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Year of release
Mark Fergus / Hawk Ostby
Art Marcum / Matt Holloway
Mark Fergus / Hawk Ostby
Art Marcum / Matt Holloway
Robert Downey Jr.
Robert Downey Jr.
Plot - Tony Stark (Downey) is a scientific genius, a billionaire, a playboy extraordinaire and son of legendary inventor and weapons contractor Howard Stark. While giving a weapons presentation in Afghanistan, the convoy he is riding with comes under attack from enemy combatants. During the attack he is severely wounded by an explosion which leaves him with a chest-full of shrapnel. When he awakes he finds himself held captive in a cave by Afghani rebels, with a car battery attached to his heart being the only thing keeping him alive. When the terrorists holding him order him to construct one of his company's missiles, Stark instead uses the materials to build an armoured suit which he uses to escape. Returning to America he refines both the technology keeping the shrapnel from his heart, and the armour. His time in captivity has changed him however and he no longer wants his company to be in the business of producing weapons. This decision brings him into contention with the board of directors and his second in command Obidah Stane (Bridges). With the help of his assistant Pepper Potts (Paltrow), Tony Stark has vowed to become a better man, starting with becoming the superhero known as Iron Man.
Spider-Man. Thor. The Hulk. Captain America. Wolverine. The X-Men. The Fantastic Four. Daredevil. Perhaps even Blade after his forays onto the big screen. Pre-2008 all of those Marvel individuals and teams were arguably more popular than Iron Man, and they certainly had a larger awareness in popular culture. I mean exactly who the hell was Iron Man? Had the Tin Man from Wizard of Oz had an upgrade and got his own spin-off? Who was this guy and why should we care? He was certainly a B-level character, if even that! Well that all changed in May of 2008 with the release of this film. After the film had completed its box-office run and racked up an impressive total of $585 million the character was well on its way to leap-frogging all the way to the top, with arguably only Spider-Man rivalling his popularity, certainly in cinema terms. And in fact you could perhaps argue that Iron Man has actually surpassed Spidey at the cinema considering that no Spider-Man film has ever made over a billion dollars like Iron Man 3 did. Not only did it prove to be a big film for the character of Iron Man, but I think it was a big film for Marvel and comic book movies at large. Iron Man was the first comic book movie that didn't include Spider-Man, the X-Men, Batman or Superman to make serious money, and it just confirmed the rampant appetite that audiences currently had for superheroes. It was no longer just the big names that everyone already knew that were ripe for the big screen. It also augured well for Marvel's ambitious plans for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Up until that point some people may have thought of it as being an ill-advised and overly ambitious project but this confirmed that it may well work. And as it turned out it certainly did. Iron Man marked the beginning of 'Phase One' which would culminate in the box-office behemoth that was The Avengers.
While the film has a lot going for it, without a doubt it is the performance of Robert Downey Jr that really ensured that I and many other people fell in love with it. Back in 2007 when it was announced that he had been cast I thought it was a great decision that showed both vision and a bit of bravery. Given that Downey and Tony Stark seemed like kindred spirits I thought he would be able to do an excellent job at capturing the arrogance and swagger of the character, of handling his acerbic and witty humour and of relating to the character's search for redemption. In the film, following his escape from capture Tony Stark decides that after seeing first-hand the dangers of his weapons he is going to dedicate himself to making the world a better place and attempts to prove to everyone that he is a changed individual. While it may not have reached the same lofty heights, Robert Downey Jr found himself in a similar predicament. After his much publicised problems (drug abuse, arrests, rehab, relapses) which were very much aired in public Downey had a lot to prove. He had to prove that he could still be a draw at the box office, that he could be trusted with such a big film and that he could be trusted to be the face of a franchise going forward. So while I may thought that Marvel had pulled off a bit of a masterstroke with his casting even I couldn't have imagined just how perfect a fit he would be however. He absolutely sparkles throughout the whole film, tackling the character with a tremendous charisma. And his charisma is important because on his own the character may not be the most easily likeable given his ego and narcissistic nature. Downey however brings depth, heart and lots of humour to the role. In the words of Jon Favreau he thought Downey would be perfect because he felt the actor's past was right for the part. He commented: "The best and worst moments of Robert's life have been in the public eye. He had to find an inner balance to overcome obstacles that went far beyond his career. That's Tony Stark. Robert brings a depth that goes beyond a comic book character having trouble in high school, or can't get the girl." Favreau also felt Downey could make Stark "a likable b*stard", but also depict an authentic emotional journey once he won over the audience.” Of all the actors who have portrayed superheroes on film I think Downey is the gold standard thus far.
