Iron Man was never my favorite superhero in the Marvel Universe. Nothing against him per se, really; I suspect that this is likely due to the fact that the Iron Man comic wasn’t terribly compelling during the years I was an active reader of Marvel comics. I didn’t have all the money in the world, so I had to at least be somewhat selective with respect to the comics I was purchasing on a monthly basis, and when I occasionally tried an issue of Iron Man, I wasn’t terribly excited by it.
So that’s one reason I’m not terribly familiar with the whole backstory behind Iron Man – I know about as little about Tony Stark as one can know. In fact, when I was reading comics, Tony Stark wasn’t even Iron Man! For some reason, Stark had given up the suit, and another guy was wearing it. I don’t recall any of the background behind that. So I came into seeing Iron Man pretty much blind. All I knew, really, was that the movie is generally very highly regarded in the superhero genre.
I can certainly see why.
Iron Man is – wonder of wonders! — a superhero movie that is actually fun to watch. It employs a story that is as old as the hills, being a “Self-absorbed jerk learns a better way to live” narrative as Tony Stark realizes that maybe he can’t live with being the world’s greatest weapons manufacturer and that he has greatly misused his enormous intellectual gifts. What’s nice is that the film doesn’t dwell on Stark’s character growth; it’s there, but it doesn’t bog down the entire movie as these kinds of superhero lessons often do.
The film opens with Stark touring in Afghanistan with a company of US soldiers, but he is taken prisoner in a vicious attack and forced to build a weapon for the Afghan Taliban soldiers. (At least, I assume they’re Taliban. I’m not sure the film was entirely clear on this point.) The leader tells him, in Arabic, “Build the weapon and then I will set you free.” Another captive, who serves as translator, relates this to Stark, who mutters, “No, he won’t.” So Stark takes the raw materials he’s been given by the Afghans and builds his means of escape: an armored suit of metal that has rocket thrusters and a whole lot of flamethrowers. In other words, Stark builds his Iron Man prototype.
It’s when he returns to the US that Stark discovers that his company is not aligned with the side of the angels, and he begins work on his new, improved Iron Man suit. Thus begins some high adventure as Tony Stark realizes too late just whom he is up against.
As noted above, I give Iron Man high marks for not following along in the Dark Knightization of its superhero story; this is at its heart a light, fun adventure movie to which one can happily apply an adjective like rollicking. I have nothing against dark, grim stories that plumb the depths of human cynicism; but I do like the occasional story where a guy is a hero at least partly because he has fun being a hero.
Acting-wise, the film is top-notch; Robert Downey Jr. captures perfectly the inherent arrogance and brilliance of Tony Stark. Jeff Bridges chews lots of scenery as only he can. I always like to see Gwyneth Paltrow in stuff, flakey as she seems to be in real life. I wasn’t as totally thrilled with the Nick Fury cameo in the end credits, because as much as I loved the Marvel Universe when I was a kid reading comics, I’m not sure I’m enthusiastic about “Marvel Universalizing” the various movies they have coming out over the next few years. But that’s just me.
I’m told that Iron Man 2 is not as good as the first, but I’ll find that out for myself at some point.