Last Updated: May 2, 2008By Tags:

Iron Man [PG-13]

Grade: C

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard

When Iron Man’s iconic outfit first goes under the mallet, it is in a gloomy prison, in a gloomy cave, with scraps of leftover metal. Similarly, the Iron Man persona is pieced together from spare parts of more successful caped men. Playboy arms dealer Tony Stark is the sunny-sided version of Batman’s brooding Bruce Wayne. His bulletproof armor probably required Superman to sign a legal waiver. Not to mention his ability to fly. (His glowing heart, meanwhile, conjures memories of Neil Diamond’s E.T. tribute “Heart Light.” Yeah, thanks for that.) In terms of being a weak imitation, the film version of Iron Man follows suit (presumably one made of red-and-gold titanium). Batman Begins draws a hero of darkness and complication. Bryan Singer’s Superman allows us an alienated savior, a man who can save the world but cannot fully participate in it. Despite some mild stabs at a darker, deeper vision, Jon Favreau’s Iron Man possesses little of that sophistication. That’s my hopefully not-too-unkind way of calling this a derivative story for a derivative superhero. While Iron Man has plenty of decent, it seldom feels special. That might consign Iron Man to the scrap heap of popcorn cinema, if it were not for one fit of inspiration – the radical lunacy of selecting Robert Downey Jr. to play a superhero. Our favorite intelligently maniacal ad-libber brings his own show tent. That’s good news here, as the modest script begs for a furious performance. That’s why Downey proves so effective, and so necessary.
Downey’s deadpan vitality spruces up a deadly basic story. A genius weapons developer and merchant of death, Tony Stark is captured during an ambush in the Afghan desert. After taking him to a prison camp and parading him before cameras, his captors command him to build a supermissile for their two-dimensionally evil use. In perhaps the dumbest move in the history of captivity – and that goes back a ways – the jailers give Stark access to their arsenal. Soon he builds two things not on his captors’ world-domination agenda – a glowing magnet that keeps his damaged heart healthy and an indestructible suit of armor and arms. Having seen the damage caused by his deadly products, Stark vows to do heroic things upon his return home. Of course he does so, ironically, by turning himself into a one-man military-industrial complex. And so the first hour devotes acres of screentime to watching Downey play with science. It feels like watching a Bill Nigh the Science Guy biopic. If Bill Nigh split his time between two laboratories in an oceanside mansion and an Afghan cave.
Things pick up as Stark completes his fully-operational battle station of a uniform. Soon, he’s flying. He’s fighting. He’s gleefully dodging fighter planes and whacking the bad guys. At first, his efforts and missile systems aim for the dastardly terrorists who captured him. Later, he will duel his duplicitous business partner (Jeff Bridges), in a Transformers-esque smash-up, along the highways and skyways of Los Angeles.
As superheroes go, Iron Man feels disappointingly non-mythical. That feeling is compounding by the film’s lackluster visual style. The world of a superhero should be custom-painted to its character. It should feel like walking in his psyche. Director Favreau produces no such creativity. Not that there is much of a psyche to work with.
And yet much of this is saved by Downey’s greatness. His puncturing asides resuscitate the workmanlike moments. His character might be a merchant of death, but Downey is a merchant of the unexpected. Even if the same cannot be said for the rest of the movie.