Chief Justice Michael Stailey makes you feel he's a cool exec with a heart of steel.
Our review of Iron Man: Ultimate Two-Disc Edition, published September 15th, 2008, is also available.
Heroes Aren't Born, They're Built.
I may not be Iron Man but damn if Jon Favreau doesn't make you feel like an 8-year old who wants to play Tony Stark. While Chris Nolan may have stolen the summer box office, The Marvel Team stole the hearts and minds of movie lovers and comic book fans alike.
Given that both Judge Adam Arseneau and Mac McEntire did bang-up jobs with their in-depth theatrical and standard DVD reviews respectively, I'm focusing this streamlined effort on general film and Blu-ray impressions. N'est pas?
My name is Michael and I am a recovering Marvel Zombie. Yes, back in the mid-to-late '80s, I was a diehard Marvel comics junkie and Iron Man was a book I read regularly. This was the hey-day of the title, in which Tony succumed to alcoholism, Rhodey became War Machine, and the Iron Wars began. That being said, none of that information applies to this film. Director Jon Favreau, producer Peter Billingsley, and their writing team of Hawk Ostby, Mark Fergus, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway drew much of their inspiration from Stan Lee, Larry Leiber, and Don Heck's original 1963 introduction of the character, as well as "Extremis," the recent reboot from writer Warren Ellis and artist Adi Granov. Wisely avoiding getting bogged down by 45 years of history, Favreau's team teed up a streamlined and modernized version Tony's awakening. More importantly, they put him in the hands of Robert Downey Jr. who knocked the sucker right out of the park.
There's very little here that's left to chance here. In less than four minutes, they establish who this character is and leave him dangling on the edge of death. Over the next 30 minutes, we learn Stark is whip smart, has the resources to do whatever he wants, and most of all has the passion and determination to pull it all off, no matter the cost. Now imagine that power in the hands of someone whose entire life has been turned inside out and the consequences of his lifelong actions have returned to haunt him 100 fold. This field is fertile beyond belief and they cultivate it well. From the opening title card to the crash of the Mark I, this is hands down the most impressive Marvel character adaptation to date. And yeah, I'm callin' you out Spidey.
Ah, but Iron Man is not without its Achilles Heel.
Tony's stateside return is where the story runs into trouble. Obidiah Stane is a transparent villain lacking the teeth needed to match the whallop experienced in the first 45 minutes. This isn't so much the fault of Jeff Bridges but rather the shallowness of the conflict between the two men. The whole double dealing, secret stealing, "He stole my job" double cross does not make for great revenge drama. We've seen it done countless times before and it doesn't play on the same level as Tony's own personal battle. The pace, action, and stakes pick up once again, when he dons the Mark III to go after "The 10 Rings" and his former captors in Afganistan.
Unfortunately, the story has to return to Stane in an anti-climactic and somewhat preposterous big boss battle. Obidiah didn't have near enough time to learn the tech of the Iron Monger suit to be able to use it as effectively as he does. And the whole thing is far too Michael Bay, belying Jon's own personal stamp we saw earlier in the film. Granted, they had a limited budget which forced them to pick and choose where that money would have the greatest impact. In a way, I'm glad it was spent elsewhere, because all the money in the world couldn't have made this resolve any more redeeming. Be sure to watch the bonus features for the extended death of Obidiah, which is a bit more rewarding.
As for the rest of the cast, Terrence Howard is dead on a Rhodey, the conflicted friend/associate who can't help but be drawn into Tony's reckless wake. People give Gwenyth Paltrow crap for her performance, but her scenes with Robert are small gems that epitomize the heart and soul of the film. Though her run in with Iron Monger—not so great. Clark Gregg (Choke) is great as the first visible agent of SHIELD, and Paul Bettany does his best Pierce Brosnan-Ultrahouse 3000 from The Simpsons' Treehouse of Terror XII impression as Jarvis, Tony's A.I. manservant.
Beyond the performances, it's the details that give the picture depth. The use of the 1960's animation theme in the Vegas sequence is genius. There's great comedy in the lab scenes between Tony and the 'bots…and that's all Robert. No one else can do what he does. The introduction of "The 10 Rings" lays the groundwork for the reveal of the Manadrin, which Jon plans to slowly draw out until the third film. In his eyes, Mandarin is Emperor Palpatine from the original Star Wars trilogy; just out of sight, pulling the strings, testing his adversaries until the time is right to strike. It's also nice to see filmmakers pay attention to the geography of their story's action. Tony's home is on Point Dume in Malibu. His Mark II test flight goes over Santa Monica and the pier (complete with the old Ferris Wheel; our new one was installed this summer), and when suit ices up, he falls to back to Earth over Westwood, just to the east. And let's not forget the much discussed cameo by Sam Jackson as Nick Fury, which puts into play Marvel Studios master plan for a Universe franchise with Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Captain America, and The Avengers. Throw in Doctor Strange and several other character properties in development and you have two decades worth of Marvel movies on tap. Of course Spidey, Daredevil, and Fantastic Four are licensed to Sony and Fox respectively, so they'll be left out of the big party.
