There’s something really special in being able to approach Iron Man now with foresight of all the things it brought us as a film. It inarguably made Robert Downey Jr., then taking baby steps to reignite his previously thought dead career, a bigger star than he already was prior to his infamous 1996-2001 downward spiral. It was public knowledge even then that Iron Man was both the first self-financed film by newly created Marvel Studios and that Marvel Studios intended to craft a new separate universe from Marvel Comics’ Earth-616, though I personally would not have been able to call out how vast and sprawling their imagination allowed, given the one-shot short films and the tv series and even comic book spin-offs. It made open the possibility that superhero movies didn’t have to be as dark and gritty as Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster Dark Knight trilogy (the second and most successful film of which rivaled Iron Man that year, but thankfully was not able to bury Iron Man) to be worth a damn and make big bucks. And above all, I think it was Iron Man that essentially made the “stay after the credits to see if there’s some good shit there” practice of moviegoers as regular as it is today (even though nobody in their right mind would assume Iron Man was the first movie with a post-credits tag).
And so, as I attempt to complete this retrospective for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which, given I already reviewed Guardians of the Galaxy, I have a headstart on) before Avengers: Age of Ultron‘s US release on May 1st (expect that review delayed, though, as I will be in NY that weekend and so won’t actually be rushing to see the movie), I begin this daunting task with its inaugural picture and reflect upon what made it work so well as to encourage viewers to come back and see more of this world Downey Jr., producer Kevin Feige, and director Jon Favreau put posts in.
It’s definitely Robert Downey Jr.
People are already hopping on RDJ’s dick about how much he has done for the character, willing to toss aside how obviously the role has done so much more for him by making him a household name. I’ll gladly hop on that hype train myself by stating what absolutely works about Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark… Robert Downey Jr. doesn’t know a damn thing about Tony Stark.
That’s maybe not true, he claimed to have been a fan of the character during the production of the movie, but before I talk about how Downey Jr. works with the character, let me give a rundown on everything else that is forgotten about the movie.
Howard Hughes Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) is a billionaire industrialist ladykiller playboy who made that fortune piggybacking off his old man’s success at selling war toys and weapons to the US Military until the very opening of the film where he is kidnapped and nearly killed by an Afghan terrorist organization known as the Ten Rings. Just moments before his kidnapping, he witnessed his own brand name on the weapons used to kill the soldiers that attempted to rescue him and so upon his escape, he shuts down the weapons division of Stark Industries and begins to investigate into the matter himself.
Yeah, that’s as concise as I need to make it, because while the film is not short of adequate if not impressive performances by Shaun Toub (as the man who saved Stark’s life), Jeff Bridges (as someone else who runs Stark Industries), Clark Gregg (as Agent Phil Coulson who we know by heart now) and Gwyneth Paltrow (as Pepper… I think I should put a description here), a somewhat memorably bombastic rock-driven score by Ramin Djawadi, and some pretty great banterish presentation by Jon Favreau that makes the movie feel more Robert Altman-esque while also ensuring that at 126 minutes, the movie still feels way too short not to want to go through it again (my own experience at watching the film started with me and my best friend going in to sneak into Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanemo Bay (we were not 17) to meet with my brother and my cousin… only to have had so much fun with Iron Man we decided to ditch the latter two), these don’t do anything really except provide the best backdrop for Downey Jr. to shine.
Favreau is almost as much a source of the flaws of the movie as he is for its biggest strengths. More inclined to family comedies (plus his big break with Swingers), Favreau has trouble figuring out the best places to insert an action setpiece and once he’s there, he doesn’t seem as interested in staying too long (which, granted, also lends the film one of its finest moments of Iron Man walking away from a tank it just busted), while the script written by way too many cooks in the kitchen to bother naming makes the movie feel less invested in the actual minutiae or its plot or bother going through the themes it attempts to introduce about warfare and redemption (as a further aside, it inadvertently doesn’t know how its rhetoric goes with representing the Middle East – I might be so bold as to claim it doesn’t care and… well, it is a superhero film) and instead feels like a paint-by-numbers job and almost like its going through the motions as it needs to. Add some sleepy performance by Terrence Howard (who would be replaced later by Don Cheadle, who gives the Stark-Rhodey dynamic much better chemistry) and Favreau sort of bumbling about as Mike Peters the chauffeur, and it’s clear that the movie has a bigger possibility to fail as entertainment as much as it does as “GREAT CINEMA”.
I don’t want to be the guy who claims “oh, so-and-so actor saves so-and-so movie” and reject it as much as I can, but I can’t be as huge a believer in that when it’s clearly Downey Jr. who does most of the heavy lifting with this picture.
Alright, now we get to the good stuff, Downey Jr. What makes him almost the single best thing about Iron Man, the source of its energy like the arc reactor in Stark’s chest?
Well, it’s not fair for me to go “Oh he doesn’t understand Tony Stark”. He probably does. But Downey Jr. doesn’t seem interested in being “Tony Stark” so much as making Stark a mirror of himself and injecting his own personality into the character. Downey Jr. clearly saw things in Stark’s mistakes that he saw in his own and so it was easier to give himself a name of Tony Stark and use it to reflect on his own previous lifestyle as it is to go through methods to dig into what makes the character so.
Add to that the fact that Downey Jr.’s sarcastic rhetoric is a second language to him and he slips into that skin like a glove and it works so much better for the character than it does for Downey Jr.’s career (which it did wonders for).
The thing about Tony Stark is that… he’s a fucking shmuck. He’s perhaps one of the more dislikable name heroes in the Marvel canon and much of his self-righteousness and self-entitlement made him perfect as a villain-looking sort of dude when the infamous Civil War storyline broke out in the comics. Hell, I’m almost certain that the reason Marvel Studios greenlit projects with their less-savory protagonists like Iron Man and Ant-Man (Hey guys, why doesn’t Hank Pym have a wife in this movie? Beats me.) is because the scramble for superhero rights in the early ’00s didn’t leave them with much to play with.
But you know what? It. So. Works.
Downey is able to turn a prick into a magnificent rock star son of a bitch without betraying or ignoring most of the faults we expect the films to work on organically themselves. There’s an acceptance and shamelessness that when focused through Downey Jr. persona just turns more and more into a volatile little moral compass he twists around for our amusement. It’s not that he demands attention, but he’s so very obviously the most interesting thing in the film (thanks again to Favreau’s flavorless direction) that we’re going to watch him rather than anything else. And so is the movie made by that one performance.
That plus the fact that the moment Downey puts on the suit… He’s fucking thrilled. That flight scene where he’s screaming and shouting we want to scream with him. It’s nice to know that a character is just as excited as we are at his true potential.
And so we are excited for the next Marvel Studios film.
If only that next movie wasn’t less than incredible.