‘Iron Man’ (2008)

Was this worth my $10?

While most superhero origin stories are simple – the protagonist has a life, something happens to change that life, and the protagonist dedicates the remainder of his or her life to a new cause as a result – they don’t have to be simplistic. The best origin stories grapple with the complexities of both the human condition and with our often conflicting motivations. Unfortunately, despite all the high-gloss special effects, ‘Iron Man’ fails to embrace those subtleties and instead looks at the world from that either/or perspective that has been so popular in America in the last decade.

Briefly, ‘Iron Man’ tells the story of billionaire playboy Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr) the former “boy genius” designer now behind the newest wave of weapons manufactured and sold by Stark Industries, a company founded by his father and the current co-CEO Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges). Stark is captured in Afghanistan by a group of rebels after a demonstration of Stark Industries’ newest weapon, a surface missile with multiple warheads capable of completely demolishing a mountainside. Stark’s capture begins a series of improbable events and revelations starting with Tony Stark’s shock, conveyed almost believably by Downey, that his weapons are being sold or diverted to the black market and have fallen into the hands of someone other than “the good guys.”

Stark’s naivete is but the first in a series of clear-cut dichotomies that marr this film. Like any action film ‘Iron Man’ requires a huge suspension of disbelief among them Stark surviving emergency heart surgery in a cave in Afghanistan to wind up with a magnet implanted in his chest so that imbedded shrapnel doesn’t enter his heart; that he’s smart enough to build the first iron Man suit out of weapons collected by his captors specifically so Stark can build them their own version of his new weapon; that, while amusing as hell, the first test flight of the rocket boots for his second generation suit in his workshop/garage doesn’t strip the finish off all the cars he hovers over. These things pale in comparison to the script’s biggest sin: Tony Stark’s complete and utter transformation from party-boy to do-gooding superhero.

Is ‘Iron Man’ worth watching? Only if you are in it for the effects and you don’t expect too much in the way of character development.

What’s good about this film

  • Technology fabrication sequences that result in the final Iron Man suit are a geek’s dream.
  • Downey’s sly comic delivery gives the script an edge the writers probably did not count on.
  • It adds another category to the Jeff Bridges hair length debate (long, short, or none at all)

For Fans of

  • Michael Bay movies (the big. the loud. the brainless.)

Rating: ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

The Film School Review

Part of the problem with ‘Ironman’ is the character’s obscurity: Tony Stark/Ironman is a third-tier hero at best, known mostly to hardcore pen & ink heads.

The bigger part of the problem with ‘Ironman’ rests with the script, or should I say scripts. This film went through a lot of development rounds and it shows. You can almost hear the thump as the movie transitions over the bump created by jamming together the two different drafts. The tone of the story itself changes in the middle and it’s clear in the second part of the film that there were scenes that were filmed that didn’t make it to the theatrical cut.

Too, Stark is at best a flawed character; self-centered and entitled to the point that he is casually abusive to his staff. The examples used by the script writers to establish Stark as a cavalier playboy undercut his transformation to altruistic superhero. Similarly, his foe in the story is placed and characterized as unmitigated evil. Everything this character does positions him as power-mad and without any redeeming qualities. It is this lack of shading in what should have been an ambigious scenario – Stark’s position as a weapons manufacturer can only be seen as without shading by those with a complete lack of understanding of the ways of war and government and commerce – and turn it into the equivalent of a child’s drawing: big, bold, and completely without sublty.

In an increasingly complex world it’s a travesty to throw away the potential of Stark’s story. True, the emo-pathos of the Spider-man franchise wouldn’t have been appropriate here but to turn a comic into a cartoon wastes an opportunity to tell a difficult, truly adult story.

7 Responses to “‘Iron Man’ (2008)”

  1. Send the film school review back to school.

    Iron Man obscure?! He’s a founding member of the Avengers! He’s had his own solo title since the 70′s. He’s the de-facto flag-waving yes-man of Marvel’s ‘Civil War’! Blade better fits the words ‘..third-tier hero at best, known mostly to hardcore pen & ink heads.’ yet he was Marvel’s first big effort in the theater. Thanks to the movie franchise he’s now a fixture in the popular imagination, despite being such a shallow character that he had no character development- just poses, sneers and action.

