After seeing Iron Man last night, Robert Downey Jr. has firmly cemented himself into the canon of my “mostest awesome favourite actor types”. I’ve always liked Downey Jr. — highlights for me were his roles in Air America, Chaplin, and most recently, A Scanner Darkly, Good Night, and Good Luck and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. There’s a pattern in those roles: he excels at playing complete fuck-ups, mainly because his life in many regards has been one big long fuck-up. He spent most of the 1990s in and out of both rehab and jail for repeated drug use and offences. This guy knows more than most what it’s like to get on, and most critically to get off a substance abuse habit.
And that to me made him perfect to play Tony Stark in Iron Man. The guy goes from arms dealing playboy to armour-clad philanthropist after seeing his life’s work being used by insurgents to kill innocent people (Vietnamese in the comics, Afghans in the movie). Downey Jr. seems to have taken a similar path, seeing how fucked up his life was becoming, and now resuming a successful movie career. For me, starring in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang in 2005, alongside fellow career fuck-up Val Kilmer, was the first big “I’m back” statement he made. Iron Man is his coming out party. Holy crap, is Robert Downey Jr. back.
As for Iron Man itself, there’s a ridiculous amount of stuff to love in this movie, the first to be developed from scratch by Marvel itself: explosions, dogfights, great comedy, pathos, more explosions, no long-winded unrequired exposition pieces and … well, even more explosions. It’s a balls-out, no-bullshit summer event movie, and it doesn’t give a shit about who knows it. In fact, there’s actually quite a few key things that make this movie as great as it is — and it really shouldn’t be as great as it is given that the movie is shallow and predictable in places — Downey Jr. being the primary element both holding the feature together and driving it forward to a satisfactory ending. In a nod to both Downey Jr.’s and director Jon Favreau’s comedy pasts, there was dialogue improvisation on set, partly due to an incomplete script, assisting in making this movie more believable on a human level. Aside from that, a consistently good performances from the rest of the cast, taut direction from Favreau and utterly stunning visual effects from houses at the top of their game (ILM, Pixel Liberation Front, Stan Winston) combine to make this one of the strongest event movies in recent years. And it really shouldn’t be. It’s not a complaint, just an observation: the stars have some how aligned in such a way to make this movie great. In lesser hands, perhaps, it would have floundered.
Combine all this with Downey Jr.’s appearance as Tony Stark in the forthcoming The Incredible Hulk, starring Edward Norton, and the tantalising promise of a series of Marvel Studios movies featuring other members of the Avengers — Captain America, Thor, Ant-Man — all leading to an Avengers ensemble movie around 2010, and you have one of the most impressive and smart ways to build a franchise ever heard of in movies. Good luck, Marvel: surprise us all and keep making these awesome comic-book movies!
Oh! Tip: stay to the end of the end credits. You’ll thank me.