Since Tim Burton's 1989 film Batman, studios have been cashing in on comic-book-inspired films, and many have been big moneymakers. But ever since Batman, the formula has been banal, save perhaps for Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, which starred one of my favorite actors, Christian Bale. The typical problem is that since the comic-book audience demands authenticity compared to the original storyline, the general audience must suffer from plots that don't translate into film very will. A prime example is Spiderman's ambivalent drive for revenge because his beloved uncle was killed by a criminal, as well as the "nerdy" aspect of the main character. While true fans probably liked having these details, I found them cloying in the Spiderman series.
While not taking on the darkness and seriousness of the aforementioned Batman films, Iron Man is the rare comic-book action flick that a thinking person can admit to liking. The linchpin is decision to cast serious actor Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark -- Downey won the 1992 Oscar for best actor in Chaplin. Now, we know why a comic-book movie would choose a cheap, unknown actor -- to save money. But by having Downey in the lead, the whole film is lent seriousness and gravitas. The typically cloying plot translations -- from comic-book to film -- suddenly become believable.
Let me list these: Stark's playboy image seems entirely appropriate for a wunderkind -- and it helps that Downey played this part in real life, with his troubles with womanizing, substance abuse, and the law. Next, the death of Stark's parents isn't blatantly exploited (in this first Iron Man, at least). Finally, the psychological "dark night of the soul" theme develops naturally through the film, and the love interest subplot receives just enough attention, and just enough overwrought-ness, to actually be interesting -- it helps that it's another serious actor, Gwyneth Paltrow, playing this part.
All of these production decisions indicate a fantastic lack of something intangible, which made me think, "Iron Man is a good movie because Jerry Bruckheimer wasn't involved." Yes, that is the ticket -- first, Marvel Comics financed the film, which in one fell swoop cut out the Armageddon-style cloying taint that so sickens me, and cuts out the G-rated cash-in aspect also typical of the comic-book genre. And using director John Favreau of Swingers fame separates story development from action sequences, so that the experts of CGI can do their part, and the actors can do theirs.
Did I mention the film has Jeff Bridges and Terrence Howard in supporting roles? They're two more Hollywood veterans who know how to go to work. Of course, these are expensive actors, but again, they make the comic-book aspects of the film believable. In a way, I feel good about Iron Man because the film does not disgrace me when I offer up my suspension of disbelief.
Another note: the superhero awesomeness of Iron Man can't be denied. First for me is that Tony Stark invents the greatest invention possible for humanity: fuel-less power. This allows him to not only stay alive after having his pseudo-death early in the movie, but also offers an explanation of how he can make a body suit where he can race F-22 Raptors, which is an awesome action sequence in the movie. And when Stark and his adversary, Jeff Bridge's Obadiah Stane, fight in near-outer space, that's just sweet. The technological focus of the film -- how actual inventions are made -- is another fun aspect.
And Stark's move from warmonger/weapons manufacturer to force for good also works for character development. That narrative of course, reminds us why we call it the Nobel prize -- inventor Alfred Nobel invented the dynamite that killed so many but left $100 million (2007 USD) as a force for good, as well as the narrative of Richard Gatling, who created his rapid-fire gun so that
These debates continue, because so many technological inventions -- that truly do make the world a better place -- spring from the ever-burgeoning drive for men to kill each other more efficiently.
I could invent a machine -- a gun -- which could by its rapidity of fire, enable one man to do as much battle duty as a hundred, that it would, to a large extent supersede the necessity of large armies, and consequently, exposure to battle and disease [would] be greatly diminished.
And that is a universal human conflict that may continue as long as there are people. By tapping these themes and offering thought to the comic-book action flick genre, I can say that I really like Iron Man.