Okay, enough about the film, because you're asking about how this sucker looks and sounds in HD. Well, I was disappointed. The Blu-ray image is not as impressive as one would expect. There's a definite warmth in the color palate and the close-ups show the details of the face, but the long shots don't have the depth of detail we've seen on other BD transfers. I kept waiting for that "Wow" moment and it never arrived. As for the audio, you may find yourself reaching for the remote, as the dialogue in the quiet moments are almost too soft. The surround channels are under utilized, even in the Mark III v. Iron Monger fight, once again falling well short of better BD releases. Actually, Djawadi's score uses them more than the film's ambient effects. Oddly enough, though, the music over the closing credits is all front loaded with no back action. It's weird.
When it comes to Bonus Materials, this Two-Disc set is stuffed full of film geek goodness. Unfortunately, the Blu-ray exclusives are nothing to get excited over. The BD-Live functionality, which every studio is trumpeting as the next big thing, is nothing more than downloadable clip-driven trivia. L-A-M-E. The Hall of Amor feature let's you explore all four Stan Winston Co. suit designs ranging from 360-degree views to detailed tech specs. Yawn. But almost everything else here is worth its weight in Iron.
• The Invincible Iron Man: Multi-chapter documentary exploring the comic origins and development of the character, featuring interviews with Stan Lee (who co-wrote the book with his brother Larry)—used Howard Hughes as a template, knowing full well everyone would hate the character; writer Gerry Conway—Tony was a war profiteer before it became unacceptable, and was responsible for the creation of and funding of SHIELD; penciller Gene Colan—the mask personified Tony's emotionless soul; editor Tom Brevoort; penciler John Romita Jr—Iron Man was Marvel's first monthly title; writer/artist Bob Layton—the youngest talent at Marvel at the time—if you believe the suit works, everything else falls into place—Dr Doom should have been Tony's mortal enemy, since they were two sides of the same coin; Warren Ellis, who took Tony to his test pilot extemis by re-envisioning the character creating biological weapons using himself as the guinea pig; writer Joe Casey; illustrator Adi Granov; writers Dan and Charlie Knauf—Tony's role in Civil War and its fallout; artist Patrick Zircher; writer/artist/publisher Joe Quesada.
• Deleted and Extended Scenes: Fully formed and edited narratives with the added benefit of seeing when each coverage angle was shot, the artist responsible for compositing the shots, and how they were woven together. I've never seen that done before. Great character development with Rhodey, Jarvis, Stane's m.o. and more rewarding demise, the armor's creation, and more of the Transformers-esque lame battle sequence. Many of these scenes are beautifully conceived and executed, but would have slowed down the pacing—like using a party and fireworks display at his house in Dubai as cover for the Mark III revenge on his captors. I also love how much in-camera work they did on the film, when it could have very easily been relegated to ILM.
• I Am Iron Man: One of the most exhaustive, in-depth making of documentaries I've seen, standing toe-to-toe with "According to Plan" on Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. I was a bit disappointed in the lack of a Favreau/Downey commentary (which they performed live at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica), but this more than makes up for it. Interviews with Avi Arad, Jon, Peter, Adi, the storyboard team, production designer J. Michael Riva, the late Stan Winston, producer and Marvel Films commanding officer Kevin Feige. I love the fact that they brought in the current Marvel brain trust—Mark Millar, Brian Michael Bendis, Joe Quesada. Interesting that the Iron Monger suit was originally intended to be The Crimson Dynamo. Suit creation. Stunt double testing. Hair and costume tests. Rehearsal footage. Principal photography. 2nd Unit work. Location shooting. Battling the elements. Happy accidents. All the small touches the team put into this film. The burden of the origin story. Jonny's weight loss (more than 75 lbs). Using improv to give the characters life. Post-production stress. Flying blind into the premiere.
• Wired: The Visual Effects of Iron Man: Takes you through interviews with the principals at the three key VFX houses used on the film—ILM, The Orphanage, XXX—and the various key development stages they undertook.
• Robert Downey Jr. Screen Test: Since Marvel had a lot riding on their first flagship studio pic, they weren't about to put they fate in the hands of an actor who had yet to front a successful picture. Robert has long been great in stepping in, doing his thing, and leaving, but Jon, Peter, and the team had to convince Kevin and the Marvel brass that Robert was the only man who could pull off Tony Stark. And they were right. These short scenes show the early script for what became the Lesley Bibb sequence outside Caesar's, his post Mark III middle east tussle discussion with Rhodey, and shooting the ad-lib shit with offscreen stand-ins for military personnel.
• The Actor's Process: Watch Robert, Jeff Bridges, and Jon break down the dynamics and physicality of the scene outside of the benefit in which Stane reveals his duplicity for the first time.
• The Onion News Network Report: This viral video caught fire on YouTube satirizing the idea that the Iron Man trailer had been optioned for feature development and how nervous fans and industry insiders were at the prospect. The joke's worn thin. Move on.
• Theatrical Trailers: The original teaser and three subsequent full-length trailers.
• Galleries: Concept Art, Tech, Unit Photography, and Lobby Posters, if you dig that sort of thing.
Downey makes this character and the movie. The levels he explores are as fascinating as the game plan that Jon Favreau, Peter Billingsley, and their creative team put together. Iron Man is a rare nuanced superhero adventure—loud and boisterous when it needs to be, but thoughtful and provocative at its core. I can't wait to see where they go from here.
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• BD-Live: Clip-driven trivia games
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