While it's certainly Robert Downey Jr's performance that will bring the audience in and resonate most strongly, the efforts of the whole cast are on the whole fairly impressive. The great Jeff Bridges is damn good in the role of Obidah Stane, initially as Tony's reasonably genial business partner and later displaying a substantial amount of sleeze and menace. I may not be a huge fan of hers but I thought Gwyneth Paltrow was also pretty good here, and had a nice, easygoing chemistry with Downey. In the role of Rhodey I thought that Terrence Howard was decent but a bit bland, and I didn't feel it was any great loss when he was replaced for the sequels with Don Cheadle. The other great performance I thought came from Shaun Toub as Yinsen, Tony's saviour and fellow captive in the cave. He may not be in the film for a substantial amount of time but he made a sizeable impact in my eyes with a very warm, compassionate performance. As a result of his showing I also found the death of his character to be very touching. Oh and Iron Man sees the first appearance of the charming Clark Gregg on his way to stardom as Agent Phil Coulsen. Originally it was a much smaller role, so much so that his character was initially only called 'Agent.' During filming however it became apparent how much chemistry he had with all the other actors, so more and more scenes were added for him, and he would eventually become a large part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Of all the many comic book movies out there (and there have been many great ones in my eyes) very, very few have come close to matching the sheer spirit of comics like Iron Man was able to. For me a superhero film should above all else be fun. It should welcome with open arms the fantastic and pulpy nature of the material. It shouldn't try to dress it up and make it 'respectable' or 'overly serious' like I felt Christopher Nolan was guilty of at times. And Iron Man certainly does embrace the fun of its premise. It's a brightly-coloured, breezy world of larger-than-life characters and out-of-this-world events. I also loved the fact that its character had a different attitude than most of the other superheroes at the time. In the years previous to Iron Man we had seen the likes of Peter Parker, Bruce Wayne and Wolverine all having a pretty tough time at being heroes; struggling with the pressure of keeping their true identities secret, struggling to form relationships, suffering personal tragedies, even abandoning their alter-egos etc. Well when Tony Stark becomes Iron Man he completely embraces it. The moment where he first takes to the skies in the suit is fantastic; he just looks so happy, like a giddy kid. And then there's the film's great send-off where instead of hiding his dalliances in the suit he comes straight out and announces loud and proud that yes “I am Iron Man!”
Film Trivia - You might think that Iron Man is one of those films that had to wait for technology to catch up before it could be produced. As it turns out however the film has been languishing in development hell since April of 1990. At the times the rights were held by Universal who had Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator) lined up to direct. Nothing came off it however and in 1996 the rights were acquired by 20th Century Fox. During this stage Nicholas Cage expressed a strong interest in the project but again there was no positive moment. Two years later Tom Cruise became interested in both producing and starring in the film, and was so keen on becoming Tony Stark that he actually commissioned a script by Stan Lee and Jeff Vintar. Despite this it still couldn't make its way into production. In 1999 Quentin Tarantino of all people was approached to direct but once again there was no progress. In 2000 the rights were taken over by New Line, who had a new script in hand and actually started talking to Joss Whedon about directing but that didn't pan out. In 2004 Nick Cassavetes was attached to direct but the project yet again fell through, and the rights finally reverted back to Marvel.
