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Empire Magazine Greatest Movies List - #406: Iron Man

When I was growing up, I knew of three super-heroes: Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man. Yet Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man” (2008) showed me a hero that is, if not as interesting, even more entertaining than these three put together. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has the money of Batman, the brains of Steve Jobs, but also the libido of Hugh Hefner. The scene that says it all in terms of characterisation is the one when he is flying to Afghanistan in his private jet with his Air Force friend James Rhodes (Terrence Howard). As they drink and talk shop, polls descend from the ceiling and the stewardesses begin to…well you know.

This movie was one of the highlights of the 2008 summer seasons. I was on vacation from Sherbrooke University and was working a summer job in Quebec City. But when the week-end came, man did I have some choice cuts at the Cineplex: “The Dark Knight,” “WALL-E,” “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” and “Tropic Thunder.” “Iron Man” was one of the first out of the gate and what a run did that race dog have. The trailer had done a good job of raising my expectations and the ones of my fellow geek friends back on campus. It had the right amount of eye-popping explosions, funny one-liners, and of course “Iron Man” by Ozzy Osbourne playing in the background. I believe the technical term for this particular oeuvre is “popcorn movie.”

Based on a character from Marvel comics, “Iron Man” opens as military industrialist Tony Stark is ambushed in Afghanistan after demonstrating his latest weapon to the military. During the firefight, Stark notices the logo of his own company on the weapons being used against the men and women trying to protect him. The irony of the moment has an inevitable impact on his personality later in the story.

When he awakens prisoner in a cave, fellow captive Dr. Yinsen (Shaun Toub) informs him the only way to keep shrapnel from reaching his heart was to surgically install an electromagnet in his chest. Stark is now part machine, with a huge glowing circle on his chest. The insurgents provide Stark with tools and materials to build them the same missile he recently sold to the U.S military. Instead, he secretly builds an iron suit fitted with flamethrowers in order to facilitate his escape. Both the surgery and the building of the suit seem highly unlikely given that they occur inside a cave somewhere in the desert of Afghanistan, but it is worth suspending your disbelief just to watch the insurgents fleeing at the sight of an iron monster spewing flames like a dragon.

Once he makes his triumphant return to America, Stark decides to make some major changes in his life. Privately he begins to build a better version of the suit, one that will allow him to fly and hopefully help people in need. Publicly he announces to the press that from now on Stark Industries is no longer in the business of making weapons, but will focus on the energy sector. This sudden humanitarian streak upsets his business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges, with a shaved head and a full beard) who has his eyes on the throne of the company and has no problems with selling weapons to the highest bidder.

As a superhero movie, “Iron Man” has more or less the same structure as all origin stories. The hero has a traumatic accident, he decides to become a hero as a result, and he will battle the main antagonist in the third act. What makes it stand out is the performance by its star. Robert Downey Jr. was born to play this role. Some of the funniest moments of the film happen as he is testing a new model of the suit in his workshop. His robots seem genuinely concerned when he threatens to send them to Radio Shack if they screw up again.

Director Jon Favreau, who had previously worked on smaller films such as “Made” and “Zathura,” proved that he could handle blockbuster material with this movie. He managed to stage spectacular action sequences ranging from desert firefights Afghanistan to Iron Man fighting tanks in an Afghani village. He was also smart enough to develop his characters and let them have their moments. The conversations between Stark and Virginia “Pepper” Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Stark’s assistant and potential love interest, show that these two have been through think and thin. Years of dealing with a billionaire playboy must take a special kind of patience. 

The one person who seemed slightly out of place was Jeff Bridges as the villain. Bridges is a great actor, but he didn’t come off as a menacing villain. The scenes when he is inside his own mechanical suit seemed cheesy even for a comic book movie.

Yet I liked the movie enough to go see it a second time with my brother. He didn’t really appreciate waiting until the end of the post-credit sequence to see that Samuel L. Jackson cameo, but it was fun seeing the audience react to the announcement that Avengers would soon assemble.


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