By Kyle | May 2, 2008
THE SIX BILLION DOLLAR MAN
Kyle Smith review of “Iron Man”
Like superheroes themselves, “Iron Man” has trouble reconciling a split personality. Despite a brilliant first hour–for a good long while, we’re almost in “Batman Begins” territory–“Iron Man” becomes like some bizarre legend of a Norse god who descended into the flaming pits of the earth’s core, swung his mighty hammer upon a great anvil and forged….a Crosby, Stills and Nash album. [See my review of “Batman Begins,” the finest superhero movie yet.]
The movie’s got plenty of visual sizzle, top actors and a witty script, yet it could have been so much better if only it didn’t try to cobble together a pacifist warrior.
We’re about five seconds in when director Jon Favreau announces there’s gonna be some ass-kicking fun by blaring AC/DC (“Back in Black”) as billionaire weapons contractor Tony Stark (a deadpan Robert Downey Jr.) travels with some US soldiers through Afghanistan. “Is it true you went 12 for 12 with last year’s Maxim cover models?” asks an awed grunt.
Stark is a man who believes that peace comes with power: “ensuring freedom and protecting America and her interests” are his watchwords, and he doesn’t mind getting rich in the process. His latest weapon, a daisy-cutter called Jericho, promises to destroy a lot of villages in order to save them. When Tony banters with lefty reporters who call him a merchant of death, he’s got a cynical but wise answer for everything. He’s so funny and tough that the movie promises to be an unapologetic defense of the traditional American respect accorded to those who find bad guys and making them dead.
Tony has a change of heart after he is captured by Taliban-type insurgents and ordered to make a Jericho for them. With the parts they give him–from his own weapons, which he realizes with a sickening feeling have fallen into enemy hands–he instead constructs a flamethrowing, bullet-repelling outfit: the Tin Man meets Rambo. Or, if you like, given that Tony is a wealthy playboy with a yen for gadgetry but no super powers, the movie becomes Batmanistan. The scenes in which Downey literally hammers away on an anvil suggest we’re going all Lee Marvin (if not Thor) instead of Tobey Maguire, with that cotton candy Spider-Man spins out of his palms. This turns out to be a false hope, though.
Escaping from the guerillas, Tony finds his way back home to his L.A. headquarters, where his loyal but trash-talking assistant Pepper Potts (a freckled, redheaded Gwyneth Paltrow, never so approachable) wants to take him to the hospital right away. Nonsense, says Tony: he wants a cheeseburger first. Oh yeah, and a press conference at which he announces that he will no longer make any weapons. His second-in-command (Jeff Bridges) wants to know what exactly the company is supposed to do now. The world already has plenty of ploughshares. But Tony’s buddy and military liaison, an Air Force colonel (Terrence Howard) doesn’t seem too disturbed by the thought that his troops might have to make do with slingshots and spitballs in the near future.
What Tony’s up to is a secret plan to make another Iron Man suit, this one with every high-tech gizmo he’s got. There are some very funny trial-and-error moments, and Tony’s robots take on an R2-D2-ish quality of implicit scolding as they clean up his messes. There are also not a few bright moments between Tony and Pepper, who actually seem to admire each other and value their working relationship above all else; casting grownups in a comic book movie has its pleasures. Pepper points out that Tony, for all his wealth, couldn’t tie his shoelaces without her.
Once the new Iron Man getup is ready for action, though, the movie takes a turn for the unsatisfying. There are only two scenes (including the one with the first Iron Man costume) in which Iron Man blows away America’s enemies; he spends about as much time fighting the U.S. Air Force (destroying an F-22 and nearly killing a pilot in the process) and US industry.
You would think that, in 2008, it wouldn’t be so difficult for a screenplay to imagine some villains for an American to fight, but according to this movie (really? again?) our deadliest enemies are domestic.
Even assuming that were true (news flash: it isn’t), it weakens Iron Man, and the movie. The second half of it is guilt trip, and guilt isn’t fun. When Iron Man goes to rescue some Afghanistan villagers who have been endangered by his weapons, the stakes aren’t high since he’s (sort of) a third party to the dispute. His is some sort of prosaic U.N. mission, not an epic clash of good and evil.
Worse, when it comes down to the end, a long stretch of a movie that, at its best, takes place in something teasingly close to reality lapses into a silly “Transformers” moment of two giant machines slugging it out like a game of Rock-Em-Sock-Em-Robots. Iron Man isn’t even the most important figure in the climactic moment, which anyway relies heavily on the dramatically inert and creatively lazy choice of having someone push a button. Sorry, Iron Man, but I’ll take the Caped Crusader.