IRON MAN (2008)
Director: Jon Favreau

Not every superhero is blessed with otherworldly powers. They all don't have the X-Men's various mutations, the arachnid ability of Spider-Man, or the multitude of powers at Superman's disposal. Some have to get by on natural talent alone, or in some instances, they create their own powers via fancy gadgets. Such is the case of Tony Stark, known more commonly as Iron Man. Created by writers Stan Lee and Larry Lieber, and artists Don Heck and Jack Kirby, Iron Man made his first appearance in Tales of Suspense #39 (cover-dated March 1963). The armor-wearing hero began targeting Communism, but as the world evolved, so did Iron Man. He's struggled with alcoholism and a bad heart, was a charter member of the superhero all-star squad known as the Avengers, and was even regarded by many readers as Marvel's top villain during the company's epic "Civil War" story in 2007. And though it may have taken a while to get around to him, Iron Man finally followed in the footsteps of numerous Marvel heroes when his very own movie kicked off 2008's summer blockbuster season. And guess what? It's a fantastic movie.

IRON MAN (2008)Billionaire playboy Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has it all. Money, fame, fast cars, beautiful women, all that awesome stuff. He's also developed a reputation as the world's leading purveyor of military weaponry thanks to the success of his company, Stark Industries. While in Afghanistan to demonstrate his company's new missile, his convoy is attacked and Stark is kidnapped. His abductors — a terrorist group identifying themselves as the Ten Rings — order him to build them a missile of their own, using a stockpile of Stark Industries technology acquired through nefarious means. Under the guise of crafting their weapon, he and fellow captive Dr. Yinsen (Shaun Toub) spend the next three months building a powerful suit of armor to facilitate their escape. Though Yinsen is killed during their breakout, Stark fights his way through the terrorists, destroys their stockpile of weapons, and gets away.

Stark is greeted by devoted assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Jim Rhodes (Terrence Howard), an old friend who holds a high-ranking position in the Air Force, upon his return to the United States. But the effects his abduction have had upon him begin to reveal themselves via a noticeable change in his demeanor. Rattled by the fact that both sides of the Middle Eastern conflict have access to the weapons his company has engineered, his plane home is barely on the ground before he announces the dissolution of the Stark Industries weapons division. The announcement causes the company's stock to plummet, and Stark's hard-nosed business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) makes it no secret that he's displeased by this turn of events. But Stark remains undaunted in his decision. Having seen his company's weapons fall into the hands of the Ten Rings, Stark sets forth to refine and improve his armor so that he might use it to eliminate the caches of Stark Industries weapons being hoarded by terrorists. And he's picked the right time to do it, because Stane's backdoor dealings in regards to the company's weapons division have evolved from shady to downright sinister.

Iron Man is, at its core, your typical superhero origin story. But the differences between this and other, similar movies is the way that it's told. Sure, there's the moments that will make devoted comic book fans giddy, but it's the kind of movie that even those who are completely unfamiliar with Iron Man or comics in general can walk into and enjoy. Making a movie such as this has allowed director Jon Favreau and his cast and crew to create one of the most entertaining and engaging comic book adaptations ever made. It's a downright fun movie from start to finish. Nearly everything about it is effective and makes Iron Man worth watching.

The movie marks Favreau's first action movie as a director, and teaming with cinematographer Matthew Libatique, he shows that there's more in his repertoire than comedies and family movies. You'd never know Favreau was an action movie rookie by watching Iron Man, because he keeps the pace brisk and the action exciting while inserting the humor at just the right places. It helps that the movie boasts some incredible visual effects from Industrial Light and Magic, with assistance from effects studios The Orphanage and The Embassy. Their work is slick, at times looking so convincing that it's hard to tell the difference between the CGI and the practical effects. And those practical effects are quite good, specifically the Iron Man and Iron Monger suits designed by the late Stan Winston. Inspired by the work of comic book artist Avi Granov, the armor looks superb, some of the best superhero and supervillain costumes I've seen in quite a while.

I also really liked the original music composed by Ramin Djawady. The rock-oriented music perfectly carried the onscreen happenings while being exciting in its own right, especially when combined with the heavy metal stylings of AC/DC, Suicidal Tendencies, and Black Sabbath. My only real complaint with Djawady's music is the lack of a memorable theme song. Yes, there are some recurring musical elements, but nothing that really stands out. That's the big problem with most modern comic book movies, especially those inspired by Marvel properties. Sure, Spider-Man's movies had a theme song, but did you leave the theater humming the tune, like you would with John Williams's Superman music or Danny Elfman's Batman music? Outside of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" and Djawady's various interpolations of the jazzy theme song from the Iron Man cartoon that ran in syndication at the end of 1966, I couldn't really pick up anything that would get stuck in my head. It might be the most obvious answer, but maybe they should stick with Black Sabbath as the franchise's theme song? Of course, I'm fully expecting the use of Kiss's "War Machine" to turn up in future Iron Man movies. You comic nerds know what I'm getting at.