The fact that Iron Man is nowhere near as dark, serious or 'adult' as The Dark Knight (which was released in the same summer) means that people might not appreciate or expect just how 'good' a film Iron Man actually is. It's often been the case that the best superhero films are those which are just as strong or even stronger when they're concerning themselves with the man inside the suit, rather than the suit itself. And thanks to a sharp and witty script Iron Man most certainly falls into that category. While the film may truly soar when its title character does likewise, the reason that we are invested in it is because the script has spent so much time building the character into someone we know and can relate to. It shows us who the character was, the predicament he finds himself in and how it changes him and his genesis as a superhero. I particularly loved the scenes dedicated to him building his suit. So many films just throw their superhero right into their spandex without showing us the process of getting there. So we care about Tony Stark just as much as we do Iron Man, and even without a metallic suit in sight the story is very interesting; first detailing his imprisonment in Afghanistan and then his battle of power with Obidah Stane.
The script is also well constructed and paced though as it doesn't forget to drop splashes of action in amongst this character building. Just as many of the best superhero films do (Spider-Man 2, X-Men 2 etc) the script also allows the film to bridge the gap between the two styles of comic book movies we've become accustomed to. There's the silly, fun likes of Superman and the Fantastic Four, and then there's the more serious and sombre efforts like Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. Well by taking elements of both approaches the end result is one of the closest examples of truly brining a comic book to life. It's got the sense of escapist fun which is unavoidable, but grounds it with a dose of reality and substance. And as has become rather customary for Marvel's cinematic output Iron Man is also an extremely humorous film, generating enough laughs to rival and often shame the outright 'comedies' of recent years.
I feel that Iron Man has one of the strongest openings to any film of recent years, and really lets you know what you're in for up front. The first thing that happens is that AC/DCs classic “Back in Black” kicks in, perfectly setting the stage for the raucous, fist-pumping viewing experience you're about to be treated to. And right away we see that Tony Stark is not the typical superhero we had come to know. This is no righteous do-gooder with a heart of gold, this is no victim of a cruel fate which has sent them on a course of revenge. Instantly we see Stark as this arrogant, carefree individual with a glass of Scotch in his hand who is right on the line between being the coolest guy you've ever met and a massive douche. And it's not long before we see him hanging out with and bedding numerous women. He really is like the James Bond of superheroes. Downey is fantastic in that opening sequence while interacting with the soldiers, oozing charm and hitting every one-liner; instantly putting to bed any doubts some people may have had over his casting.
Film Trivia Snippets - Jon Favreau, on directing duties here, would actually go on to provide the voice of Iron Man himself. He did so in a 2009 episode of Robot Chicken. /// Paul Bettany provided the voice of JARVIS in the film, recording all of his lines in just two hours. Although Bettany himself has admitted that he didn't even know what film he was working on. He was merely doing it as a favour to Jon Favreau after they had worked together on Wimbledon. /// Early drafts of the script had the film heading in some very different directions to the finished product. One idea early on was to have Tony Stark's father, Howard, still be alive and a ruthless industrialist who would become War Machine. Another fairly radical idea and deviation from the comics was to reveal Tony Stark as being the creator of Dr. Otto Octavius' tentacles in Spider-Man 2. The original villain envisaged for the film was to be the Mandarin, who was to be re-imagined as an Indonesian terrorist. /// Before Robert Downey was cast several other actors were considered, amongst them were Clive Owen and Rockwell, while Timothy Olyphant actually read for the role. Rockwell would eventually get a part in Iron Man 2 as Tony's rival, Justin Hammer. Wolverine actor Hugh Jackman was also offered the role. /// The roadster that we see Tony Stark working on is actually owned by Jon Favreau. /// There are a couple of musical nods to the classic 1966 Iron Man cartoon. When Tony and Rhodey are walking through the Casino in Vegas the music playing is a smooth jazz version of the cartoon's theme song. While Rhodey's ringtone for when Tony calls him is a midi version of the theme music.
