Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Movie #294: Iron Man

Iron Man is the first movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, starring Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Bettany, and Terence Howard, getting the role warmed up for Don Cheadle.

Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) is a billionaire weapons designer, playboy, and engineer/scientist. He's pretty much completely self-absorbed and largely alone, except for his AI butler JARVIS (Bettany) and his assistant Pepper Potts (Paltrow). While in the Middle East shilling his new Jericho missile, he's kidnapped and injured. Shrapnel digging its way into his heart is kept in place with a magnet and a car battery (courtesy of his newfound mentor figure Yinsen, played by Shaun Toub). He rigs up a new power source, builds a suit of armor, and escapes.

Back in the US, acting on the knowledge that his weapons are being sold with impunity to terrorists, he builds a new suit and goes on the warpath, trying to destroy his weapons in criminal hands. He runs afoul of the Air Force (and his friend and fellow designer Rhodes, played by Howard), and reveals his new power source to his lifelong friend and partner Obadiah Stane (Bridges). Of course, Stane was the one behind his kidnapping (it was supposed to be a hit, not a kidnapping), and rigs up a suit of his own - bigger and better armed, but ultimately not as advanced as Stark's, and he blows up.

Watching this movie in theaters at the time was a trip. People cheered when the Mark I armor took off and flew, and the whole theater was pumped. We hadn't seen a superhero movie this good in a while, and while the Raimi Spider-Man films were good, they weren't fun like this. Marvel apparently really caught lightning in a bottle, because much of this movie was ad-libbed. They didn't know it was going to be the thing it became.

Watching it now, it's neat to see the Marvel Universe take shape, and see Clark Gregg as Phil Coulson before that became a household name. It's interesting to imagine this assignment in the context of his later work, especially as he hands Stark a cover alibi and says "this isn't my first rodeo." And we wonder, what was?

But why did it? The effects are awesome and they hold up just fine six years later. The supporting cast is good; Howard was fine in the role but apparently creative differences got him ousted and Cheadle took over in the sequel, which is fine. But I think the important thing was Downey Jr. He was perfect to play Stark - he knows how substance abuse works, he knows what it's like to be famous and maligned and under a microscope and perhaps a little weird. And meanwhile, Bridges brought a callous life to Stane that I thought was pretty compelling.

If I have a complaint, it's that Stane's plan doesn't make a lot of sense. I mean, killing Stark does, but after he's found out, why jump in the suit and start wrecking shit? He's made at the point; he'd have to kill a bunch of SHIELD agents and flee, and either way he's screwed. Potts mentions he's gone insane, but that's thin. It doesn't matter in the moment, because you get swept along, but in hindsight it'd have been nice to have some better context for the final fight.

But really, that's minor. And it's a lot of fun watching the stinger and seeing Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury for the first time.

My Grade: A
Rewatch Value: High

Next up: Iron Man 2