Flashback: ‘Iron Man’

Ten years ago, a certain cinematic universe was born…

 

Iron Man 2008

In the beginning: Robert Downey Jr and Jeff Bridges head-up the cast of Marvel Studios’ ‘Iron Man’.

Starring:  Robert Downey Jr, Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Shaun Toub, Faran Tahir, Clark Gregg

Directed by:  Jon Favreau / Written by:  Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum & Matt Holloway / 2008

What’s it about?

After escaping captivity and near-death in Afghanistan, weapons manufacturer Tony Stark builds a hi-tech armoured suit and embarks on a mission to thwart evil…

Retrospective

A surprise hit back in 2008, Iron Man was not only the first theatrical release for Marvel Studios but the Big Bang of the multi-billion dollar grossing Marvel Cinematic Universe.  A decade later, it’s hard to imagine that a feature film adaptation of one of Marvel’s lesser known (the rights to the likes of Spider-Man and X-Men held by Sony and 20th Century Fox, respectively) characters was considered a huge gamble and had the fate of a potential film franchise weighing heavily on its shoulders.

Produced by Marvel Studios and distributed by Paramount Pictures (Disney’s purchase of Marvel would take place in 2009), Iron Man would take the Howard Hughes inspired character created by Stan Lee and Larry Lieber together with artists Don Heck and Jack Kirby (first appearing in Tales of Suspense #39, published in 1963), place him in the 21st Century and meld the core elements of billionaire playboy industrialist Tony Stark with the performance of lead star Robert Downey Jr.

An inspired casting choice, the once troubled Downey Jr was able to channel his demons into the role of Tony Stark – a character who had plenty of personal struggles in the comics – and turn in a performance that balances wisecracking quips with some hearty introspection.  Downey Jr is certainly a strong point and although this interpretation of Tony Stark differs somewhat to the more broody version comic book readers would be used to up to that point (writers such as Matt Fraction and Brian Michael Bendis leaning him more towards the lighter, playful big screen version in subsequent runs), it’s a take that fits with what Marvel were seemingly going for with Iron Man – a colourful, fun action film with nuances of maturity, tucking in themes of redemption as the film’s protagonist seeks a more heroic and morally justifiable path.  When we first meet Stark, CEO of weapons manufacturer Stark Industries, he’s not the most likeable of people – a carefree and careless egotist who likes to drink, gamble and womanise in equal measure.  Yet, over the course of the film we grow to care for Stark as he reflects on errors of the past and embarks on his journey to becoming ‘Iron Man’.

 

Iron Man 2008 (2)

Robert Downey Jr: inspired casting for ‘Iron Man’.

The plot of Iron Man is fairly straightforward and functions well as an origin story and although it lacks the sophistication and artistry of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins it’s entertaining and gets the job done.  Updating the Vietnam-era setting of Iron Man’s comic book debut to that of post 9/11 Afghanistan, Tony Stark is gravely injured by one of his own weapons and captured by militants where his life is saved by fellow prisoner Yinsen (Shaun Toub) who fits an electromagnet to Stark’s chest, preventing deadly shards of shrapnel from piercing his heart.  Put to work on constructing a missile, Stark instead builds an armoured suit, powered by a refined version of the electromagnet and escapes.  Having witnessed the horrors of war and how his weapons could be used for untold evil, Stark returns home with a change of heart, announcing the end of munitions manufacturing at Stark Industries, to the reticence of Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges).  Frozen out by the rest of the board, Stark develops a new iteration of the armoured suit and sets out to destroy the cache of stolen weapons being utilised by the very terrorist group who held him captive.  Meanwhile, Stane has other plans for the future of Stark Industries and will stop at nothing to realise them.

Downey Jr is ably supported by Gwyneth Paltrow’s ‘Pepper’ Potts, Tony Stark’s trusted, often frustrated, assistant who non-the-less is always at her boss’s side.  Paltrow is solid in the part, gifted with some plucky lines and it’s only bolstered by the easy chemistry between herself and Robert Downey Jr.  Adding further to the star-power is Academy Award nominee Terence Howard, who makes his only appearance as Tony’s friend and military liaison to Stark Industries, Lt. Colonel James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes.  Grumbles over pay negotiations for the sequel would lead to Howard being replaced by Don Cheadle, who continues in the role to today.

As the big bad, Jeff Bridges brings gravitas to the role of Obadiah Stane elevating it above something that could’ve easily come off as too pantomime in less capable hands, resulting in one of the more memorable Marvel film villains.  Stane’s increasing mania as he builds an exo-suit of his own is fun to watch, leading to an explosive finale as Stark dons the Iron Man armour to face off against Stane and his formidable ‘Iron Monger’ suit.

