There will be some reviewer who will feel the need to be apologetic for liking Iron Man, as if something as disposable as a summer action film can actually have good writing and acting as well as a relevant subtext. These are the ones who have forgotten that good filmmaking is good filmmaking, no matter what genre it happens to be in. And let’s make no mistake, Iron Man is good filmmaking.
Billionaire Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a restless genius. His reputation as a billionaire lothario is tempered by the fact that he heads one of the leading weapons development and manufacturing firms in the world- Stark Enterprises. He knows the value of publicity and showmanship which is probably why he personally goes to Afghanistan to unveil a new weapons system for the military. Unfortunately, while being escorted back to his plane, Stark’s military convoy is attacked by Afghani rebels. During the attack, a rocket manufactured by his own company wounds Stark and when he comes to, he finds that he is held prisoner by an Afghani warlord who wants Stark to build weapons for him. Stark does build a weapon, an armored exo-skeleton, which he uses to escape, but not before destroying the rebels’ camp.
Returning to the United States and troubled by what he saw in Afghanistan, Stark announces the closing of his company’s weapons division. He also secretly begins building a new, sleekier version of the armor he used to escape, determined to find out how weapons his company has made found their way into the Afghani rebels’ hands. Aided by his longtime personal assistant Pepper Potts (Gweneth Paltrow), Stark discovers that his investigation leads him to his business partner Obidiah Stane (a bearded and bald Jeff Bridges), who has discovered Tony’s original armor suit and has constructed his own.
Iron Man’s script is a well-crafted piece of writing, where character informs the plot more than story necessity does. Stark doesn’t build a suit of high tech armor to fight crime because he can; he does so because he feels compelled to. His conflicted feelings over the weapons his company makes is greatly encapsulated by Downey in Stark’s post-escape press conference where he wonders aloud if his deceased father had mixed feelings over his contributions to the Manhattan Project.
To be sure, the film manages to hit all the story beats that one expects in a franchise launching film like this. But the film also manages to buck conventions a bit. Both hero and villain are safely past the mid-20s age range that their analogues in other films inhabit. Whereas other superhero films have moments where the hero realizes what Spider-Man summed up perfectly as “With great power, comes great responsibility.” Iron Man, flips that idea on its head. As Stark realizes he has a responsibility for what his weapons are being used for, he creates something of great power to help him tackle that responsibility.
Less obvious than the X-Men films’ “homosexuality as mutant powers” meme, Iron Man reveals itself to be rather subversive when it comes to analyzing what the film has to say about America and the military weapons it sells overseas. Is the film critiquing America as an arms merchant whose wares often fall into the hands of its enemies or is it arguing for a consolidation of power only in the hands of the United States? There are arguments to be found for both sides of the issue, with the film leaving the audience to draw their own conclusions.
Iron Man is a film that plays a little rougher than most comic book-inspired movies, and says so to the audience right in the film’s opening moments when Stark’s convoy is attacked. The attack is intense, if mostly bloodless. Equally brutal is Stark’s escape from captivity in his first armor. The only thing keeping the film’s final confrontation between Stark and Stane from reaching the same levels of visceral action is the fact that they are locked in a battle of wits more than a battle of raw physical strength.
Moviegoers unfamiliar with the comic book character should not let that stop them from heading to the local cineplex. The film is totally accessible for general audiences. Still, comics fans will find lots of small things to be excited about. Details about the Afghani rebels, Roady’s envious glance at a spare set of armor hanging in Tony’s workshop and Tony’s habit of not being too far from a glass of Scotch are all nods towards various storylines from the four decades worth of Iron Man stories Marvel Comics has published. Most of these touches aren’t done merely to wink to those fans, but appear quite naturally in the flow of the film, while at the same time feel as if they are story elements being put into place for further exploration in any forthcoming sequel. And as long as any future adventures of Tony Stark is crafted as well as this one is, this critic at least isn’t apologetic about saying he is looking forward to them.