characterizations and for the humanness of its cast. But, most of all, enjoy it for Robert Downey, Jr. and a performance you won't soon forget.
John's film rating: 8/10
The Film According to Jason:
I am not a fan boy. Let's get that out of the way first. I haven't read every issue of the "Iron Man" comic book (or any other, for that matter), nor do I know the various quirks of the character. The extent of my exposure to the superhero are the recent direct-to-video "Ultimate Avenger" films, as well as "The Invincible Iron Man." In other words, my attitude isn't based on any preconceived notions about Tony Stark's alter ego. All that said, the latest Marvel comic book hero to make the jump to the big screen turns out to have something no other hero does: a global social conscience, separating him from Spider-Man, Batman, and even Superman.
Following a successful demonstration of a new weapon for the military, industrialist Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is kidnapped by an unnamed group of bad guys who force him to recreate the missile system, dubbed Jericho. Instead, he sets to work creating a suit of armor in which to escape. When he does, Stark finds the company his father created has been co-opted and the weapons in the hands of the very people who captured him. Armed with a new suit, and purpose, Iron Man is born.
Tobey Maguire may be the quintessential Peter Parker; Patrick Stewart was a shoe-in for the role of Professor X; Jennifer Garner looked like Elektra; and Hugh Jackman became a star with Wolverine. But none of those casting choices holds a candle to Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark. From the first moment we see him, in an armored Humvee crossing the Afghan desert, he exemplifies the hard-drinking, womanizing playboy the script demands him to be. There is a snark to him, an easy repartee with the entire cast. Even as the most sexist Marvel movie character, he ingratiates himself to the audience, making us fully aware of the words coming out of his mouth as well as the undeniable charm exuding from every pore of his being.
It is Downey, Jr. who grounds "Iron Man" in reality, as opposed to comic book fantasy. There are no special powers and no green monsters breaking out of their human hosts thanks to gamma rays or mystical villains. It's just a man and his ingenuity, not to mention a conscience. Let's talk about that ingenuity for a moment. We are treated to several scenes of Stark at work in his home lab, using sophisticated 3-D computer models to build each suit. He does this without any help from the outside world, relying on himself and in the process telling us even more about the character. Regardless of whatever else Stark might be, he is a genius.
As I already alluded to, "Iron Man" is one of the very few Marvel comic characters looking at a global perspective as opposed to a personal or city level. The X-Men are interested in helping one particular group: mutants; the Hulk doesn't really fight for anyone but himself. Even Spider-Man protects NewYork City and only NYC. So when Tony Stark decides to take on the baddies in Afghanistan because his weapons are being used to hurt innocent civilians, it is a radical departure from the formula. His conscience tells him the events are wrong, even if the "revelation" comes off as anything but unexpected. (It can be argued he only fights for the little man due to his experiences and being betrayed at home. However, I prefer to think it is a combination of factors leading to the creation of Iron Man.)
He is the most selfless of superheroes, putting himself in harm's way, much like Batman, without any true superpowers. When his suit is crusted with ice from flying entirely too high into the atmosphere, the man Stark is faced with plummeting down to the surface, a fall he would never survive. There is a death wish of sorts as he pushes nearly to the breaking point. It fits with the character we come to know. He's never been told he can't do something and, if someone did have the gall to tell him "no," he'd go through with his plan anyway. There is no stopping this mortal man when he has a head full of steam.
Directed by Jon Favreau, there is no technical "pop" in the look of the film; it is quite pedestrian, from the directing to production design and cinematography. Though I wonder if this is really a bad thing or not. With the over-CGI of "Spider-Man 3" and wire reliance of "The Matrix" films, a simple, straightforward, and "working man" style would appear to be the best. That's how Favreau works, trading in fancy camera moves and shots screaming "look me at" for a simple, grounded design. Even in the battle scenes, of which there are precious few, no single shot stands out. Rather, the sum total of what happens on the screen is better than the parts.
I guess we need to talk about the actual plot now, right? Fairly standard comic book stuff here, from the origin story to a half-baked villain plot. If we are to compare this film--the first in a presumed franchise--to the initial volume of a comic series, the formula works in the same way. However, it doesn't have the pizazz of many other conflicts in the Marvel movie universe. Good guy versus bad guy, one on the side of the little man, the other concerned only with profit. With so little of the story devoted to the conflict, it is hard to get emotionally invested in it. The beef is of a corporate nature. How do you dramatize a fight between Microsoft and Apple? Quite simply, you don't. Yet this is where the script takes us.