Iron Man 2008 (3)

Tony Stark takes flight in the Mark III Iron Man armour…

Director Jon Favreau (who also appears as Tony Stark’s driver, ‘Happy’ Hogan) keeps things energetic and exciting, delivering slick spectacle without sacrificing the smaller and more intimate character moments.  The film’s design is commendable, the highlight of which is the Iron Man armour itself.  Based on the designs of comic book artist Adi Granov and created using a mixture of CGI and practical elements – implemented by the legendary Stan Winston Studios – it’s a faithful translation of the red and gold future Avenger from the four colour pages to the silver screen.

Iron Man remains a highly enjoyable watch, whilst Tony Stark’s Avengers outings are generally stronger and the character, along with Robert Downey Jr’s continued success in the part, has grown and matured.  The film’s positive reception cemented the plans of Marvel Studios for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the wider superhero world teased by the inclusion of Clark Gregg as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson and a post-credits appearance by Samuel L. Jackson as the organisation’s director, Nick Fury) and instilled Marvel with the confidence to adapt other lower-tier comic book properties such as Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man and Doctor Strange all of which would be well received by audiences and critics alike.

Geek fact!  An Iron Man feature film had lingered in development since the 1990s, with superstar Tom Cruise at one point mooted as a possible candidate for the lead role.

All images contained herein belong: Marvel Studios and used for illustrative purposes only.

 

Film Review: ‘Avengers: Infinity War’

Marvel Studios unleash an entire universe on audiences in the highly anticipated Avengers: Infinity War…

Spoiler-free review

 

Infinity War

The Avengers unite with the Guardians of the Galaxy to take on Thanos in Marvel Studios release ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ (image belongs: Disney/Marvel Studios, used for illustrative purposes only).

Starring:  Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Tom Hiddleston, Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Dave Bautista, Josh Brolin

Directed by:  Anthony Russo and Joe Russo / Written by:  Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely / 149 minutes

What’s it about?

Earth’s mightiest heroes – with the aid of some new cosmic friends – unite to prevent the galactic titan, Thanos from harnessing the devastating abilities of the all-powerful Infinity Stones…

In review

Perhaps the most anticipated cinematic event since the return of Star Wars, Avengers: Infinity War begins the culmination of ten years of the highly successful, box office conquering Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The biggest, most ambitious Marvel film to date (until next year’s as yet untitled Avengers 4 that is), Avengers: Infinity War is a rousing rollercoaster ride packed with emotion, action and laughs in a dazzling, heartfelt and often spectacular comic book blockbuster.

Having already helmed two of the strongest MCU entries, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War, directors Anthony and Joe Russo once again prove, with ease, that they are adept at balancing epic scale and a large cast of characters ensuring that high stakes are maintained without sacrificing focus on the people.  The narrative is relatively simple and splitting it into three ‘sections’ (with separate strands of the story taking place around the world and in space) prevents the expansive set of players from becoming muddled into one gigantic crowd which would only disservice the individual heroes audiences the world over have grown to love.  It’s a bit of a genius stroke that helps to break the film down neatly and isolate smaller groups of characters – the only downside being the inevitable disappointment that certain Marvel heroes don’t get to team up this time.  There is also a sense that, whilst everyone is given their moment to shine, some are perhaps not given as much prominence as might be expected.  To say this film is big (both in terms of its visuals and its cast) is an understatement and it’s commendable that, in the grand scheme of things the Russo brothers have managed to hold together all the disparate elements of Infinity War as well as they have.

Tonally, Infinity War follows a slightly darker path which is to be expected given the stakes that naturally come with the end of all things but like Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War there’s still a good dose of levity where it’s needed and a lot of fun to be had, whether it be the verbal sparring between Iron Man and Doctor Strange, Spider-Man’s over-eagerness or Thor’s interactions with the Guardians of the Galaxy, together with numerous instances of fist pumping heroics – whilst it may seem all hope is lot at times, there’s often an undercurrent of hope running beneath the surface.

Whilst this is an Avengers film and we get to see all our old – and new – favourites with key moments for Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man and Black Panther (and many more, including the Guardians of the Galaxy – Star Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket Raccoon and a stroppy teenage Groot), Infinity War is very much the story of its central villain, Thanos.  First teased in the post-credits sting for Avengers Assemble, Thanos, thanks to the efforts of screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and the motion capture performance of Josh Brolin (realised with some good CGI) is a powerful antagonist for sure and one with a lot of depth – there’s strong emphasis on character and a real sense of what his motivations are.  They say the best villains never see themselves as being truly evil and although Thanos is responsible for atrocious acts, Infinity War takes the opportunity to explore what makes the mad titan tick.

Infinity War isn’t total perfection though, at this point in the MCU there’s a certain – perhaps unavoidable – element of predictability that springs from a tried and tested formula and the pacing of its earlier acts can feel a little erratic and inconsistent.  Also, whilst much of the humour is well placed (and actually funny) there’s still the odd moment of forced slapstick that doesn’t quite hit the mark but it’s much more effective than some of Marvel’s other releases and never lapses into the outright absurdity of Thor: Ragnarok.  Some of the action can also be a little too frantic in its execution, although the Russo’s seem to have dialled back a little on some of the more overzealous ‘shaky-cam’ usage seen in their Captain America outings.

