Sorry if it seems like I was gone for a week. There’s actually a perfectly good explanation for that, though: I was gone for a week!
#6: Iron Man (2008)
I have seen two perfect superhero origin films: Batman Begins, and this one. Batman Begins was a bit more serious and featured a much more impressive villain. Iron Man brought quite a bit more fun. Traditional superhero movie logic dictates the narrative necessity of a dominant villain, but I think it’s very okay for most of the focus to be on the hero, especially in an origin story, and especially when the hero is played by Robert Downey Jr. (I’m actually completely serious about that last part.)
Iron Man doubles as arguably my favorite origin story of all time and easily the most watchable superhero film of all time. The blend of action and humor make the sheer entertainment value of this film pretty unmatched in the genre. I just can’t imagine someone saying, “Hey, let’s watch Iron Man” and me “not being in the mood.” There might be something I’d rather watch, but it’s always cool to watch Iron Man. Always.
The most impressive part of Tony Stark’s character arc is that he manages to almost completely reinvent himself without ever stopping being an arrogant asshole. (Well, it’s either that or the fact that he manages to be an arrogant asshole that the audience absolutely loves.) Stark’s reinvention of himself has more to do with practical changes, with taking responsibility for what he and his company are doing and changing it for the better. Tony becomes driven, and thanks to Downey Jr.’s skill you can see that determination in his eyes throughout the film’s second and third acts.
Stark’s actions draw the attention of the “Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division.” Though the name isn’t diminutized (“S.H.I.E.L.D.”) until the end of the film, most comic book fans were probably able to connect the dots the first time they heard the name Stark describes as a “mouthful,” and most of them probably immediately wet their pants with excitement. (Which they probably should’ve saved for the post-credits scene when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) visits Tony Stark to talk about the “Avengers Initiative.”)
S.H.I.E.L.D. is represented during the bulk of the film by the first appearance of Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), who probably surprised even the filmmakers by becoming a huge fan favorite. I recognized Clark Gregg from a supporting role in The West Wing as FBI Special Agent Mike Casper. Coulson’s characterization actually has quite a few similarities to his role on The West Wing, having an “everyman” vibe despite his position as an intelligence agent, as well as an earnest good-naturedness.
I thoroughly enjoyed Pepper Potts’ (Gwyneth Paltrow) role in the film and her chemistry with Tony. And, in a rarity for superhero films, the stirrings of a romantic subplot with Tony didn’t feel “overdone” here. Rather, it was a collection of “little” moments, perhaps the most poignant of which was her exclamation of, “Are those bullet holes?” upon seeing damage to Tony’s suit.
Terrence Howard was also excellent as Tony’s best friend, Arthur Rhodes. The chemistry between the two characters was a lot of fun, and frankly my biggest disappointment about the sequel was that Howard wasn’t back. The dynamic between Downey Jr. and Howard’s replacement Don Cheadle was dramatically different and much more serious.
The choice to have Jarvis (voiced by Paul Bettany) as an artificial intelligence computer program rather than a human butler was, I think, a wise one. It allows Tony to have someone to talk to when he’s in the armor, and it also seems to fit in much better with both the tone of the film and Tony’s lifestyle.
Having so little emphasis on the film’s villain could’ve easily been a fatal weakness for the film, which is why Jeff Bridges’ performance as Obadiah Stane was so important. He made the character imposing with his body language, such that he always seemed to be “in control” of whatever situation he was in. Although his villain turn was hardly a huge surprise, he was able to play the role of Tony’s father-figure-turned-enemy quite convincingly.
There is so much to love about this film. If The Avengers is the template for ensemble superhero films, this might well be the template for solo superhero films. It “feels” light and entertaining, but it’s actually surprisingly smart and definitely well-constructed. Really, when it gets right down to it, it’s just one of the most enjoyable films I’ve ever seen.