‘Iron Man’ Got the Marvel Cinematic Universe Off to a Strong Start

M Payoff 1sht

The 2008 summer movie season started off with a bang with the long-awaited release of “Iron Man” which starred Robert Downey Jr. as the egocentric weapons maker turned world protector, Tony Stark. It also marked the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe which brought its many characters to the silver screen with great success, and this one still remains one of the best to come out of it.

“Iron Man” starts with Tony traveling through the Afghanistan desert with a military convoy that gets attacked by terrorists. Tony flees the hummer transporting him and almost gets killed by one of the missiles he designed. When he comes to, he is being held captive in a cave and kept alive by an electromagnet attached to his torso which keeps the shrapnel inside his body from going to his heart. The terrorists, led by Raza (Faran Tahir), force Tony to build them one of his most destructive missiles on pain of death, but he instead takes the parts they give him and creates a bulletproof suit which allows him to escape in spectacular fashion.

When he gets back to America, he has a press conference where he states he will turn his company from a weapon making factory into one that doesn’t promote endless destruction. Having seen the damage he has done to others, he is now determined to protect those from the weapons he created. As for the iron suit which saved his life, he works at perfecting it into something strong and indestructible. On top of giving him the ability to fly, it also allows him to get back at those who took advantage of his destructive creations.

“Iron Man” is a tricky movie to make because it is the type meant to set up this particular superhero and then move on to the inevitable sequels which never come out soon enough. It is a credit to director Jon Favreau that the characters are as interesting as the action is exciting. Unlike other comic book adaptations, this story feels much more grounded in reality and doesn’t have characters that don’t seem real. Unlike Peter Parker in “Spider-Man 3,” here we have a superhero who doesn’t waste his time feeling sorry for himself on a regular basis.

But the real masterstroke of “Iron Man” is the casting of Downey Jr. as Tony Stark. He is without a doubt one of the best actors working in movies today, and it is impossible to picture anyone else in this role. When he first appears, he clearly acts like the man Weird Al Yankovic sang about in “I’m Such a Groovy Guy.” Both brilliant and sexy, it’s tempting to believe Downey Jr. is playing himself, but that assumption would be unfair. He makes Tony’s transition from selfish egomaniac to world protector almost seamless and never less than believable. Inside that cool and ever so confident exterior, there lies a man who is taking his life and company in a direction which may completely kill it.

Seriously, Tony is one of coolest comic book heroes to appear in movies for the longest time. Most of the comic book heroes we have grown up with are emotional wrecks and understandably so. Batman saw his parents murdered in front of him, Superman only got to see his parents at that Crystal Palace as he lost his human father earlier than he should have, and Spider-Man lost his uncle when he was murdered. But Tony isn’t necessarily waylaid by emotional disasters the way those characters were. While many of us want to spit on those who look like they had everything handed to them on a silver platter, Tony more than earns his place in society and you never doubt his abilities to create extraordinary things.

Also, Tony has quite the lifestyle most guys envy. He has one hell of a mansion up in the hills of Malibu that has the most incredible view, and his personal jet is equipped with a pole that comes out of the floor for his very lovely stewardesses to take advantage of. I saw this movie in a theater with some friends of mine, and one of them leaned over to me and said, “This is the only way to live!”

In retrospect, this character is a relief after watching those other male superheroes who turn into whiny crybabies that remind me too much of myself. Female superheroes don’t fall into this category much, so that should make you wonder which gender is truly the stronger one.

The rest of the “Iron Man” cast is perfectly chosen. When the movie came out, Jeff Bridges was one of the most underappreciated actors working in movies (this has since changed). His character of Obadiah Stane, one of the main heads of Stark Industries, is a slimy corporate executive whose outer exterior projects a man of kindness and trust Tony relies on. That trust is utterly betrayed when Obadiah files an injunction against Stark to gain control of his company and put it back in the direction it was going before Stark started changing his ways.

Unlike Tony, Obadiah has no creativity or brilliance to rely on. All he has are selfish desires and a misplaced loyalty to Stark’s father who helped build the world’s first atomic bomb. Although he has the makings of another villain whose sole interest is world domination, Obadiah represents those who are too easily threatened by the winds of change. Bridges, like Downey Jr., gives Obadiah dimensions you wouldn’t necessarily expect a character like this to have. This is not just some one-dimensional bad guy like others, and it is a credit to Bridges’ brilliance that he makes this very clear.

Also, on board is Gwyneth Paltrow who is a wonderful presence as Tony’s longtime assistant, Virginia “Pepper” Potts. While it might seem weird for her to play someone’s assistant, she imbues Pepper with beauty, smarts, intelligence and heart which Tony more than depends on his life for. She also shares great chemistry with Downey Jr., and their relationship is key as those inevitable sequels would prove. Paltrow also has one of the movie’s best lines as she meets up with a Vanity Fair writer Tony made out with the night before:

“So, you just spend your time taking care of everything Tony asks you to do?

“I take care of all duties that Tony asks of me to do. That includes taking out the garbage.”

We also have Terence Howard as Tony’s military consultant and close friend, Jim Rhodes. Jim is the one who tries to keep Tony grounded in reality, but he never quite succeeds. Howard is great here if he a bit underused here, and this is the second movie I have seen where he plays a character constantly giving press conferences (“The Brave One” was the other one).

The movie has many great action scenes which you come out of feeling justified in saying, “that’s cool man!” When Iron Man fights off terrorists in a war-torn country, he finds very creative ways to dispatch his enemies that are too good to reveal here. Also, there are scenes where Tony is testing out different parts of the suit. This can usually be seen as the boring set up part for the superhero, but these moments make you jump out of your seat because you find yourself laughing harder than you usually do.

