SD/NP 03/12/2008 – Iron Man Second Time Around

I was so very excited, watching “Iron Man” at the cinema and it actually being pretty kick-ass. So excited, in fact, that it became one of very few films that I have ever pre-ordered on DVD. I kinda got caught up in the enthusiasm, and ordered “The Incredible Hulk” at the same time, though it wasn’t as much of a shock to the system at the cinema.

Because I watched the latter at the cinema with Girl One, my planned double-bill never quite came off – she didn’t want to watch the Hulk again so soon – so we sat down to Mr Downey Jr at the weekend.

Was it as much fun second time around? Review after the jump, and awesome teaser poster. As always, comments welcome!

I’ll spoiler the review right now, and tell you that Girl One, though still a bit non-plussed by these superhero movies, enjoyed “Iron Man”, but preferred “The Incredible Hulk”. Though I have to admit to thinking along vaguely similar lines, it would be unreasonable not to suggest that this might have as much to do with the fact that she saw the one she favoured on a big screen, which is where these two films work best. I’ll get back to that.

The thing that Girl One enjoyed the most about this movie, and that translates best to the small screen in it, is the characterisation – more in the work of the actors and the director than in the script. Though the much chattered about casting of Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane – mainly because of that actor’s role in the well-loved “Big Lebowski” – was good, if a bit one-note, the film really comes together in the scenes where Robert Downey Jr is allowed to work with Tony Stark, which seems to be a character that he likes playing with. Gwyneth Paltrow entertained me for the first time since “Seven” as Pepper Potts, too, and she also seems to be having tons of fun with the role, playing her with an endearing sass that oddly never gets irritating.

Less convincing is Terrence Howard as James Rhodes. Howard was excellent in “Syriana”, but I didn’t buy him in any of the various roles that Rhodey is asked to take on in this script, from test-pilot to decorated military man, from dissappointed friend to relied upon confidante, I just wasn’t feeling his performance, and to be honest I’m not sorry that he’s reportedly dropped from the roster in the inevitable sequel. I remember having misgivings about him at the cinema, but having had time to think about it, I wonder if it isn’t that same phenomenon that happens to otherwise great British actors when they get a role on a UK science-fiction role – their apparent underlying belief that this is childish or throwaway entertainment means they bring a shallow and overcooked panto performance, when in fact the job actually requires more conviction, because the audience needs to be taken that extra distance into believing the setting.

Howard gives a showing that almost seems to phone it in, at points, and ham it up at others, and having seen him do so well in other things, I have to think it’s because he thinks the material isn’t worth his “A” game.

(This, incidentally, can also manifest out of “just happy to be here” syndrome, which has otherwise fairly competent actors like Christian Slater – sorry, the only example I can think of! – mugging like an idiot in a walk-on in “Star Trek: Generations”)

The great production design transitions well to the TV screen, and the outfit designs are great. Seeing the various different incarnations of Iron Man’s armour is still a buzz, and Stane’s suit is sufficiently similar, while much more hardcore – it’s first appearance is quite dramatic. The effects, too, are pretty slick, though the problems with the slightly flaccid way that some of them are presented at points where they should be at their most – uh – erect, is a little bit more noticeable away from the boom and bluster of the big screen experience.

Here’s the problem with the movie, because of course there had to be one. Jon Favreau is excellent at getting solid performances out of most of his cast, and manages to make the character moments, and the dynamics between most of the actors, resonate in a likeable or tense – when it’s required – way, that is impressive for a blockbuster movie. But what he doesn’t handle so well is the staging of his action.

As good as the effects are, the sequences involving them are tossed off in an almost distracted way, as if the director wants to get back to having Downey Jr win at Stark as quickly as possible. The points at which he works best with the effects are the wonderful comic interludes as Tony Stark designs, builds and tests the suit, and those are the moments when it’s mostly Downey Jr, with just the little effects working around him.

The moments that really require big-screen and rambunctious staging, such as Iron Man’s first flight, or his various battles – with enemy combatants and with Stane – are only handled adequately. That flight in particular I remember being a little let-down by at the cinema. The whole thing is viewed almost entirely from a distance, and many of the high-speed flying scenes are scored with pieces of music that sound for all the world like 80s power-rock. In fact, bearing in mind it’s Favreau, it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s some kind of ill-advised hoamge to “Top Gun”, because that’s what it sounds like.

That didn’t matter so much in the cinema, where as I’ve said, the big screen and the loudness of it all means that just having great looking effects will do – and there’s something to be said for the comparative effects that being pleasantly surprised by a comic-adapted film at all will have – but at home, where the effects become proportionately less eye-catching, the action coreography or staging and blocking needs to be stronger.

Because there’s a reason why I can watch that final sequence in “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” or watch “Die Hard” over and over again, despite the fact that bigger, slicker movies have been made since. A good action sequence manages to take you inside the action – not by putting you fully in the point-of-view of the protagonist, but by picking out camera angles and movement that make you feel like you’ve managed to sneak a dangerous ringside seat.

Still, these are just ungrateful whinges about what is still a pretty good movie, that I’m not sorry I bought. Though it’s a bit of a misuse of a film that’s essentially about a guy in a really fucking powerful metal suit to have most of the running time being action light and character heavy, that’s the stuff that Favreau is good at, so there’s enough good here to make it worth sitting down to.

Though there’s nothing in it quite like, say, the opening fight scene in the first “Blade” movie, that I go back to guilt-free again and again, it’s still a pretty good Marvel movie.

Couple more things – just had a flash of memory to the first time I realised that Iron Man was one of the most powerful characters in the Marvel universe. It was in “Secret Wars”, when the mountain is dropped on the heroes, and he’s one of the few holding the thing up, alongside the Hulk, and I think Thor? At that point, I’d been aware of Iron Man for probably just under a decade, but had never been grabbed by the character. When that scene came around, I was like “Huh. Hm. I guess it makes sense that he’d be that strong, relative to the other characters. Wonder why I never thought about it before. Oh well.”

I’ve had the same degree of indifference-induced blindness about the character ever since, up to and including the character’s prominence in the Marvel Universe in the last couple of years – to the extent that I’ve found myself thinking “Hm. Huh. I guess it makes sense that he’d be that intelligent, compared to all the other characters. Wonder why I never considered it before. Oh well.”

So it’s even more impressive that Robert Downey Jr actually made me properly love Tony Stark enough to really want to see what they do next.

And also, I realised watching the first twenty minutes this time out, that I have a real – and I’m fairly convinced irrational – issue with set-designed TV and movie caves. It actually quite preoccupied me, how “corridor” shaped the cut-from-rock caves were in this movie, with smooth flat floors that cornered sharply at the walls. It’s a common thing on TV, but it always looks a little cheap to me when I see it against movie production values.