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Better Luck Next Time for Iron Man

  • Christian Hamaker Contributing Writer
  • 2008 2 May
Better Luck Next Time for <i>Iron Man</i>

DVD Release Date:  September 30, 2008
Theatrical Release Date:  May 2, 2008
Rating:  PG-13 (for some intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and brief suggestive content)
Genre:  Action-Adventure/Science Fiction
Run Time:  126 min.
Director:  Jon Favreau
Actors:  Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard, Leslie Bibb, Shaun Toub, Faran Tahir

The whoops and hollers that greeted the introduction of the title character of Iron Man, the latest Marvel Comics character to make it to the big screen, during a preview screening of the film indicate that the flesh-and-blood actors who portray the characters are merely a sideshow for the Main Event.

The audience’s squeals upon the first full look at Iron Man, well into the film’s running time, were a resounding signal as to what the audience had come to see—not Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, who builds the suit that turns him into Iron Man; not a bald, bearded Jeff Bridges as Stark’s business partner and the story’s villain; and not Gwyneth Paltrow as Starks’ loyal assistant. No, this man of steel—“titanium alloy” Stark specifies—is the star of the show, a mechanical, emotionless hulk that metes out justice upon the story’s bad guys.

We’ve seen this sort of robotic action hero before. Think of Peter Weller, who became Robocop, although Iron Man has a higher purpose than mere vigilantism. He’s a weapons manufacturer whose awakened conscience leads him to question his company’s mission and to take on rogue elements abroad.

Possibly the start of a film franchise, Iron Man shows some promise but is held back by retrograde attitudes about male/female relationships, some pacing problems, and a story that relies on special effects that don’t come across as all that special.

Stark, christened the “merchant of death” by his adversaries, heads Stark Industries with partner Obadiah Stane (Bridges), but his technical genius is matched by an oversized appetite for women and liquor. (Stark succumbs to alcoholism in the Iron Man comic books, but this early film installment only winks at his boozing.) He flirts outrageously with women, has his own entourage of pole dancers on his private jet, and responds to a feisty reporter’s questions by propositioning her. (The two are shown wrestling each other’s clothes off in bed in the very next scene.) These attitudes toward gender roles are more befitting the era of Iron Man’s debut—1963—than new-millennium ideas of equality of the sexes, but the film’s retro views are front-loaded and easy to overlook in the buildup to the story’s main event:  the unleashing of Iron Man.

Stark secretly develops the Iron Man suit after being captured by Middle Eastern fighters who demand he build them a bomb. With the help of a fellow prisoner (Shaun Toub)—who’s promptly dispatched and forgotten about as soon as he’s served his purpose in the tale—Stark dons a crude prototype of the Iron Man suit, guns down the bad guys and uses the jet propulsion to fly away.

Having seen the destructive power of his weapons, Stark vows to change the mission of his company. He perfects the technology behind Iron Man, makes a sleeker suit, and plots a return to the Middle East to ensure that his weaponry will no longer be used by the warlords who imprisoned him.

A romantic subplot in which Stark develops serious feelings for his assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), sparks to life, but the other supporting work is sub-par. Bridges’ glowering can’t make Stane a very interesting villain. Terrence Howard, as Stark’s trusted friend in the Pentagon, is wasted, and the dignified Shaun Toub, who makes the early portion of Iron Man more interesting than it would have been otherwise, disappears from the film much too early.

Scenes of Stark perfecting his new technology are punctuated with humorous experiments gone awry, but the buildup to the unveiling of the streamlined Iron Man drags out. The second half of the film has Iron Man righting various wrongs, playing cat-and-mouse games with jet fighters, and taking on an imposing competitor. But Downey’s acting during that portion of the film consists of little more than reaction shots from inside his metal suit, while the supporting cast does little more than react to the special-effects-driven battle royal that concludes the film.

A few lines of dialogue hint at more provocative themes for a potential sequel. What do we do when we discover our purpose in life, and how public should we be about that purpose? Stark, a reformed playboy, tells Pepper, “I shouldn’t be alive—unless it was for a reason. I finally know what I have to do.” The film’s ending declaration leaves us wanting another chapter in the Iron Man saga, despite the drawbacks associated with this first attempt.

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  • Language/Profanity:  Lord’s name taken in vain; foul language.
  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Frequent alcohol consumption early in the film; reference to Stark being drunk during a conference.
  • Sex/Nudity:  Stark is said to have slept with all 12 Maxim cover girls during a year; he flirts with women while gambling and beds a reporter; the woman wakes up the next day, covered by a sheet; a joke about a “lovely lady” who was actually a man.
  • Gambling:  Stark gambles heavily.
  • Violence:  Gunfire; bombs; a car bomb; blood soaks through a bulletproof vest and onto a shirt; victims of gunfire and car bombing are shown; a man performs surgery on himself; a prisoner is tortured and threatened with being burned; experiments gone awry end with Stark thrown against a wall and otherwise abused; a man is threatened in front of his children; a device renders people motionless for 15 minutes.