    Is it film school dogma that a movie must maintain the same ‘tone’ throughout the film? Honestly, I would think having the same tone through the film would make it ripe for charges of being monotone. Would that be good film-school learning, making monotone films? It sounds like charges of having it’s tone change is one of those empty criticisms that serve to tar it with negativity rather than offer any real insight. I’d rather see a review that just states: “The character of Iron Man doesn’t excite me. I get bored with that kinda stuff.” rather than pretentious ‘critical’ assessment designed to hide that opinion.

    The flaws in Tony’s character are a part of his transition to superhero, not letting the notion of what a superhero is supposed to be constrain what he will become. Can he be both altruistic and a self-involved playboy? Keep in mind you KNOW there are at least 2 more movies (as most actors & actresses are being signed for 3 movies when it comes to portraying superheroes) and they’ve done an excellent job of laying the groundwork for Tony being a lush which may become the main story arc for all 3. Bruce Wayne has the market cornered on being a Billionaire who only looks like a playboy, Tony should be allowed to step outside of that and BE the playboy. Really, it isn’t that much of a stretch.

    Where it’s true Obadiah is a flat-out shallow stereotype of the corporate bad guy, it’s only a matter of perspective that there wasn’t any shading to his position. Wall Street has worshiped for decades his kind of business-minded, skirt-the-rules-to-get-ahead myopia that has come to embody American greatness, and I’m sure other corporadoes found a sympathetic character to root for. That the writers decided to tip his hand so egregiously is a flaw, but it also serves to allow the 3 movie series to get beyond this lone villain, rather than allow him to resurface like Lex Luthor, The Green Goblin, Magneto, etc.

    Stark’s position as a weapons manufacturer being seen without shading on the other hand is wildly off-base in that he knew what song to sing when pressed by the reporter and during his big weapons demo. He was a true-believer. The subtlety wasn’t in the position he held- there are lots of real-life people (who make their living through the convergence of war, government and commerce) who are just as ardent- it was in the experience he went through.

    He started out an unapologetic, self-involved, philandering warmonger and after the sacrifice of the man who already once saved his life Stark began to rethink his entire life. After being held captive he re-evaluated exactly the shading of his position of being a glib weapons manufacturer (with the shrapnel of his own product embedded in his chest). His effective mentor/ father-figure tried to kill him and took his last 2 great ideas, leaving him for dead. (I would love to see reference to the therapy he should be going through in the next few movies for that- should go great with the alcoholism!) Pepper inadvertently saved his life twice, exceeding her role as personal babysitter which he was in no way prepared to handle. There’s plenty of emo-pathos only it’s not being channeled by a high-school kid, so it’s not worn on his sleeve.

    I’m guessing Iron Man was never a character you followed. Don’t confuse that with him being a 3rd tier character. The story of Stark’s alcoholism back in the (?) early 80′s is one of Marvel’s great relevant story-lines. With Rhode looking at the Mark 2 Silver Iron Man armor saying ‘..next time..’ you know it’s coming. This story isn’t done yet. Don’t be so eager to wheel out that film-school peeve. This was an excellent start to the franchise. Class dismissed.

  2. Hoo-boy! – Anne vs. Bruce. Let’s see if I can mediate any of this.

    Anne’s P.O.V. definitely comes from outside of comic book culures — like Bruce, I’ve been aware of tony Stark and Iron Man for more than 30 years. He was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (among others) at Marvel Comics during the early ’60s, He was also a product of his times — the character was millionaire-industrialist, Tony Stark who was both injured and captured during a visit to Vietnam. Most of the mythology that exists n the movie exist in the original comic book. From a very logical sales point-of-view, they’ve just updated those elements from the ’60′s to the ’00′s.

