Robert Downey Jr. Ignites Marvel Studios

In anticipation of Marvel Studios IRON MAN 3, opening Friday (in case you haven’t heard!), I present my original opening weekend reviews of the first two films of the series.  My review of the IRON MAN 2 film can be found at


Already much has been said about Iron Man, so I won’t spend a lot of time being redundant.  I do, however, want to comment on a few lesser discussed aspects of Iron Man, focusing on its status and history with Marvel Comics. In short, how does it fare as an adaptation?  Plus, I’ve got a few other thoughts for good measure.

As far as Marvel characters go, Tony Stark (Iron Man’s alter ego) has proven to be one of their richest and deepest individuals. Fantastic adventures aside, his established persona as a playboy genius billionaire industrialist has given way to very human tales, including his famous struggle with alcoholism, as well as his troubling self-proclaimed “futurist” pomposity and ego. Lately, in light of last year’s epic super hero Civil War, Stark has had some bittersweet, very difficult lessons to learn, despite having led the victorious side. Although Marvel’s various writers often explore his fascistic tendencies from differing degrees, the good ones understand that to villianize Stark for being who he is – an ultimately well-meaning man whose heroic qualities outweigh his flaws most any day – is dead wrong. It is this history and complexity that rends Iron Man worthy not just of cinematic treatment, but of A-list blockbuster treatment.

From the very depths of my rapidly beating fanboy heart, I can attest that Jon Favreau has done it right.

A quick aside: It’s interesting to note the 180-degree differences in the nature of the pre-release P.R. buzz on the two Marvel films for this summer.  Iron Man has proven to be a case study in how to generate positive excitement among the mass populace for a summer blockbuster, where-as The Incredible Hulk has become nothing short of a publicity nightmare. Much is at stake for the fledgling Marvel Productions with these two films, and I for one am hoping that the positives of Iron Man can ultimately carry them through. And maybe Hulk will be good. But I digress…

From the very depths of my rapidly beating fanboy heart, I can attest that Jon Favreau has done it right. Considering Iron Man’s traditional status with the general public as a second tier Marvel character, it would’ve been easier, even understandable for the scope of his movie to be more along the lines of Ghost Rider or Daredevil rather than Spider-Man or X-Men, which this correctly falls in line with. This is big-studio spare-no-expense entertainment – as it should be. Clearly, all parties involved threw their passions behind this effort, embracing the possibilities and history of the character, not to mention the sheer coolness of a guy fighting evil in high-tech armor. Right down to the practical, rugged-yet-gleaming non-CG appearance of the armor and effects, great care has been taken in all corners of this film, and fans as well as mass audiences should appreciate that, particularly when viewing this film as a set-up for greater things to come.

This, being Marvel’s first in-house live-action production, appropriately gives us glimpses at the possibility of a unified Marvel Universe on screen – a key aspect to the appeal of modern super hero comics. And that’s exciting in and of itself.  While films like Spider-Man and X2 were about as good as anyone could hope for in terms of presenting engaging versions of those characters cinematically, the reality of having licensed the properties to different major studios meant that the notion of a shared universe of heroes went out the window. The idea of Spider-Man swinging into Fantastic Four headquarters to get Reed’s take on that pesky alien costume was simply legally impossible. And while the casting of big name talent in these roles may eat into the perceived continuity of such interactions, (how likely would Hugh Jackman be to do a three-minute Wolverine cameo in, say, a Captain America film? Recasting, followed by fan outcry, would no doubt follow, before probably seeing the cameo altogether abandoned.) the hints and tidbits alluded to in Iron Man point to the intention of even bigger and better things. (On the other hand, if these hints and tidbits don’t ever payoff, then that means Iron Man has unintentionally steered into “Smallville” territory, where unfulfilled winks and nods abound in a frustratingly impotent manner. I don’t think that’s the case here.)

Of course, being a film about an American weapons manufacturer’s life-changing encounters in the Middle East, political analysis is irresistible to most people. (In an American election year, no less.) It’s been commented upon that the politics of the film are murky, and while I agree (to a point), I don’t find that a negative, nor do I find the resolution of Stark violently invading Afghanistan as Iron Man on the outset of denouncing weapons manufacturing a storytelling hypocrisy. A character hypocrisy, absolutely – which, in many ways, is the point. Militarization, capitalism, revenge, and self-declared foreign involvement make for dicey bedfellows (as history shows), but these are far bigger, more complex, far-reaching issues than the polarized vocal extremists on either side can ever fully take into account.  Iron Man follows that rational; putting the authenticity of the character and his world/situation ahead of any confining political statement the filmmakers or actors might aspire to in a lesser yarn (Transformers). In this sense, Iron Man actually occupies a rare place alongside John Ford’s Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. That statement will no doubt make some heads spin, but rare is the film that honestly handles true world complexities while not being ABOUT true world complexities.

Jon Favreau has displayed his directorial virtuosity in such earlier films as Elf and Zathura, the latter of which demonstrates his right-thinking approach to eye-popping visual effects in the context of character-based filmmaking. The cast, which is one of the best ever assembled for a film of this type, is led unwaveringly by Robert Downey Jr. in the role he was born to play. While the personal trauma of Tony Stark in the comics certainly resembles Downey’s own well-publicized torrid history, his maturity and naturalistic demeanor seal the deal in true movie star fashion. (Thank God we didn’t end up with “Iron Teen”, or some such revisionism.) It’s also great to see Jeff Bridges as a hiss-worthy villain, ultimately going toe-to-toe with our hero, as it should be.

The biggest detractors of this film may be from parents of small children, taken aback by the unrepentant philandering and drinking of Tony Stark. While Stark is no role model in those senses, there are admirable sides to him, first and foremost his comic-book world ingenuity. It is this ingenuity coupled with his willingness to literally fly into the fray that he previously only profited from that makes him someone worthy of our investments. This is not a flawless film, (find me one!) but the fact that so much of it hinges on the heart of its lead character (both literally and figuratively) show that in this case, the filmmakers’ hearts are in the right place as well.

This piece was originally posted on May 2, 2008 at