He does whatever an iron can! And more!
Faithfulness to the comic source material is always examined whenever a comic book film comes out, except that I knew precisely two things about Iron Man before seeing the film: His name is Tony Stark, and he fights with repulsor rays, both of which I learned from the old Iron Man cartoon theme song, the only thing I retained at all from that show.
Oh, yeah, and I knew that he had dick all to do with the character in the Black Sabbath song Iron Man. So I went in blind, and now, amazingly enough, I can see! Praise Jesus; it's a goddamned miracle!
I'll get to the actual review now.
While I still don't know whether or not Iron Man the film has much to do with Iron Man the comic, I do know that I don't care. Either way, the film is a heck of a lot of fun to watch. It is, frankly, quite convincing at telling you that it's a better film than it really is. There's a general formula for superhero movies, especially origin stories, and this film isn't different in most of the broad strokes. The difference lies in the details, and this is where Iron Man takes off as a real crowd-pleaser. As the film opens, Tony Stark is a bit of an amoral jackass that you still sort of like. As things move along, he morphs into a man with a conscience, who is still something of a jackass and still likeable. Much of this has to do with Robert Downey Jr.'s performance, which is frequently hilarious and always believeable. The other main plaudit must go to the script, which is witty and utterly unpretentious, taking the concept of the rich playboy-turned-superhero, a concept not dissimilar to Batman, and really playing up the playboy angle. While Batman is brooding and dark, Iron Man sets Taliban assholes on fire with a flamethrower. Fuck yeah. There's something immensely satisfying about that. There's also a lot of humor to be found herein, but not the sort of lame, campy humor that often stinks up superhero flicks-I'm personally thinking of the Fantastic Four movies, but I'm sure you can think of your own examples. Gwyneth Paltrow's character does get stuck, presumably as per her comic-book origins, with a silly goofball of a name, but the script does about the best thing that could be done short of flat-out tossing it, which is to just suck it up and say it outright at the beginning of the film and get it over with, and then studiously avoid using it ever again.
The biggest saving grace of Iron Man is that its script is much better than its story, which is fairly predictable. Not only that, but it ends up presenting us with what are essentially two origin stories: that of the sort of proto-Iron Man who must craft his super-suit in order to escape his Afghan captors, and then that of the post-epiphany Iron Man who actually has the time and resources-and now the motivation-to do it right. At the same time, it's setting up the villain of the piece, who ends up being, well, another Iron Man-ish guy. These areas are where the limitations of the source material show through; apparently, all Marvel heroes have villains which are basically an evil version of themselves, and Iron Man fighting Evil Iron Man is not the most original idea possible. Sure, it's loud and violent, and many cars get smashed and all that, but creatively, one could be forgiven for expecting something a little less to the tune of "I thought of this in the first five seconds of writing the story."
Special mention must go to the effects work here. While much of it is CG, as per most modern films of this sort, there's also a wealth of practical work, including full Iron Man suits, the first of which actually sports working flamethrowers. The creation of Stan Winston's team, they're probably the last major creation this effects pioneer worked on before his too-early death. At the same time, the CG work is so effective that it's often hard, barring simple context, to tell whether the effects are being done practically or in-computer, which is about the best compliment visual effects can get. After a point, which is reached pretty quickly, one slides very comfortably into the mindset that they're simply watching Iron Man; not a suit, not a computer effect, but just plain Iron Man himself.
I'm not going to go so far as to say that Iron Man is an instant classic, partly becasuse I don't use descriptors as lame as "instant classic," but also because the film is more fun than it is genuinely impressive. It features just enough honest-feeling character material to keep it from being trite, but it doesn't really transcend the genre like The Dark Knight-though to be fair, no other superhero film has, either. The film seems utterly comfortable in being exactly what it is, and as it's full of flying action, terrorists getting incinerated, copius fun made of Robert Downey Jr. and the best final scene between the protagonist and the romantic interest since Repo Man, that's not a bad thing.
-review by Matt Murray