    The plain fact of this movie was that ti HAD to satisfy two audiences at the same time — longtime Marvel readers and folks who’d never seen/heard of/read the book. Marvel and its sub-licensees had made disastrous mistakes with their characters in the past (cf. ‘Hulk’ (2000), ‘The Fantastic Four’ (2004/05) and ‘Blade’ (1998,2001,2005) in the past by pitching these films as overly complex, as family fare and lastly by indulging the whims of a valuable writer-director — in the case of Blade , writer David Goyer, who made his bones writiing both comic books and screenplays based on comic book heroes. (But Blade is a special, if not separate case where creative egos clashed, taking down an entire franchise as collateral damage..)

    Stark/Iron Man is actually a B-level hero, having been an important and sustaining member of the Avengers since the 70′s, though he was not a founding member. (Tony Stark, incidentally foots all of The Avengers ‘ bills, pays their living expenses, etc.

    The comic book was never written as humorous or ironic in any sense of the term. It is invevitable that a character actor of Downey’s stature and talent would inject some humor, if not irony into any film he starred in, particularly because that’s one of his strengths. OTOH, the Tony Stark of the comic books is a decidedly more dapper kind of fellow than Robert Downey, Jr. — he is a Thomas Edison/Batman/James Bond-like figure with apparently unlimited financial resources.

    In several, painfully over-wrought reviews, Iron Man and Tony Stark have been described as metaphors for American supremacy, American foreign policy and American military power, but all of those characterizations are wrong because Tony Stark did not create the armor to be used as a weapon, it was a protective device, created to keep his heart beating until such time that he could have shrapnel safely removed from his chest. The repulsor rays, the flight capacity and other offensive weapons were subsequent improvements, but the armor started out as a sort of comprehensive iron lung, designed to keep Tony Stark alive.

    Longtime IRon Man readers recognize that Tony Stark has been a patron, a benefactor, a drunk a steely capitalist and a failure — but that’s a circuitous path that it’s taken him more than 40 years to navigate. In the world of Hollywood features, one only has 120 minutes (if that) to communicate a story, so lots of things often get cut out of expedience.

    What I saw in Iron Man rather than a straight adaptation of the comic book was something of a Frankenstein story — a creator losescontol over one of his creations, and it comes back to bite him in the ass. In the case of Iron Man , it’s not just drowned boys, terrorized villages and cancelled weddings, it’s the military hardware genie that Stark lets out of the box — both the armor AND the guns that Stark’s company makes and the armor (Obadiah Stane’s Iron Monger , based on the Iron Man design that comes back to kick his ass both figuratively and literally.

    By some miracle of parsed sensibilities, Iron Man is able to play to two separate audiences at the same time:It is capable of satisfying the Marvel fan-club members who appreciate their heroes as dry and serious in tone, and the newbies who are out for a bit of action, entertainment and special effects.

    As a lifetime Marvel fanboi, my problem with the movie was neither the added humor or the invented naïvete, rather, it was a failure by Jon Favreau and writers Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby to imbue Stark with any gravitas whatsoever. And I’m talking gravitas at the character lever — there just was very little evidence of it there in the script. Given what we’ve seen of Downey’s Stark, there’s no possible way that that man could eventually become the leader of the Avengers. Favreau’s Stark is still a party-boy by the time we reach the Samuel Jackson cameo after the credits. Iron Man isn’t a super-hero, only a reluctant hero because his actions aren’t altruistic — they’re just mediated by Stark’s self interest and self-worth. Stane has sold Stark’s family name to Middle Eastern rogues without his consent — Iron Man goes out there to restore the Stark family name.

    I’m curious to see where and how Tony Stark develops from this point on.

  3. B,

    No, a script doesn’t need to maintain the same tone throughout it’s true, but when a story feels like it has been written by a team instead of being seamless then what you have isn’t a good story with internal rhythms but sloppy writing. Characters referencing scenes in the theatrical cut that clearly didn’t make it to the theatrical cut is just plain bad filmmaking.

