Iron Man has a history going back to 1990 in attempts to bring it to the screen. Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator) was on board for Universal…years later, Nick Cage and Tom Cruise sought the role of Tony Stark. When They announced Director Jon Favreau as director and Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man, there seemed to be a collective “Meh.” I get why Favreau was not instantly met with a cheer. He had three films to his credit as director. The idea that he had the chops as director to take on something of this level certainly was at least hinted at with Zarthura… but I was more perplexed by the indifference to the ever talented Downy Jr. He seemed all to well suited for the role of a care free playboy that is Tony Stark.
The film opens in Afghanistan, with Stark riding in a Humvee. He has some playful banter with the soldiers, before they fall under attack. The film does a terrific job of switching the tones from the casual goofing off at the start to the harrowing action and destruction that follows. After diving behind a rock, Tony is surprised as a rocket lands next to him… Stark noticed his logo on the side of the rocket as it explodes. We see rough shots of men holding him captive before jumping back in time. We discover that Stark lives a pretty carefree life…he pays little attention to time, does not worry about losing large sums of cash while gambling and has a way with the ladies. He seduces a reporter only to leave dealing with her the next morning to his personal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). He’s a genius who is constantly trying to occupy his mind (playing with cars) but also a terrific pitchman.
When we get back to Afghanistan, Tony discovers he is a prisoner of the Ten Rings, along with Dr. Yinsen (Shaun Toub) who saved Tony’s life. The Ten Rings want Tony to build them a new weapon. For parts, they show him a massive collection of Stark weaponry. Tony refuses to help. Once alone, Yinsen compels Tony to use his talents to fight back. Under the guise of agreeing to make the new weapon, Tony starts designing and building a means of escape. First, he builds a new version of the magnet repealing shrapnel from his heart. One that does not require a car battery.
It turns out to be a suit of armor. In a thrilling escape, Tony fights the minions of the Tenth Circle, but losing Yinsen in the process. One of the nice things that the script and performances manage is a convincing friendship between the two, so Yinsen’s death feels like it truly impacts start and that he is both heartbroken and angry at the loss. After returning to the states, Tony calls for a press conference where he announces-much to the shock of his second in command Obediah Stane (Jeff Bridges)-he is taking Stark Industries out of the Military Industrial Complex. We also meet an important character to the Marvel movie franchise. Agent Phil Colson (Clark Gregg) introduces himself to Pepper, wanting to discuss Tony’s escape.
Obediah seems to be an understanding and caring guy. He’s concerned about the future of the company, but seems to think they can make it work based off of the mini-arc reactor in Tony’s chest (the magnet in his chest). Tony starts to upgrade his reactor and build a new suit of armor. Tony’s announcement leaves Tony concerned about his friendship with Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Terrence Howard). Rhodey is seemingly frustrated that he sees Stark walking away from helping the military.
At the same time, the Tenth Circle’s leader Raza (Faran Tahir) has his men digging up the remains of the Mark I armor. Back in the states, the Stark Industries board of directors try and lock Tony out. He decides to show up at a Stark party. It is hear, we start to see strains of his relationship with Stane. Coulson shows up at the party to again try and set up a time for he and Tony to discuss the escape. While there, Tony tries to convince Pepper that they should go on a date…nearly kissing, Pepper sends Stark to get a drink for her…there he runs into the reporter from earlier who shows him pictures of Stark weaponry still being used by the Tenth Circle. Stane confesses-in a very ominous fashion-that he was the one who locked Tony out.
Watching the news about Afghanistan, Tony suits up and hurtles through the sky. He takes out the Tenth Circle, destroying their weapons. He gets the attention of U.S. Military, which leads to an exciting cat and mouse game with Tony and two fighter jets. Meanwhile, Stane is putting things together and decides to pay a visit to the Tenth Circle. Stane takes the reassembled armor and has the Tenth Circle effectively killed.
Tony convinces Pepper to do some espionage for him… as she collects information, she discovers that Stane had made a deal with the Tenth Circle to kill Tony. In a tense moment, Obediah walks into the room and seems to speak with a certain knowledge of what is really going on. As Pepper leaves, she runs into Coulson. They hurry off together (Coulson trying to keep up). Meanwhile, Stane finds out that his scientists have been unable to replicate the power source. Stane opts to steal it from Tony’s chest (he uses special tech to immobilize Tony).
Since Tony is not answering his phone, Coulson and Pepper make a b-line for Stark Industries while Rhodey races to Tony’s. At the same time, Tony is struggling to his workspace in the basement to try and get his old arc reactor. Coulson and his agents start looking for Stane along with Pepper. They are, of course, to late, as Stane is now in the massive Iron Monger Armor. Tony races off to save Pepper. He soon discovers his old arc reactor is not strong enough to sustain the suit and the power is draining face. He has a knockdown battle with Stane where they use a giant arc reactor to overload the Iron Monger.
The next morning, Tony is preparing to give a press statement. He is told by Colson to tell people that Iron Man is his bodyguard and he was on his yacht. Tony stands before the room of reporters and starts to give the official line…but impulsively announces he is Iron Man-and roll cool retro credits and Black Sabbath’s Iron Man. As for Franchise building, it is the post credits sequence that made fans giddy. Tony returns home, where he is greeted by a mysterious man with an eye-patch. We viewers know this is Nick Fury…he tells Tony there are other heroes out there… ones “like” Tony. He wants to discuss the Avengers Initiative with him. Bam. Fans cheered.
The chemistry between Tony and Pepper is excellent. It is playful, flirty and not overwrought with melodrama. Paltrow was a terrific choice and the character really shines. Downy Jr. and Paltrow are able to really make the relationship sell with the audience.
Downey Jr is terrific in the role. He seems to effortlessly move from fun and flirtation to passionate and intense. At no point does he seem like an ill fit for the part…Tony Stark works in this film because you believe Downey Jr.
Bridges makes a terrific Obediah Stane. He seems so kind and generous at the beginning, but when the charm needs to give way to menace, he really pulls it off. Howard’s Rhodey is a nicely handled role. He is a pro as a soldier, but he knows his friend well, and commits to helping him in any way he can.
Watching Tony develop the new armor provides a lot of laughs (Tony gets hurt a lot). His mechanical assistants seems full of personality and humor as we watch them work together. The armor effects are terrific and give the illusion of weight and mass that feels like it was on the set. It feels like it really would be functional.
I felt the biggest flaw in the film was the end battle. It felt tacked on, like they suddenly realized they were almost at the end and had not resolved the main conflict with Stane. It’s almost to quick, and honestly a little confusing as to how the giant arc reactor was impacting what was going on (it seems to hurt Stane, but help Tony).
All in all, Iron Man was an exciting and fun film, cementing the idea that Marvel movies were fun and exciting rides…but that they also had solid performances and decent-if not outright terrific-stories. Of course, while it was exciting that they were doing something new-a movie universe-it was hard to tell if this would be a successful venture or a failed experiment.