By Matthew Shaer
Good news for Marvel this weekend: the Jon Favreau-powered "Iron Man" flick is a critical smash. No small achievement, really, considering that most recent comix-related films have been hung out to dry in the mainstream press, regardless of general box office clout. (I'm looking at you, "FF4.")
Over at the New York Times, A.O. Scott writes that "Iron Man" is "a superhero movie that’s good in unusual ways"; Bill Zwecker, at the Chicago Sun-Times, says it's "one of the smartest superhero films to come down the pike in some time."
And so on: The Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, New York Post, all weighed in with what amounted, more or less, to rave-ups. (One of the only dissenters is David Denby, of the New Yorker, who calls the whole damn thing "a hundred-and-eighty-five-million-dollar put-on.")
What accounts for the effusion?
Well, on the one hand, as Scott noted in the Times, "the film benefits from a script (credited to Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway) that generally chooses clever dialogue over manufactured catchphrases and lumbering exposition, and also from a crackerjack cast that accepts the filmmakers’ invitation to do some real acting rather than just flex and glower and shriek for a paycheck."
More important, the tale of Iron Man is relentlessly "relevant." There are Middle Eastern evil-doers; there is terrorism; there is one strange, and disheartening, instance of – wait for it – waterboarding. Writing in New York magazine, David Edelstein noted the arrival of "a American weapons mogul whose guilt over facilitating the deaths of U.S. soldiers and Mideast civilians impels him to turn off the arms pipeline and rescue Afghans from marauding warlords."
The future's bright for Tony Stark – Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Edelstein concludes: Tony Stark uses "his might (and money, and American ingenuity) to undo the damage. Iron Man Akbar! It’s utter, wish-fulfilling crap, but when the whole world hates you, it does feel good."
Interestingly, this is a formula that was mined to particularly sweeping effect in "Batman Begins," which gets a sequel of its own this summer. What does Christopher Nolan's project have in common with Favreau's? A partial eschewing of tried-and-true fanboy lore for a modernist re-telling; dynamic plotting (as opposed to the banal, straight-out-of-the-funny-pages chatter of, say, "Daredevil"); and a subtle infusion of political wit.