    And perhaps my critique of Stark’s character as flawed wasn’t pointed enough: I don’t think he had enough flaws. It think that for a character who needs to go through so much to be believable – going from true-believer/naif to avenging hero – you would expect him to backslide, to put his own self interest above “the cause” yet he’s not portrayed that way. He’s portrayed as totally embracing, albeit with the elan and flair of the selfish playboy that we are set up to believe he is, his new “cause.” As for Stark appreciating the sacrifice of a man who had already saved his life once…I’m sorry…you need to rewatch the film. Right up until the moment his savior/fellow captive dies anyone with a brain can see that Stark’s plan to escape gets him and only him out of the cave in the desert leaving his “savior” behind to be shot by their captors.

    You say Stark “…started out an unapologetic, self-involved, philandering warmonger…” the reality is that the only difference between the Stark of the beginning of the film and the Stark of the ending of the film is for whom he is doing his warmongering. Instead of backing his government necessarily, Stark backs the causes he and only he chooses. How is that character development?

    Perhaps there is pathos, perhaps I missed in in Downey’s completely out of character tongue-tied, falling over himself like a school boy portrayal of Stark’s transformation. But don’t try to call anything about this movie subtle with any credibility. Obvious would be more accurate as the film rolls out exactly as it’s set up to with no surprises whatsoever.

    Given that I’m not a pen & ink head, and that most of the world isn’t, Tony Stark and his status as benefactor and funder for The Avengers is rightfully dubbed obscure. Before this movie went into production it’s doubtful that out of 1,000 randomly chosen people who went on to see the movie more than a quarter of them could have told you who Tony Stark was. But I’ll bet you those same 1,000 people could tell you who Superman, Batman, or Spider-man are. Unembedded in the culture, that makes Stark a second or third tier character in the macro picture.

    Just remember: Just because you liked the character, or the film for that matter, doesn’t make the movie good.

    Go back and read what I wrote again. You’ll see that my point was that the filmmakers wasted an opportunity to present a complex, flawed, adult character by constructing a big, loud, shallow movie designed to do nothing but sell tickets and set up sequels.

    My office hours are 2pm – 4pm Tuesday through Thursday.

    See you in summer school where we can talk storycraft 101.

  4. Ouch…

    Re-read the obscurity bit… check.

    I thought your reference to a third-tier hero had some genre context to it not just general familiarity. What portion of 1000 randomly chosen people being familiar with the character means that unfamiliarity won’t be ‘a part of the problem’. 51%? I would think that almost any movie could suffer from this ‘problem’, which makes me think of this as an empty critical assessment. Or is this a problem just for the superhero genre? There needs to be, how could you put it… some predictability about the character?

    Re-read the tone bit… check.

    So a film doesn’t need to maintain the same tone. That’s good to know. So the bigger part of the problem – the dead give-away, the thump if you will, the only critical point that is made in what I’ve been instructed to re-read here- the tone of the film changing in the middle isn’t actually the problem it’s made out to be. Good to know. It’s that it doesn’t seem seamless. Well, that’s a new point, but ok. I’m not much of a literary person and don’t pick up on that kinda stuff, although I think I’m doing a fair job of breaking down the film school review into its component flaws. Where does that obvious transition happen specifically? I’m something of a.. genre affectionado and completely missed the part where the scenes were cut, possibly because of my familiarity with the character just filling in the missing information, which is a problem, I know – could you go into that with a bit more clarity? Not the complaining part, I get that, the reference itself- what are you talking about? Would 1000 randomly chosen people have picked up on that?

    Re-read the too, at best a flawed character bit…. check.

    The way I read that, ‘Stark is at best a flawed character’ it sounded like his flaws were also part of the problem primarily because you used ‘Too’ continuing the ‘Part of the problem…’ theme that you’d developed in the preceding paragraphs. You even posit that one of his flaws undercuts his transformation into what you think a superhero should be. I’m sorry to learn that what you meant is he doesn’t have enough flaws. I completely misread that. Was anyone supposed to surmise his lack of flaws by the view that his position as a weapons manufacturer was without shading? Gosh, I’m sorry, you’ve lost me. Where in what I’ve been instructed to re-read is there the notion that he didn’t have enough flaws?