I haven't even mentioned the supporting characters like Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and Jim Rhodes (Terrance Howard). Potts, a personal assistant in the beginning, turns into Stark's girlfriend at the end, a harbinger of further development for her. And Howard…he also bides his time until (presumably) turning into War Machine at a later date. None are spectacular in their roles, content to have some fun in a big-budget summer film. But both ramp down their acting, leaving the scene chewing to Bridges. And the humanity to Downey, Jr.
But is "Iron Man" materially any better or worse than other première installments of comic-book films? Not really. The movie delivers on its promise of a blockbuster with fancy visuals, enough in-jokes directed at longtime comic book audiences, and a crowd-pleasing good time. Stark's transformation from man of war to man of peace comes a bit too quickly; Potts's flying right into the love interest role is tired, not to mention wholly expected; and the Iron Monger plotline feels half complete. Alas, those are the usual concerns with starting a brand-new franchise from the ground up.
So, does "Iron Man" succeed as a film? It does. As with most Marvel films, stick around for a post-credits scene foretelling the future of the character and perhaps another franchise.
Jason's film rating: 7/10
The Paramount video engineers present the 2.35:1 ratio picture in anamorphic widescreen. Upscaled, as I watched it, the video quality is quite good. Indeed, it's so good that when I casually compared it side-by-side with its Blu-ray equivalent, I sometimes had a hard time telling the difference. However, upon closer examination, I found the SD edition slightly softer and fuzzier than the BD, especially noticeable in license plates, signs, titles, and facial close-ups. Nevertheless, the best part about the picture is the realism of the colors, which are quite rich and true to life, yet never too bright and never too glossy. A natural film grain provides texture, and the transfer's standard-definition imagery remains fairly sharp in most scenes. I found the picture a tad dark and murky in some dimly lit scenes, but it's a minor quibble.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is just as good as the video. It displays a wide front-channel stereo separation and plenty of surround activity. Voices are anchored out in the center channel as with most modern movies, an unfortunate but necessary evil. Midrange clarity is fine, if a touch bright and forward. And there is a strong bass presence, with a strong dynamic impact.
Disc one of this Ultimate 2-Disc Edition contains the feature film and several extras. Things begin with a series of trailers at start-up and in the main menu. Then we find eleven deleted or extended scenes, about twenty-four minutes' worth, followed by a preview of an "Iron Man" animated series. Disc one concludes with fifteen scene selections and English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles.
Disc two begins with the huge documentary, "I Am Iron Man," about 109 minutes long and divided into the following sections: "The Journey Begins," "The Suit That Makes the Iron Man," "The Walk of Destruction," "Grounded in Reality," "Beneath the Armor," "It's All in the Details," and "A Good Story, Well Told." These segments take you through the Stan Winston Company's special effects, through the sound stages and sets, through the film's tech, to the final editing and post production at Skywalker Ranch, and then the film's première.
After that, you'll find a forty-seven-minute collection of featurettes titled "The Invincible Iron Man." It includes sections on "Origins," "Friends & Foes," "The Definitive Iron Man," "Demon in a Bottle," "Extremis and Beyond," and "Ultimate Iron Man." Then, there are "Wired: The Visual Effects of Iron Man," twenty-seven minutes on the CGI work in the film; a six-minute Robert Downey, Jr. screen test; "The Actor's Process," four minutes of rehearsal with Downey and Bridges; and "The Onion: Wildly Popular Iron Man Trailer to be Adapted into Full Length Film," two minutes and very cute. Things finish up with several image galleries of concept art, tech, unit photography, and posters.
The two discs come housed in a double slim-line keep case, further enclosed in a fancy, embossed slipcover. But here's the thing: Paramount pretty much force you to use the slipcover whether you want to or not. That's because there is nothing written on the front or back of the keep-case cover, just pictures of Robert Downey Jr. and Iron Man. If you want to know what's on the discs or you want a title on the front, you'll have to go with the slipcover.
"Iron Man" is probably not the movie many people expected it to be. I mean, who'd have thought that a successful superhero film could be more about character than action? Moreover, it's all the better for not having to put up with bullets flying and things exploding every ten seconds; and with the DVD's excellent audiovisual qualities, the movie practically begs for repeat viewing.