I've already received a bit of flak for bestowing what I believe to be justified praise upon Iron Man, so I already know that this pick won't be popular with my entire readership (however few of you there may be, thanks for reading!) But of what worth would a list of this nature be if it didn't generate a dissenting opinion or two? And anyway, it's my list, right? I've gotta be honest with my people if I'm going to earn their confidence! With the noble pursuit of trust-via-integrity in mind and heart, I proudly present Iron Man, number eight on my Best Films of 2008 Countdown.
I feel that it's safe to assume that Iron Man was viewed by many--if not most--viewers as the second-best superhero movie of the year, after The Dark Knight. As a firm believer in the idea of "to each man[or woman], his[or her] own opinion", I'm willing to accept Iron Man's relegation to the position of second fiddle. But I certainly disagree with the conception that TDK is a superior film. For my money, Iron Man is the best comic book adaptation to hit the silver screen since Batman Begins and Sin City were released three and a half years ago. And given the fact that practically every third movie released between April and October these days began its life as a comic, that's saying something.
What I think sets Iron Man apart from other, lesser films adapted from comics is that it harnesses everything that a comic can and should possess--entertainment, provocation, well-developed characters, strong visuals--and wraps it all up in a slick, unassuming package. Where TDK might be pushing the superhero movie toward greater moral and literary complexity, Iron Man has perfected the genre. Without trying to do more than it needs to, Iron Man lets the cinematic experience take center stage while deftly (and wisely) keeping the actual filmmaking hidden from view.
Unlike most superhero movies, Iron Man is less about the titular crime-fighter than it is about the people behind the mask. Iron Man is littered with strong characters, each of them very much their own individuals and each commanding presences, regardless of how much time they spend on-screen. Chalk it up, in part, to great acting (and casting). From Jeff Bridges' Obadiah Stane to Terrence Howard's Rhodey to Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts to Shaun Toub's Yinsen to Clark Gregg's Agent Coulson...the list goes on.
Of course the greatest performance of all is Robert Downey, Jr.'s portrayal of Tony Stark. As I contended in a reply to a comment of Jason's on a previous post, Downey, Jr.'s turn as Stark did more to separate the Man from the Superhero than any performance in a superhero movie ever has. The resultant balance between Man and Superhero added a level of dynamism to Iron Man that I had never before seen in this sort of film. This balance made it possible for the film to be about more than a dude in a high-tech metal suit fighting terrorists and defeating his respective supervillain. Without Downey, Jr.'s nearly flawless work, Iron Man could not have been the movie it was: a movie about the Man-Behind-the-Mask and the people (and comically expressive robots) who have his back.
But there is another man to thank for the film's success. The Man-Behind-the-Scenes. That's right, more shameless props for Jon Favreau's directing. I realize Favreau's not Martin Scorsese or David Lynch, nor do I ever expect him to reach such cinematic heights; he's just not that kind of director. But he does have a knack for making crowd-pleasing movies that also have a sense of style and originality. He makes Old Hollywood-style movies for the modern viewer and does so with great poise.
I give Favreau more notice than most people think he deserves, because for every five comic book adaptations, four are terrible. Look no further than The Incredible Hulk to see just how wrong they can go. Without Favreau at the helm, it's my belief that Iron Man could have turned out just as poorly. Like Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk was cast with some talented actors (Edward Norton, William Hurt, Tim Roth, and, to a lesser extent, Liv Tyler), but it didn't have a competent filmmaker calling the shots and wound up being, well, embarrassing. The same unfortunate fate has befallen a number of other comic book adaptations over the past several years. But where others fell pathetically flat, Iron Man soared; Jon Favreau deserves a big hunk of the credit for making that happen.
I do not expect to convince any non-believers of the merits of Iron Man, but I do think that even those who weren't as impressed by the movie as I was must realize that transforming a storied comic book franchise into a good film is no small feat. Turning it into a great film is all the more impressive and, as superhero movies go, Iron Man is nothing short of terrific.