With “Iron Man,” Downey Jr. who gives us something more than the average super hero. He gives us one with brains, smarts and, most importantly, a soul. It doesn’t matter if you have great special effects if you don’t have the story or the characters to match up with it. “Iron Man” has that, and it set the bar high for the comic book movies which followed in its wake.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Avengers’ Was Well Worth The Wait

The Avengers movie poster

So now we finally have “The Avengers,” a movie which has been hinted at over the past few years in “Iron Man,” “Iron Man 2,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger.” Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has made cameo appearances here and there to remind these superheroes there is this way they can all come and work together, and for a bit it seemed too good to be true. But low and behold, Joss Whedon has given us a summer blockbuster which was worth the wait and focuses on character as much as it does on spectacle.

“The Avengers” starts off with S.H.I.E.L.D. experimenting on a powerful energy source known as the Tesseract when Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s brother and nemesis, appears out of nowhere and steals it. His plan is to use it to subjugate Earth and its inhabitants because he feels they wanted to be lorded over more than they realize. From there it’s up to these various superheroes to join forces and defeat Loki and his army before it’s too late.

This movie does take its sweet time getting started, and it almost seems unnecessary considering how well acquainted we have become with all these superheroes through their individual movies. Still, meeting up with them again feels good as we are curious to see what they have been up to since their last set of adventures. Captain America/Steve Rogers is still trying to acclimate to present day life after being frozen for decades, Dr. Bruce Banner/The Hulk spends his time in a foreign country helping its people while trying to control his anger, and Tony Stark/Iron Man is busy completing a new skyscraper along with the love of his life, Pepper Potts. Others make their entrance at unexpected times and play more of a role here than they did in previous movies.

What makes “The Avengers” work so well is that Whedon never lets the iconography of these characters speak for them more than the actors do. While these few have amazing superpowers we all dream of having, they are seen as freaks who are not part of society as a whole. Being so alienated from the common man and woman, their relationship with themselves and those around them is dysfunctional to say the least.

Seeing these characters interact with one another gives this film its best moments. While they may have a lot in common, their ideas of protecting humanity differ quite significantly. Captain America is as old fashioned as they come, and his methods and beliefs have the more cynical people snickering behind his back. As for Thor, he’s from another planet which has all those around him wondering what the hell he’s talking about.

And then Tony Stark comes into this ruckus like John Bender in “The Breakfast Club,” gleefully and playfully chiding all those around him (he calls Thor “Point Break”). Robert Downey Jr. inhabits this character like few others could, and he makes Stark a likable character even while he’s being an arrogant bastard much of the time. In many ways, Downey is the most prominent presence among these Avengers even while others in the team are nowhere as selfish as Stark.

The actors in “The Avengers” confirm what we already knew in the past, that they were exceptionally well cast. Each one brings a depth of humanity to their characters in a way that keeps them from becoming mere caricatures of what we grew up reading about. Special kudos goes out to Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth who make their roles as Captain America and Thor count for all they are worth. What could have been made inadvertently laughable has been rendered largely charismatic by these two thespians, and we cheer them on as they fight the good fight against Loki and his army.

It’s also nice to see Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner get more screen time here as Black Widow and Hawkeye than they did in previous films. Renner had one of those blink and you missed it cameos in “Thor” while Johansson’s role in “Iron Man 2” was in a movie which had more characters than it had any right to deal with. In “The Avengers,” the two of them are given more room to grow, and each invests their character with real emotions which makes us root for them throughout.

But the one actor who stands out above everyone else in “The Avengers” (literally and figuratively speaking) is Mark Ruffalo who is the latest actor to portray Dr. Bruce Banner, better known by his alter ego of the Hulk. Marvel has had the hardest time translating this particular comic book character to the big screen despite memorable performances from Eric Bana and Edward Norton. But like those two actors, Ruffalo finds his own interpretation of this famous character, and he succeeds in making this role his own. Unlike the moody Bruce Banners of the past, Ruffalo gives us one who yearns to fit in with everyone else regardless of the angry state he gets in from time to time. In the process, Ruffalo gives us a Hulk worth cheering for as he dominates each action scene he’s in thanks in part to vocal help from the original Hulk, Lou Ferrigno. As a result, I see a future for the actor as this character in a way I couldn’t before. Seeing him slam Loki all over the place as if he were a wet rag had the audience clapping loudly.

Are there plot holes and inconsistencies to be found in “The Avengers?” Probably, but with a movie like this you don’t really find yourself thinking too much about that. What sucks for Thor is he never gets to meet up with his earthbound love Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) who is sent off to some remote place where she’ll be safe. When “Thor” ended, the portal between his world and Earth was forever destroyed it seem. It’s never made clear how it somehow got fixed to where Thor could travel back, but anyway. You’d figure he would at least spend some time with Dr. Foster, but some superheroes can only be so lucky I guess. At least you can give Thor some credit for looking her up. Dr. Banner never looks up his old girlfriend who was been played in past movies by Jennifer Connelly and Liv Tyler. What gives Hulk? You smash things but did you also smash what’s left of your emotional connections? Oh well…

The big problem with big budget blockbusters like “The Avengers” is they can easily get overwhelmed by the special effects to where the human element is completely lost. But none of this is ever lost on Whedon who has given us such great entertainment over the years with “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” “Firefly” and “Cabin in The Woods” which he co-wrote. Here he gives a satisfying blockbuster which works on us emotionally as much as it thrills us. This could have easily been a major disappointment, and the fact it is not makes the film a huge success.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2012 not long after “The Avengers” was released.