Next up is the screenplay, credited to Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway. I'm not quite sure just how much of the final script actually ended up in the movie, thanks to not only Favreau and Robert Downey Jr.'s contributions to the writing process, but Favreau's encouragement of improvisation during filming. This ends up being a good thing, though, because it makes the interaction between the actors feel more natural, more real. However, what the script definitely does contribute to the movie is well done. The inside jokes referring to notable parts of Iron Man's history on the printed page are a nice touch, and I felt the initial red herring in regards to the identity of the movie's villain was well done. The real draw of the script, however, is how it treats the title character. It seems like in most superhero origin movies, the lead character immediately becomes a straight-laced crimefighter as soon as he adopts his new identity. But that isn't quite the case with Iron Man. Tony Stark might have become a hero, but gaining a conscience and a little maturity doesn't mean he's immediately going to stop his boozing, womanizing, high-rolling behavior. Personally, I think it makes for a more believable way to begin the story of a superhero.

Last, but most certainly not least, is the movie's greatest component: its cast. Boy, what an impressive group of actors and actresses Iron Man has. Every person that steps in front of the camera is up to the task given to them, no matter how important or insignificant their role is. The movie is strengthened by their positive contributions to it, so yeah, they'll all get a thumbs up from me. Let's begin with our star, Robert Downey Jr. I know many movie reviewers, both in print and online, have commented on the irony of hiring an actor who's had a prolonged battle with drug addiction to play an alcoholic superhero. And it is funny in an odd sense. But while Tony Stark's alcoholism isn't a major factor in the movie, it does give Downey a way to connect to the character. And not only does he make a connection, he jumps into the role headfirst. I can't imagine anybody else playing the role, because Downey is perfect in it. I know it will sound like hyperbole, but hiring Downey to play Iron Man has to be one of the most inspired bits of casting in the history of the genre. Downey is fun to watch, playing the role as (in Downey's own words) a "likeable asshole." You honestly can't not like him. He's so good in the role that the supporting cast almost becomes completely ancillary. It's most assuredly one of the most entertaining performances to come along in quite a while, and the entire movie is better for it.

But let's not forget the rest of the cast, whom all put forth fine performances. Gwyneth Paltrow is very charming as Pepper Potts, Tony Stark's "Girl Friday." Paltrow wouldn't have been very high on the list of people I would have expected to star in a superhero movie (even if she does have unsophisticated flicks like Shallow Hal and View From The Top on her résumé), but hiring her proved to be quite beneficial to the movie. She brings a certain warmth to the role that makes her that much more endearing and amiable. It helps that she and Downey also have an engaging chemistry together, their scenes coming across as flirtatious even at their most innocent. Considering that pretty much sums up the entire relationship between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts, Downey and Paltrow did a fantastic job together. I also have to say that I thought Terrence Howard did some fine work as Jim Rhodes. Unfortunately, thanks to the amount of time spent developing Downey's character, Howard's screen time is limited. It's not like they edited him out of the movie or anything, but Howard's presence doesn't seem very... prevalent, I guess is the word I'm looking for. However, Howard does put forth a solid performance, and it's a shame that he only gets maybe forty-five minutes of screen time, if that. Jeff Bridges is also solid as the sleazy, and thoroughly unethical, businessman Obadiah Stane. The character isn't really all that developed, and it seems like he was only stuck into the movie in order to give Iron Man a villain to fight at the end of the movie. That doesn't deter Bridges, though. He plays the role exactly needs to be played, as a greedy, power-hungry yuppie. It's like Bridges decided play the role as if he were Gordon Gecko from Wall Street, only as a 21st-century weapons dealer instead of a mid-'80s stock broker. Other ancillary members of the supporting cast — particularly Faran Tahir as the leader of Stark's abductors, Shaun Taub as Stark's cellmate in Afghanistan, and Leslie Bibb as a Vanity Fair reporter — all do fine work as well, surrounding the strong main characters with credible support.

Iron Man is not only a fantastic comic book adaptation, but a great movie in general. It can not only appeal to comic readers with its inside jokes and references to Iron Man's history, but it's also open enough so that non-fans can have fun watching it without feeling like they have to catch up on forty-five years of comic book adventures. Iron Man is, without a doubt, a thoroughly entertaining motion picture from beginning to end. With outstanding direction, flashy special effects, and stellar acting, Iron Man is a good step forward on the road to proving that superhero movies can be created for and enjoyed by people other than your typical dorky fanboys like yours truly. And even if it wasn't, it'd still be one heck of a movie. So on my patent pending Five-Star Sutton Scale, I'm going to give Iron Man four stars and my stamp of approval. Go check it out.

Final Rating: ****