Retro Review: Iron Man

Iron Man 1 poster

These past ten years have seen superhero movies leave an indelible mark on pop-culture, to the point where they are a fixture at the local cinema. Chiefly responsible for this phenomenon is Marvel – or, more accurately, the film which gave birth to its unstoppable rise, and with good reason.

Billionaire industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is the most intelligent, charismatic man to ever grace the planet. Through his company, Stark Industries, he has sold countless high-tech weapons to militaries and governments, making him the world’s richest man. These profits have allowed him to live a lifestyle of decadence and arrogance, with his assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and friend James Rhodes (Terence Howard) being the only people who can keep him grounded.

After delivering a weapons demonstration to potential investors in Afghanistan, Stark’s convoy is ambushed by a group of unknown terrorists who kidnap the businessman. Stark suffers near-fatal injuries as a result of the armed siege, but his life is ultimately saved by an electromagnetic implant that prevents shrapnel from entering his bloodstream, courtesy of fellow prisoner Ho Yinsen (Shaun Toub).

Stark’s captors wish for him to build a superweapon for purposes of terrorism, in exchange for his freedom; it’s an offer he agrees to, but instead of fulfilling their wishes, Stark clandestinely opts to use their rudimentary technology and resources to make an escape. To achieve this, he plans on constructing an indestructible suit of armour equipped with makeshift weapons, like Ned Kelly if he were a steampunk.

Today, Iron Man is universally recognised as the first instalment of the behemoth that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but at the time of its release, there was no indication or confidence that the superhero blockbuster would spawn sequels, let alone a franchise – its director, Jon Favreau, even suspected that the film would be a flop at the box-office. Such a statement may sound laughable now, but it’s worth remembering the many risks this movie took.

First and foremost, Iron Man was a relatively unknown property back in 2008, with the likes of Spider-Man, X-Men and Hulk being more familiar to cinemagoers; it was released two months before another superhero film, The Dark Knight, which was generating much more buzz; it starred an actor who had not starred in, nor lead, a big-budget blockbuster for many years, due to his tarnished past; and it was directed by another actor with very little experience helming action movies.

Yet despite all the odds being against it, Jon Favreau’s Iron Man was a success (by 2008 standards, anyway) and pivotal to its box-office triumph was Robert Downey Jr, who appears to be tailor-made for the central role. His characterisation of Tony Stark came as a result of improvisation – while the plot had been finalised during development of the film, much of the dialogue needed re-writing, so Downey was allowed to ad-lib the characters lines, resulting in some memorable quips.

Thanks to Downey’s one-liners, and the occasional instance of physical humour, the film’s tone resembles that of a comedy, although it would prefer to identify as an action movie. Iron Man can be readily classified as such, but is notably less action-heavy than a typical superhero movie, with scenes where Stark makes full-use of his armour being sporadic. Even so, these rare sequences prove spectacular once they do appear, and the thrills they provide are worth waiting for.

Not that the rest of Iron Man is boring, mind. Before getting to unleash the might of his suits, many scenes and montages are shown of Stark building his weaponised armour from scratch and testing it, an otherwise dull activity that the movie makes interesting. Additionally, there’s a rock soundtrack courtesy of Aussie band AC/DC, and a rather menacing – though not complex or expertly-written – villain in the form of Stark’s colleague Obadiah Stane, played by a bearded, bald-headed Jeff Bridges.

A decade since its premiere, what impresses most about Iron Man is how it builds the world around it. Rather than cram as many characters as it can into the film, or have a story that merely acts as exposition for a sequel, there are only the smallest of hints to suggest that Tony Stark is part of a much bigger universe, like the introduction of Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), or a cameo by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in a nowadays customary post-credits sequence. The trick, it seems, is to be subtle.

Iron Man can lay claim not just to being the first film in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, but also a polished, enjoyable superhero flick. Led by the magnetic personality of Robert Downey Jr, it’s a film that skilfully develops its characters and world in a package that fuses humour with action, helping to sow the seeds for Marvel films to come.

4 stars

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