There are advantages to living in L.A besides the weather (that’s if you believe temps hovering around 100 in April are a plus). For instance, this weekend, we were fortunate enough to get invited to a private charity screening ofIron Man at Paramount Studios. I’ll freely admit that I’ve been looking forward to this film, far more than most of the comic-based films of recent years, largely based on Jon Favreau’s stated intent to keep the movie true to the comics. The fact that his subsequent actions have shown that intent as being more than just the usual lip service to the fans made it even more of a must-see. I also thought that casting Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark was taking a large risk for a potentially huge payoff (face it, the guy’s got acting chops). I wasn’t disappointed.
One of the biggest problems facing any filmmaker attempting to adapt a well-known comic franchise is the sheer volume of material that they have to distill. Any comic superhero worth his salt, especially one who’s been around for as many years as Iron Man, has a complex, frequently convoluted history. Even origin stories change over the years and with the advent of comic writers becoming aware of parallel universes, things have gotten even more interesting. This film makes some canny choices, keeping the bulk of Iron Man’s origin story (which had been shifted from Vietnam to the first Gulf War to Afghanistan in the comic book over the years) intact, including the participation of scientist Yinsen (although it was Yin Sen in the comics), long running characters such as ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes (Terence Howard), ‘Pepper’ Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and even a brief appearance by ‘Happy’ Hogan (cameo by director Jon Favreau).
There are a few twists from comic canon. Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) is turned from the owner of a rival company to the partner of Stark’s late father and a principal at Stark Industries. S.H.I.E.L.D. is introduced as a new government agency just getting going, and Stark Industries is relocated to Los Angeles, but these are all minor changes and, unless you’re an obsessive-compulsive fan-boy, make no real difference. The script is well-written, well-plotted, and more faithful than is usual to the characters from the comics. Since I’m trying to make this a spoiler-free review, I’m not going to dive too deeply into the plot, but there were no lacunae that I was aware of, as the story moves quickly and well.
The performances are uniformly excellent. There were no moments when any character did anything stupid or out of character. Robert Downey, Jr. is perfectly cast as Tony Stark. His shift from arrogant, uncaring playboy to compassionate, concerned hero is completely believable and the role was obviously important to him. He doesn’t ever pull any of the ‘Hey! Look at me, I’’m in the comic books!’shenigans that some actors have been known to do and he works hard at making Stark a three-dimensional, fully human character. A good deal of his work on this film was, according to Favreau, improvised, and the fact that it all rings true speaks to the depth of his understanding of Tony Stark. Gwyneth Paltrow’s performance as ‘Pepper’ Potts also stands out as an example of how an intelligent, independent, female sidekick should be played. At no point does the character have to be anything other then highly competent, smart, and courageous.
The effects are, as you would expect, state of the art. Lots of stuff blows up in a very satisfying matter, and all three of the classic Iron Man suits are paid tribute to, from the gray iron of Jack Kirby’s first design, through the Golden suit created by Don Heck, to Steve Ditko’s long-lived red and gold suit.
Iron Man is, for my money, the best comic-book to film adaptation to yet come down the pike, and I urge fans of comics and of sf to go see it when it hits release this coming Friday. And keep an eye out for Stan Lee’s traditional cameo. It’s a doozy.