    You’ve seemed to hit the nail on the head with Obadiah. But they got rid of him (at least I hope they blew him up for good). I hope they don’t do cheesy dream sequence stuff with him to push Stark into alcoholism. We don’t need to see Mr. Baldwin’s pate anymore.

    As for expecting him to backslide, putting his own self interest above the cause, you realize you’re complaining now that he isn’t predictable, undercutting your own critical assessment two paragraphs later that there are no surprises. But you are forgetting why ‘the cause’ looms so big in his new life that he isn’t backsliding- he’s got that power plant embedded in his chest. It’s like finding out after 50 years of smoking you’ve got lung cancer, and then you quit cold turkey. That’s why I wouldn’t expect him to backslide. He looked the into the abyss and it told him he has a purpose. That kind of thing changes a person.

    I don’t really need to re-watch the movie to assess the failure of Stark’s plan to escape. You judge the merit of his appreciation of Dr. What’s his face by whether a desperate plan completely succeeds? You make much about the suspension of disbelief needed in these action thrillers, yet demand one more predictable improbability. Given what he was working with, his plan almost didn’t save himself. Calling me brainless because the writers chose not to save him and have his plan collapse (no plan survives contact with the enemy) seems kinda mean.

    You must have missed the final bit after the credits. He will still be backing his Government. What do you know about the Avengers Initiative? But that is STILL a cause he chooses, or will choose. The thing is, positing character development as whether he will do only what he chooses or, for a change, what somebody else chooses is a strawman, and a poorly conceived one at that. Certainly Iron Man will become something of a failure if he becomes an arm of the military as some kind of warmongering War Machine (Ha ha ha! Inside joke!), but I’m hoping they go more the route of super-hero who fights super-villains. I don’t see that as warmongering, although it is predictable as hell. He’ll still be self-involved I think because Downey is so good at pulling that off. Philandering… depends if they plan to push that romance with Pepper. By the end of the film I hadn’t noticed him trying to hook up, so maybe.

    Nah, I don’t think I’m interested in your storycraft class. Words have meaning- that’s why we use them. When you mean what you say and say what you mean, they’ll work better for you. ;)

    Hey Vic, according to wikipedia:
    the Avengers originally consisted of Ant-Man, Wasp, Thor, Iron Man, and the Hulk.
    You had me worried there. What criteria do you use to determine whether a character is A-list, B-list and so on?

  5. B,

    Interesting critique of my critique of your critique. I think we’re a lot closer in our opinions of this movie and Stark as a character than you seem to believe.

    As a flawed semi/anti/quasi hero I find Stark to be a perfect vehicle for the ambiguity of modern times. That his original appearance was during the Vietnam war era and he is still relevant to today’s political and cultural climate makes him that much more interesting.

    I think Stark *as portrayed* doesn’t have enough flaws: the excesses of his life as a playboy are presented with a cavalier ordinariness that makes them unremarkable. Are his casual brutality of his staff, his alcoholism, his coming of age late (after all, what can you call someone who manufactures weapons but is surprised by the fact that those same weapons have made their way on to the underground economy but a late bloomer?) flaws? Yes, they are, but they aren’t *portrayed* as such. Nor, *as portrayed* do they seem to have any effect on his behavior.

    I don’t agree with you about Stark “looking into the abyss and seeing he has to change.” Perhaps that is a flaw in Downey’s portrayal. Or maybe it’s that instead of appreciating the people in his life after he gets out of the cave by changing his behavior and attitudes toward them he orders them to take him to get a cheeseburger.

    Nor do I agree that you don’t need to rewatch the film to see the selfishness of his escape plan. His plan is stated as all about “getting me out of here.” No thought or mention given to how he’s going to get his savior out of there (are we to believe he’s dumb enough to think that he can ride in with the U.S. Army behind him and the guy will still be alive? Wait…he’s not dumb…he’s a genius weapons manufacturer…so which is he, dumb or smart?).

