Heavy Metal Marvel: IRON MAN Mark I-II-III
For most super hero movie geeks, Jon Favreau’s big screen adaptation of Iron Man (2008) basically blew most other films in that subgenre out of the water. While I loved Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films, I’m still a Marvel devotee first. From a young age Spider Man was always my favorite super hero. I really enjoyed Sam Raimi’s films and thought they did a great job bringing the character to the big screen but when I saw Iron Man I thought it was truly exceptional.
MARK I: Origin and Betrayal
Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) is like a modern Howard Hughes meets Bill Gates. He’s an uber wealthy tech genius/playboy who owns Stark Industries, a company which manufactures the most badass weapons for mass destruction. When we first meet him he’s on a promotional assignment in Afghanistan to showcase his latest super missile “The Jericho”. What starts off as another cushy, forgettable trip overseas to impress the U.S. government turns to horror when Tony’s armored military convoy is suddenly attacked by insurgents. Following a violent gunfight, he ends up the only one left alive and suffers a deadly shrapnel wound (caused by one of his own products). When Tony awakes he has been kidnapped by Raza (Faran Tahir) the leader of a terrorist group known as The Ten Rings. Another hostage, Yinsen (Shaun Toub), has fashioned a crude electromagnet to keep the pieces of metal in Stark’s heart from killing him. Once Tony recuperates Raza gives him a choice: build them a new Jericho missile or die. With Yinsen’s help he begins working, but soon he has an idea to build a miniature version of Stark Industries’ Arc Reactor. This device will take the place of the electromagnet he has to lug around. Most importantly it will also power a mechanical suit that he will build to help him and Yinsen escape. Stark is finally able to get out due to Yinsen giving him extra time in turn sacrificing himself. Stark’s Iron suit is equipped with weapons including a flamethrower which take out the enemy combatants with furiosity. This sequence is one of the most thrilling in the entire series. The way its set up and executed is just supremely cool and memorable. After walking through the desert, Tony is finally rescued by the U.S. Air Force led by his best friend Col. James Rhodes (Terrence Howard) and brought back to the States.
Upon Tony’s return his newfound sense of responsibility inspires him to stop selling weapons of death and do something more creative with his life and Stark Industries. Tony also decides to personally take on the forces of evil in the world by using his arc reactor energy to power a new suit based on the one he made while being held prisoner. His faithful secretary Virginia “Pepper” Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow) and chauffer/bodyguard “Happy” Hogan (Jon Favreau) are always there by his side too. Tony’s partner at Stark Industries, the shady Obidiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) is glad to have him back, but its soon revealed that he has alterior motives to get rid of Tony and steal the Arc reactor technology to make even bigger, badder weapons to rule the world. He also recovers pieces of the Mark 1 armor from the Ten Rings (who he hired to kill Tony) and uses it to create his own “Iron Monger” suit.
Why did Iron Man turn out to be such a great movie? Was it the cool SFX? The story? The direction? Surely all of those things were important, but the main reason the film was off the chain was its star Robert Downey Jr. When I was growing up RDJ (as we now refer to him) was not a super hero type actor. He was merely the jokester kid who would add a certain eccentric style of humor to whatever film he was in. I was always a fan because he represented that 80s punk attitude of fun and edginess (see Less Than Zero, Back To School, Johnny Be Good). In the 90s the film he was in that really impressed me was Chaplin, he gave a brilliant performance as the legendary artist and proved he had some chops we hadn’t seen before. For many years after that RDJ sort of fell off my radar and he obviously had many personal troubles that you probably know about. Flash forward to 2008, he auditioned for the role of Tony Stark, nailed it and got the gig. All I can say is we as fans owe a big Thanks to Marvel and the people who gave him the chance for a comeback because as of today, Iron Man is my favorite super hero and film series. If anyone was born to play Tony Stark it was RDJ.
Another big reason the film was a triumph was the fact this kind of super hero seems realistic to viewers. We can envision this technology being possible and its not so far removed from our real world as other more outlandish heroes might be. Iron Man could even be seen as a metaphor for RDJ’s own life. Like Tony he had fallen but rose out of the dark place he was in and emerged a better person. The humor employed throughout these movies is really integral part of the whole and keeps it grounded. We see it in Tony and Pepper’s relationship which has that classic Hepburn/Tracy style of bickering back and forth. The special FX and CGI is of course a major factor that is superbly done and makes you feel like it’s happening in front of your eyes. There’s basically nothing to complain about on that front. Jeff Bridges, who is known for playing more mellow characters (see The Dude) does a 180 as Obidiah Stane. He actually gets furious in this role, and I thought his unusual cueballed look and weaselly, super greedy, diabolical persona made him a great villain. Overall, Jon Favreau & Co. did an amazing job bringing the Iron Man character/universe to life and delivered an instant classic Marvel movie.