As well as praising the script for its part in moulding the finished product, a lot of credit also has to go to Jon Favreau. Up until now he had been known for light-hearted, 'kiddie' movies like Zathura and Elf. As he result he, like Downey, also represented a bit of a gamble perhaps on Marvel's behalf. Yet again however it proved to be a resounding success. He captures the tone perfectly, moves proceedings along at a beautiful pace and with his comedic background is more than capable of handling the moments of humour. What is perhaps more surprising is the fantastic job he does with the action set-pieces. They are all thrilling, fun-packed and wonderfully realised sequences that are joyous and just bring a smile to the face. There's the tremendous debut of the Mark 1 suit in all its clunky, bulking glory that aids in Tony's escape from his Afghani imprisonment. There's the moment where he returns to face and destroy his captors with his shiny new suit, before taking to the skies where he gets himself into a dogfight with a couple of fighter jets. That dogfight is a particular highlight of the film. And while it certainly wasn't met with universal approval I actually like the final face-off he has with Obidah Stane in his Iron Monger guise. The effects are great, it's hard hitting and avoids the problem that plagues so many big blockbusters - it doesn't outstay its welcome. It's pretty short and sweet.
While Favreau's staging certainly plays a part in the effectiveness of the action sequences, the biggest factor would have to be the film's special effects which are pretty much flawless. The design of the Iron Man suits themselves and their realisation is just tremendous. Huge credit on that front to both Industrial Light and Magic for their digital creations and to Stan Winston for making the actual, practical suits for Downey to wear and just how seamlessly they combine to bring the character to life. When Richard Donner's Superman hit cinema screens back in 1978 it came with the tag-line “You'll believe a man can fly.” With its retro effects that might be a little bit of a stretch these days, but it's a sentiment that you could certainly apply to Iron Man. The scenes of him in flight, particularly in the aforementioned fighter jet battle, are just astonishingly good and downright joyous. There are also a few other instances where we see some fine work in place. Some of the set and art design is very impressive, particularly when it comes to Stark's incredible mansion and the cave in which he is held captive. The cave sequences are also extremely well lit. There's also some crisp, sharp cinematography on show, whether it be of the urban cityscapes of California or of the Afghani deserts. While the film's soundtrack, heavy on rock, is a great fit for the action unfolding on screen.
Conclusion - The summer of 2008 saw the release of two of the most popular superhero films that have so far hit the big screen; Iron Man and The Dark Knight. And while I'm aware that I may be alone on here, I greatly prefer the adventures of old shellhead to Nolan's gritty take on the caped crusader. While I'm not going to argue that this is a 'better' film (but only because I don't want to antagonise the Nolan fanboys! ) there's a great deal that means I prefer it. Unlike The Dark Knight this film has heart, humour, a charismatic lead performance and is simply just a lot of fun. I just love it.
Bonus Film Trivia Snippets - Trying to get writers to be a part of the project proved to be a difficult task. The production met with about 30 different writers and they all passed, as most of them felt that Iron Man was a relatively obscure character in the Marvel universe. They were also a bit nervous about working for an untried studio better known for producing comic books. Even the rewrites led to many refusals. /// During the scenes that feature Iron Man's Head Up Display, the sound effect used to indicate a target lock is the laser cannon firing from the original Space Invaders arcade game. /// All three sets of Iron Man's armor were designed by Adi Granov, a comic book artist from the "Iron Man" comic, and Paul Saunders. The suits were then constructed by Stan Winston Studios. In total about 450 separate pieces make up the Iron Man suit, which the Mark 1 armour weighed 90 pounds. Sadly Iron Man proved to be the last film that special effects legend Stan Winston completed before his death. /// There was a little bit of a directing merry-go-round as the Marvel films go. Originally Favreau was set to direct Captain America: The First Avenger, while in December 2004 it was Nick Cassavetes who was set to direct Iron Man. As opposed to the comedy adventure that his Captain America was set to be, Favreau instead decided to direct Iron Man and give it a more serious tone. Ironically Cassavetes was then chosen to direct Captain America. /// When it came to the relationship between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts, Jon Favreau envisaged it being akin to that of a 1940s screwball comedy along the lines of His Girl Friday. Gwyneth Paltrow subsequently based her performance on that of the heroines of 1940s films, claiming that they were sexy, witty and innocent all at once. /// The montage of Tony Stark's life story was created by editor Kyle Cooper, and was compiled using real-life photos of a young Robert Downey Jr and his father Robert Downey Sr.