If it is axiomatic that heroes in tights look great on the page but terrible on the screen, then Iron Man was the one exception who was always destined to look better in live action than in ink. Shiny metallic surfaces are difficult to portray in two dimensions without becoming messy, and Iron Man has no supernatural visual elements, like the Hulk, that might strain credulity in live action. Neither does Batman, of course, but his best medium is animation where he can be depicted as a moving shadow, while animation is Iron Man’s worst medium, because the suit not only looks unconvincing but also bends from frame to frame.
Forty-five years after his first appearance, moviemaking technology has finally caught up with the promise inherent in the Iron Man concept. Visually, this is the best comics-to-film translation of a superhero costume yet attempted, and without qualification the best Marvel origin movie ever made — only X2 and Spider-Man 2 can equal it on the Marvel roster.
There was no way Marvel Studios was going to compete with The Dark Knight this summer, but they have managed to do just that by giving us the Anti-Batman: bright and colorful. The origin of Iron Man even follows the same path as Batman Begins, but with the elements slightly shuffled. At the beginning of their journeys, both Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne find themselves themselves imprisoned on the other side of the world but emerged from their ordeals with a newfound purpose that they put into action upon their return home. Both spend lots of time in caves building, with the help of wise older assistants, the first versions of their suits — scenes always absent from superpowered hero movies but apparently crucial for those without powers. Both face the corporate intrigue of attempted takeovers of their companies by rival board members, as well as trusted mentors who may not have been totally honest with them. And of course, both have personal assistants without whom they couldn’t get through the day.
So what’s the crucial difference? Their personalities couldn’t be more different: Stark lives the billionaire playboy lifestyle that everyone believes Wayne does, but Stark enjoys it and, though he also lives in the shadow of his father, does not suffer from an ounce of Wayne’s psychological torment. The star of the show is Downey’s deadpan charisma, without which we might get antsy during the wait for the Red and Gold armor to be finally unveiled. But the movie’s humor is not just doing the job of a warm-up comedian, nor is it the product of on-set afterthoughts.
In this day and age I thought it would be impossible to make a weapons manufacturer a likable character, not to mention a hero. A second-act change of heart would be essential but by then it would be too late for the audience’s sympathy. I never read Iron Man comics because Stark always struck me as too slick and too cool for school (and I never liked his dirty mustache), but by investing the character with a sense of self-irony, Favreau and Downey have made even Stark’s braggadocio endearing and you can’t help but like him from scene one. Even after his personal epiphany, Stark’s refusal to take himself too seriously still does work by neutralizing any direction towards preachiness the script might have taken in other hands — just imagine Arriaga’s Iron Man. Sure, Stark still learns that with great wealth and firepower comes great responsibility, but mercifully nobody articulates it that piously.
Somewhat unexpectedly, Iron Man is also the best casted superhero movie since Batman Begins. It’s not Jeff Bridges’ fault that his voice is forever inextricable from The Dude, but his bald/bearded combo does a lot to defamiliarize the actor. I’m not a Gwyneth Paltrow fan but her Pepper Potts surpasses 45 years of accumulated workplace sexual tension generated by Miss Moneypenny. The conflicted emotions in Paltrow’s face during the dance scene, moreso than the subsequent balcony scene, actually made me feel her heartache. Given the audience investment in her character, it is all the more to the filmmakers’ credit that Miss Potts’ relationship with Mr. Stark ends on the perfect note.
Not to say the movie doesn’t push the boundaries of comic book fare. A one-night stand early on is only implied but later on the film’s true “sex scene” provocatively inverts the male/female roles. Stark calls his female assistant to his garage where she finds him shirtless and reclining. At his insistence that he can’t do it without her, she tentatively inserts her hand into Stark’s narrow chest cavity, feeling for a highly sensitive wire that she can’t find without his guidance. The slightest movement of her hand affects his whole body and when she pulls it out her hand is covered in fluid. But rather than out of place, this 25th anniversary nod to the insertion of a VHS tape into James Woods’ abdominal vagina feels entirely appropriate to Iron Man’s Cronenbergian integration of man and machine.
The scene is one of the freshest elements not inspired by Warren Ellis’ updated origin for the character in 2004. It’s literally the only Iron Man story I’ve read in my whole life but I recommend it, thanks largely to the art of Adi Granov whose designs were the basis for the film’s suits. The only shortcoming of the film was the climactic battle which should have lasted a few more minutes.
The best trailer before the movie was Will Smith’s Hancock, which should prove yet again that most original superhero movies are better than adaptations of comic books. Iron Man, however, is one of the few exceptions to that rule. I can’t help wondering if Favreau could have made the Spider-Man franchise even better than Raimi, who marginalized Spidey’s most distinctive comic book trait: his indomitable commitment to wise-cracking. With the only lighthearted superhero adaptations until now being the Fantastic Four, it’s great to see a good movie finally fill that niche.