Movie Review: Iron Man

This weekend, Marvel Comics’ latest big-screen superhero adaptation, Iron Man, hit theatres. The film has garnered some attention for touching on political themes, and some liberal reviewers are trying to claim it as their own. Is Iron Man a lefty propaganda piece? I saw it last night, and will give my answer in the following review. Be warned, though: I’ll try to hide plot spoilers as best I can, but if you don’t want to know anything at all about the film until you see it, here’s the bottom line: conservatives (and pro-military Democrats) can rest easy buying a ticket for this one.

When we first meet Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), he hardly seems like hero material. Though a quick-witted charmer and technological genius, the billionaire weapons manufacturer is also a gambling, womanizing, hard-drinking scoundrel, much to the exasperation of those around him: indispensable personal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and best friend Air Force Lt. Col. Rhodey Rhodes (Terrence Howard). All that changes, though, on Stark’s own Road to Damascus, which happens to run through Afghanistan. While visiting the warzone to demonstrate Stark Industries’ newest toy, the Jericho Missile, his convoy is hit by a roadside bomb. He wakes up to find himself in a terrorist camp, and is horrified to discover his name stamped on a whole lot of their arsenal. Ordered to build a Jericho for the bad guys, Tony instead builds a makeshift suit of armor with which to escape (and kick terrorist butt in the process, of course). Upon his return to America, he announces that his company will cease weapon production, and secretly builds a new hi-tech suit with which he plans to destroy whatever other Stark Industries weaponry has fallen into enemy hands. Naturally, business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) is none too pleased about this, and villainy ensues.

First, is Iron Man any good as a movie? The answer is a resounding yes. The writing is coherent and certainly doesn’t ask for any more suspension of disbelief than the average superhero or sci-fi film. The casting of Downey Jr. as Stark is absolutely perfect. From wisecracking and sleazy to courageous and driven, Stark has a wide range of traits throughout the story, and Downey nails them all, never letting his changes of heart seem unnatural while doing so. By contrast, while I’ve come to like Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker in the Spider-Man films, he does take some getting used to. Not so here: from the opening scene on, there’s no doubt that Robert Downey is Tony Stark. Paltrow is smart and charming as his right-hand gal, and the chemistry between the two is genuinely sweet. Howard doesn’t have a whole lot of material to work with as the responsible straight-man to Downey’s wild card, but he works out just fine, and as comic fans know, he’ll have his
time to shine in the sequels. Bridges is great as the main villain, too, though by the time he goes into full bad-guy mode for the climactic showdown, his performance is a bit on the generic side, if still enjoyable. The special effects are excellent, and while not every shot of the hero’s digitally-animated stand-in looks photo-realistic, many do, and the CGI blends quite well with the actual constructed suits. Overall, Iron Man is a faithful adaptation of the comic book and Marvel’s best big-screen offering yet (though not necessarily better than the crown jewel of the genre, Batman Begins, or its forthcoming sequel, The Dark Knight). If you like comic books, science fiction, or action movies in general, you simply have to see it. (Oh, and comic book diehards probably already know this, but be sure to stick around after the credits…)

OK, then, what about the politics? In
Time’s review, Richard Corliss describes Iron Man as a “semi-pacific” hero who “resolves to study war no more” and is on a mission “to dismantle his own company.” While it’s true that Tony puts the kibosh on his company’s weapons program, it doesn’t come across as a blanket condemnation of military force, for a few reasons. First, it’d be a sensible move for anyone in that position—yes, even evil, heartless conservatives—to stop the weapons flow, at least until figuring out how terrorists are getting a hold of them. Second, both the United States military and the government are portrayed as benign and heroic, without the slightest hint that America’s current conflicts in the real world are unjust—a refreshing image, and Iron Man deserves credit for bringing it to the screen. And third, there’s no way somebody can even remotely be called a pacifist when his armor is packin’ that much heat! Furthermore, the line about “dismantl[ing] his own company” is simply false—Tony only [Spoiler; highlight to read] plans to destroy the weapons he discovers Stane has been selling to terrorists.

Also noteworthy is the depiction of the terrorists. All are portrayed by Middle Eastern-looking actors, dressed in the same sort of grimy fatigues we’ve all seen jihadists wearing on the news. The imagery of a captive Tony bound in a chair, flanked by armed terrorists as a hostage video is being filmed, is chillingly similar to the videos of captured journalists like Steve Centanni and Daniel Pearl. This, along with another scene of [Spoiler; highlight to read] the militants terrorizing an Afghani village and almost executing a defenseless father, helps ground the film in reality and leaves the unmistakable impression that the people our nation is fighting in the Middle East are truly evil, with no rationalizations or excuses for their behavior, be it Western imperialism or economic depression, anywhere in sight. Granted, they are not overtly portrayed as Muslims with religious motivations, but this is not for reasons of political correctness—their group [Spoiler; highlight to read] is called the Ten Rings, which is a reference to Iron Man’s longtime archenemy the Mandarin, and is likely intended to lay the groundwork for the villain’s appearance in a sequel. In addition, it’s worth mentioning that when Tony initially refuses to meet their demands, he’s waterboarded, which is certainly portrayed as an ugly, painful procedure. But it does no lasting damage to him, and the conservative position on waterboarding has nothing to do with whether or not it’s pleasant to go through.

Iron Man is a great movie—equal parts excitement, humor, and heart, with political undertones that shouldn’t divide audiences, but do offer a healthy dose of moral clarity about our armed forces and our enemies, which should always be welcome on those rare occasions it comes out of Hollywood.

PS: While we’re on the subject, here’s
an interesting snapshot of Robert Downey’s real-life political leanings.
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5 thoughts on “Movie Review: Iron Man

  1. Personally, I don’t think the film has anything in it that suggests the filmmaker either approves or disapproves of how we are handling any current conflict. According to the film, if a weapons firm or a government is arming both sides of a conflict (which you know we’ve done in the past) then that is wrong, but in this film the terrorists are nothing more than a plot device and I don’t see any commentary there.

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  2. I agree about the lack of commentary – my point is that the absence of potshots at the war or attempts to humanize our enemies is refreshing.And when you say we’ve armed both sides before, what examples do you have in mind?

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  3. Isn’t amazing how reality snaps folks out of the haze? I’m referring of course to the link you have about Downey’s newfound realities. 🙂

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