Last night, your friendly neighborhood Trivia Geek scored tickets to a free sneak preview of Iron Man, the kickoff flick for the geek summer movie season that opens worldwide on Friday. First impressions: I'd pay to see it again. And will, at full price, this weekend.
(Quick aside: The Trivia Geek always throws a killer geek party on the first Saturday in May, combining the Kentucky Derby, the first "event" movie of the summer, and Free Comic Book Day. It's a dorktacular confluence of epic proportions that even my wife can get behind. Plus, barbecue.)
Now, I'm known as a harsh critic of any entertainment, but especially those that stray into my beloved comic book or science fiction genres. Iron Man has its feet planted firmly in both—and I still liked it. Here's the breakdown.
The Good:Casting, first foremost. If there was an Oscar for casting, Iron Man's casting director should get it. Robert Downey Jr. is Tony Stark, playboy genius with serious intimacy issues. You believe this guy could build a warsuit out of scrap parts. You believe he could—and would—see that as an expedient solution to his problems, even though it's way more complex than necessary. Downey's chemistry with the entire remaining cast is phenomenal, and they all hold up well against Downey's scenery chewing. Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane is pitch-perfect as a charming, manipulative industrialist. You believe that people would fall for his act. Gwyneth Paltrow is magnificent as Stark's put-upon assistant, magnificently doing the classic Moneypenny to Stark's hypertech James Bond routine. And finally, wait for Terrence Howard's money line—"Next time, baby"—and you'll instantly be craving a sequel with more screen time for his character, Jim "War Machine" Rhodes.
Secondly, Iron Man deftly updates and incorporates a host of comic book nods, giving us refreshing and believable versions of (or allusions to) not just Iron Man, but Iron Monger, The Mandarin, SHIELD, War Machine and even Jarvis the super-hero butler.
Finally, the effects are pretty darn good. When we're in full CGI mode, the movie shines, particularly when Iron Man is in flight. The suit looks plausible, if impractical. The production team never lets it become an automaton, ingeniously cutting to extreme close-ups of Downey's face, with a deft heads-up display overlay, so we get emotion along with the action.
Oh, and Stan Lee is Hugh Hefner. Seriously, you just can't top that.
Oh, frak, does science take a beating in this one, physics in particular. The plot hinges on three main technical maguffins: The Arc Reactor, a do-everything hyper-clean, hyper-small, hyper-efficient power source; Repulsors, electronic engines that can be used as thrusters or weapons; and Turing Test-acing artificial intelligence. Since they limit all these items to products of Stark's inhuman genius, I would have been willing to let these chunks of unobtainium slide. Except they don't stop there.
Even accounting for inertial dampeners and indestructible alloys, Stark takes a beating that should kill him a dozen times over. He flies unprotected into concrete walls, pulls G-force turns that should liquefy his guts, and there's nary a mention of an air supply when he climbs to SR-71 altitudes. Beyond that, the medical science—and I use that term very loosely—that appears in this film is almost laughably bad. Just wait until Paltrow does some goofball heart surgery on Downey and you'll see what I mean.
When the film isn't in full CGI-mode. The wire-work and animatronic effects are fairly clunky. Stark's first flight test is particularly difficult to watch, as you can almost see the crane harness, even though it has been dutifully digitally erased.
Politics fares little better. Our enemies here are corrupt businessmen and an ad-hoc multinational terrorist group called The Ten Rings. They are barely more complex than your average one-dimensional Rambo villain, so any morality lesson intended here falls pretty flat.
Finally, the film takes too many production-design shortcuts to ram home its messages. Stark is a weapons designer, but I don't know any real-world arms manufacturer that emblazons its warheads and missiles with giant, gaudy company logos. Stark International must be obsessive about branding if it wants hostile enemies to know exactly who manufactured those unexploded shells. It gets so repetitive that you're honestly surprised when the various battlesuits don't have NASCAR stickers all over them.
I give Iron Man three out of four stars. It certainly doesn't rise to the aesthetic level of Batman Begins, and lacks the emotional punch of Spider-Man, but it vastly outshines Fantastic Four, and buries the likes of Ghost Rider. It's got a wonderful mix of comedy and drama, characters and action, effects and locations. It's worth making the effort to see in a packed theater full of like-minded movie geeks who'll laugh at all the same comic book in-jokes and exosuit slapstick. Just don't think too hard about the science.
Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can also follow him on his personal blog.