MARK II: Legacy and Discovery
In the sequel, Tony Stark has revealed to the world he is in fact The Invincible Iron Man. Across the globe in the frigid environs of Russia, someone is listening to his words on the TV. A man who has ties to Stark that he doesn’t even know about: Anton Vanko, the co-creator of the Arc Reactor technology who was deported by Howard Stark decades earlier. Vanko is now on his death bed while his son Ivan (Mickey Rourke) also a scientist, watches on in sadness. As his father passes away Ivan yells out angrily in defiance. He decides to seek revenge on the Stark family and does so by building his own mini arc reactor thanks to a Stark Industries blueprint his father kept hidden. Ivan puts his own spin on the design by creating two handheld currents of energy that will be the whip like weapons he wields. Meanwhile back in the States, Tony is hosting the Stark Expo, a year long celebration of technology founded by his father which is being held in Flushing, NY. While that is going on, he’s been pressured by the U.S. government to hand over his Iron Man tech but he flatly refuses. The hearing committee, including the vindictive Senator Stern (Gary Shandling) show him footage of different countries testing their own suits (all of which fail) including the weapons manufacturer Hammer Industries, who’ve taken the place of Stark’s company in that field. It’s run by Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) a fast talking shyster and Tony wannabe, who is essentially a lowlife with delusions of grandeur. After telling Stern and the others to get bent, Tony takes off for a little vacation in Monaco where the Grand Prix is being held. He also decides at the last minute to race for Stark Industries. What he doesn’t realize is that Ivan Vanko is there with his weaponized whips of energy. During the race Vanko ambushes Tony and nearly kills him but luckily, Tony is saved by his latest Armor which is contained in a special carrying case under guard by his bodyguard/chauffer Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). Iron Man quickly subdues Vanko and destroys the second arc reactor he built. Vanko is imprisoned but is busted out thanks to none other than Tony’s competitor Justin Hammer. Hammer hires Vanko to build him a fleet of super suits which can be manned by soldiers in hopes he can sell them to the U.S. government and thwart Tony’s single handed defense status as Iron Man. Vanko agrees to help him but secretly has other plans of his own.
With Pepper promoted as new CEO of Stark Industries, Tony hires a new secretary Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson) to take her place. Natalie has an exceptional resume and is beautiful as well. Tony doesn’t know what to make of her due to her steely personality. It’s later revealed by Cmdr. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) head of the secret agency known as S.H.I.E.L.D. she is in fact a spy to watch over him. At Tony’s birthday party he gets sloppy drunk while in his armor and Rhodey (Don Cheadle) becomes angered by this. After Rhodey steals one of the other armored suits, the two friends have a knock down fistfight (with music supplied by DJ AM). Its a cool, funky high-tech boxing match as the shellheads clank themselves around until they’re worn out. Rhodes takes off with his suit and brings it to the Air Force Base. Tony has realized he needs to let the government have some control over his technology. Since the palladium he uses to help keep the mini arcs running is both keeping him alive and killing him because of blood toxicity, his only hope is to create a new element to keep him healthy. Thanks to Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. (but most importantly a clue left by his long dead father Howard) Tony discovers a secret hidden map of a new element for his mini arc reactor. While he is occupied with that task, what he doesn’t know is that Vanko and Hammer are going to surprise him at the Expo.
Iron Man 2 starts out fantastic with Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko who’s introduced as a very menacing villain. I was sort of dissapointed because after his first attack sequence he basically becomes a hired stooge for Justin Hammer and lets himself be treated like a child. If you have a master thespian like Mickster in your film you have to give him more to do than say “Very goot min”. The big finale was slightly cliche (CGI overload) and kind of lacking on the imagination side. It takes the entire movie to bring Whiplash back and his second battle scene is rather short. I later found out Jon Favreau was not able to realize his original vision due to studio interference so this was the reason some of the film seemed a bit off, which is too bad.
Scarlett Johansson’s Natalie Rushman aka Natasha Romanov/Codename: Black Widow is sexy and also comical as she tries to keep her real identity hidden from Tony as his new secretary. She later gets to show off her super skills as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and it’s thrilling to watch. I really enjoyed Sam Rockwell’s portrayal of Justin Hammer. I’ve been a fan of him since I saw Box of Moonlight, a little 90s indie film. He plays Hammer as a mix of Woody Allen and Easy Andy from Taxi Driver. He’s wheelin, he’s dealin, he’s schmoozing…but he’s losing. What’s cool is he’s not your typical “bad guy” but rather played as an opportunistic schmuck. Don Cheadle who took over as Col. James Rhodes aka War Machine for Terrence Howard does a solid job and hes a great foil for RDJ’s Tony as the two have some conflicts of interest but still crack jokes and remain good pals while getting each others backs in the big finale.
