3. Iron Man
The film that started it all, Jon Favreau’s Iron Man seems nearly as bold and refreshing today as it did back in 2008. I distinctly remember the atmosphere of excitement surrounding the film’s release that May, as a flawless marketing campaign had sold us on what an entertaining ride Favreau had in store. Nevertheless, I think few were prepared for just how much fun or thoughtful Iron Man turned out to be. There had never been anything quite like it before, no comic-book movie that embraced its pulpy origins with as much expertise or enthusiasm as this one.
Robert Downey Jr. is, of course, the key to the film’s success. He simply is Tony Stark, in mind, body, and soul, to such a degree that his arrogant, funny, charismatic, and surprisingly heartfelt performance had become iconic before the movie even hit screens. Given the size of Stark’s personality, Downey Jr. obviously has a lot to play with, but he must be commended for how fantastically he illustrates every single facet of Stark’s multifaceted psyche. This is one of the best ‘movie star’ performances in film history, and I shudder to think of the day when Downey Jr. may no longer inhabit the role. He will be impossible to replace.
If Favreau set a Marvel standard of expert casting by hiring Downey Jr., he also solidified the practice or building a tremendous supporting ensemble, headlined by Gwyneth Paltrow’s wonderful work as Pepper Potts. Paltrow’s Potts is the best ‘love interest’ character in this entire genre, largely because she isn’t defined by any archetypical parameters. She’s strong, independent, and completely disinterested in putting up with Tony’s bulls**t. That makes for an irreplaceably fun central dynamic, one that helps ground Tony at every turn.
From a narrative standpoint, Iron Man stands right alongside Batman Begins as one of the best comic-book origin stories. Our view of Tony is almost entirely defined by the choices he makes in the spectacular first act, as captivity and escape force him to change his careless ways. It’s a truly fascinating origin, one that leaves Tony with an ethereal goal he will always be pursuing: Becoming a better man, and protecting those his actions once hurt. The arc not only gives Downey Jr. some excellent dramatic material to play, but also grounds the film in a profound emotional reality.
The only area Favreau really stumbles is in the action. He is not a ‘blockbuster’ director, and the set pieces are not nearly as exhilarating as they could be. Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane is a bit of a weak antagonist to begin with, but combined with Favreau’s weak action chops, the third act is easily the film’s weakest portion. It’s not a huge issue – especially given the wildly unpredictable, invigorating note the film ends on – but one that does hold the film back from being all it could be.
But why worry about that when Iron Man is, on the whole, such an insanely fun ride? It’s still one of my very favorite superhero movies, and a great first step on Marvel’s road to world domination.
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