    Yes, words to matter and yes, I meant every word I said: ‘Ironman’ is a waste of a complex, adult character in a big, loud, sloppily made film that does not stand on its own as a cohesive story but serves merely as a set up for the sequels.

    As for my storycraft class…well, your loss. :)

  6. We probably are closer in agreement of the character if not the movie (I enjoyed it more than I thought I would- despite its flaws. I’d like to bitch about how his power magnet seemed to be implanted way too deep in his chest to keep shrapnel from entering his heart- it looked like it replaced his heart. And for that matter his modification turned it into a power source, too… Wha?). But now I’m invested in being an ass and picking apart what you’ve wrote. :)

    Don’t quotes usually mean you’re making an exact quote?

    Me: He looked the into the abyss and it told him he has a purpose. That kind of thing changes a person.

    You quoting me: “looking into the abyss and seeing he has to change.”

    It isn’t seeing that he has to change- it’s a fundamental re-aligning of what he’s going to do. He’s not thinking ‘I have to change.’ he’s thinking ‘I’m going to do this!’ he’s not thinking about the change, he’s thinking about doing something different. A subtle difference I know but that’s what I meant by using the words that I did.

    When you start off saying he doesn’t have enough flaws, then go on about how those flaws are portrayed I can almost hear the thump as the critique transitions over the bump created by jamming together the two disparate notions you have on the flaws. Maybe getting some people to work on that paragraph can help clarify it.

    They aren’t ‘portrayed’ as flaws (yep- I’m just having a time seeing that as a flaw). Nor do they seem to have any effect on his behavior!? His flaws have no effect on his behavior… His behavior is shaped by his flaws aren’t they?

    As I recall he ordered a press conference to idle the weapons manufacturing part of his company, and then ordered the cheeseburger. Priorities. (But I could be wrong, my memory isn’t that good) What about his ordeal was supposed to put appreciating the people in his life ahead of that? Being captured in a warzone, being injured with his own weapons, building the prototype of the armor and power source from scrap in a cave, being unable to stop the guy who saved his life from sacrificing his own so that Tony had the time he needed to power up… no, arranging movie night with Rhode and suggesting Pepper take the rest of week off for being such a selfless, admirable employee, are not the reactions I’d expect or demand after that.

    Smart or dumb- another strawman. You did mention something about Iron Man being either/or- I think you just choose to interpret it that way. By insisting he be as two-dimensional as possible you argue against the subtlety than you claim isn’t there. Is that smart or dumb, neither, both or just plain missing the point?

    You sound as if he planned to have his suit partly diabled, crash his suit into the middle of the desert, abandon it where anyone could retrieve it so it could be used against him later. I tend to think his plan relied alot on hoping things would work out. They didn’t. That it wasn’t a sure-fire plan doesn’t mean he planned to leave the guy behind.

    (It’s hard to figure out what that first question means there in the parethesis.) I do think if he was able to grab Dr. Casualty, if he hadn’t been shot, blast off, survive impact and get picked up, genius weapons manufacturer Tony has enough pull to get the Army to bring him out too. What’s so dumb about thinking Tony could use his considerable clout and plan on doing just that?

    You are chiding entertainment derived from a sequential art-form for being… sequential. Seems to me to be that you see issues that you would have liked the writers to address, and because they didn’t this movie was a waste.

    Do you write stories? I’m much more interested in seeing what you do with a story.

    Vic, you are not the go to source for Iron Man minutia. The Iron Man comicbooks that I picked up in the early 80′s (and maybe through to the early 90′s) were titled ‘The Invincible Iron Man’. 332 issues of volume 1


  7. Wow…since you seem to care so much more you can have it. You’re 100% right and I have no idea what I’m talking about.

    The fact that you conflate knowledge of the comics with the movie is meaningless. The fact that you’re anticipating sequels rather than judging this film on its own merits as a stand-alone work is irrelevant.

    You win. My review is shit. Thanks for your opinion.