MARK III: The Inner Hero and Perception
The third installment of the Iron Man series picks up after the events of The Avengers with a more world weary Tony Stark who has spent most of his time laying low and tinkering in his home workshop. His latest high tech suit is the Mark 42, which can be summoned to him in pieces from any location. Along with JARVIS (voiced by Paul Bettany) his faithful A.I. computer, Stark tries to get it working correctly and provides some very comical and cool moments while doing so. Since we last saw them, Tony and Pepper have gotten more serious and moved in together. They are very much in love as they bicker and trade verbal jabs with passion. We also learn that due to his experience in New York fighting the Chitauri, Tony now suffers from post traumatic stress which causes nightmares and panic attacks. As he tries to control these issues, a terrorist called The Mandarin (Sir Ben Kingsley) appears and targets various cites around the world. He broadcasts theatrical messages to the public at large with his main focus being The President of The United States (William Sadler). Tony’s best friend Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle) has had his gun metal gray War Machine suit revamped to a flashier red white and blue theme along with a new moniker: “Iron Patriot”. The President orders Rhodes/Iron Patriot to seek out The Mandarin and bring him to justice but his various attempts don’t go as planned.
Two old acquaintances from both Tony and Pepper’s past, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) are scientists who run Advanced Idea Mechanics (or A.I.M.) a company that is working on new experiments to help humanity. Killian tries to impress Pepper by giving her a presentation of his concepts but Happy (Jon Favreau) becomes suspicious of him and his assistant Savin (James Badge Dale). It soon becomes apparent that Killian does in fact have alterior motives in the form of the “Extremis” project in which war veterans are injected with a serum that gives them regenerative powers. At Mann’s Chinese Theater an attack is carried out by Savin revealed to be one of the Extremis subjects (who also works for The Mandarin) and Happy is seriously hurt while investigating why Savin is there. Enraged by his friend’s condition, Tony calls out The Mandarin on live TV giving him his home address. Soon after his seaside mansion is destroyed by Mandarin’s soldiers during a helicopter ambush. Tony suddenly finds himself cast out of his sanctuary and is forced to rely on his intellect and non-armored bravery to take down The Mandarin. Along the way he encounters Harley (Ty Simpkins) a young kid from Tennessee that befriends him as he tries to uncover the mystery behind the evil.
The cast are outstanding with of course two greats, Sir Ben Kingsley and Guy Pearce bringing highly stylized performances that will impress. While observing Sir Ben play The Mandarin I couldn’t help but think of where I heard his chosen speaking voice before. If he’s not doing an imitation of Walter Cronkite, then I guess I should have my ears checked. Guy Pearce’s Killian which has him transition from handicapped goofball into the suave, diabolical science whiz is easily one of his best post L.A. Confidential roles. Rebecca Hall’s Maya Hansen brings an interesting mixture of innocence, vulnerability and conflicted purpose to her character that I appreciated. James Badge Dale (The Departed) plays Savin with an aloof, smug, nastiness and you can tell he savored being a baddie. He reminded me of the types of eccentric crazies in Shane Black’s older action scripts like Gary Busey (Lethal Weapon) or Taylor Negron (The Last Boy Scout). RDJ IS Iron Man, but he definitely was able to show us yet another side of the character due to his new found mental troubles. I think that simply made him seem even more human and only deepened his already superb portrayal. In a nice twist even Gwenyth’s Pepper Potts gets to do more than just argue and run Stark Industries this time and all I can say is I was really having a blast watching her glowing hot in the last half of the movie. Don Cheadle’s Rhodey is as sharp and honorable as always and he gets some truly badass action sequences to be a part of, ultimately proving he doesn’t need the Iron Patriot armor to be a super hero
Iron Man 3 has some odd moments and there’s sections where you don’t quite know where it’s going but when it’s working the payoffs are as jawdropping and spectacular as anything we’ve seen in the franchise so far. While watching I found myself admiring just how different it seemed tonally compared to the previous two. I could tell Shane Black had a blast taking the established Iron Man universe in different directions and playing rascally puppetmaster with audience expectations presenting one surprise after another. I think some comic book purists might be annoyed by some of his choices, but I personally found them hilarious, cool and clever. I completely appreciated Black and Downey shaking things up and going outside the box making IM3 more of a personal genre film as well. In the end I think that is actually essential to these movies because it will keep them fresh and interesting each time out. My hope is that with every sequel we’ll get new writers and directors who will bring their own unique visions of Iron Man to the big screen.