So, is Infinty War the best comic book film ever?  No, it’s certainly not The Dark Knight but nor does it try to be anything other than what it is.  Is it the best Marvel film?  Time will tell, but for now there’s no hesitation in declaring it as one of the greatest.

The bottom line:  Avengers: Infinity War was always a seemingly impossible task but directors Anthony and Joe Russo have pulled together an epic, exciting and at times moving comic book adventure that’s sure to be yet another hit for Marvel Studios.

Avengers: Infinity War is in cinemas now.

Film Review: ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ (spoiler free)

Starring:  Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen

Directed by:  Gareth Edwards / Written by:  Chris Wietz & Tony Gilroy (story by John Knoll & Gary Whitta) / 134 minutes

What’s it about?

Rescued from imprisonment, Jyn Erso is enlisted by the Rebel Alliance for a mission that will lead to the retrieval of the plans for the ‘Death Star’, the Empire’s new planet-killing weapon…

In review

Following the colossal success of The Force Awakens, Rogue One sees Disney/Lucasfilm unleash the first of their standalone ‘Star Wars Story’ anthology films to help sate the cravings of audiences whilst they await Episode VIII.  Such a project could easily be labelled as greedy and corporate minded, but luckily Rogue One proves its worth as a satisfying and engaging addition to the Star Wars universe.

Set prior to the opening events of 1977’s Star Wars – now retroactively known as Episode IV: A New HopeRogue One slots comfortably between the prequel trilogy and those much beloved and iconic original films without feeling contrived or unnecessary as it embellishes A New Hope by telling the story of the Rebel Alliance’s daring mission to retrieve the plans for the ‘Death Star’, the evil Empire’s new devastating, planet-killing weapon.  Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything) is a strong and capable lead as convict-turned-Rebel ally Jyn Erso, daughter of Imperial Scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) who, together with Rebel Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) assembles a rag-tag band of fighters including Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a blind man who is strong with the force, his companion Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) and defecting Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) to battle against Ben Medelsohn’s Orson Krennic and the forces of the Galactic Empire.

Whilst Jones and Luna are clear standouts and best served by the screenplay’s characterisation, it’s reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO – voiced by Firefly’s Alan Tudyk – that often steals the show with a snarky and cantankerous attitude that provides much of the film’s dark humour and even some of its heart and soul.  Mads Mikkelsen (most recently providing the villainy in Marvel’s Doctor Strange) makes the most of his limited screen time but at least gets to make more of an impression than Forest Whitaker who is criminally underused as the gruff Rebel fighter Saw Gerrera, a face from the Erso’s past who would’ve warranted further development along with Jyn’s earlier years to further flesh out her ‘rebellious’ backstory.  Small quibbles aside, despite a slightly sluggish start Rogue One jumps to hyperspace once we get to the central plot, sending the viewer on an epic, action-packed ride that makes amends for any earlier narrative shortfalls and pacing issues.

This is most definitely still a Star Wars film yet one that is more grounded in the nitty gritty of warfare (with subtle shades of Saving Private Ryan and Platoon) and doesn’t shy away from the grey areas of ‘good vs evil’, the more mystical elements of the franchise mostly restricted to Imwe’s sporadic ramblings concerning the force.  It’s certainly all in the favour of Rogue One, mining some largely unexplored territory that enriches it all the more.

Director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) stages some incredibly exciting and visually impressive set pieces that easily rival the action of The Force Awakens, much like what J.J. Abrams achieved there’s a real sense of heft and physicality to the film’s elaborate space battles as well as its ground focused combat as Rebel soldiers take on the Empire’s Stormtroopers and X-Wings swoop in to tackle Imperial walkers.

Rogue One not only looks great but also via its production design and costumes faithfully replicates the era of A New Hope as it was created by George Lucas and his team back in 1977.  Yes, it can still be taken as a standalone story but for fans of Star Wars, it’s actually Rogue One’s connectivity to the overall universe and saga – complemented by numerous easter eggs and lashings of fan service (some more pleasing than others, with the inclusion of Darth Vader handled particularly well) – that is perhaps one of its greatest appeals.

The bottom line:  The Star Wars franchise continues confidently with the highly enjoyable and epically realised Rogue One, providing plenty of excitement for fans and casual viewers alike.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is in cinemas now.

Felicity Jones leads a rebellious bunch against the Empire in Disney/Lucasfilm's 'Rogue One: A Star Wars Story'.

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) leads a rebellious bunch against the Empire in Disney/Lucasfilm’s ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’.

Film Review: ‘Doctor Strange’ (spoiler free)

Mighty Marvel casts its spell…

Starring:  Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen.

Directed by:  Scott Derrickson / Written by:  Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill / 115 minutes

What’s it about?

His hands mangled in a car crash, brilliant neurosurgeon Stephen Strange’s career is seemingly over.  Exhausting all surgical efforts to repair his injuries, Strange travels to a place called Kamar-Taj where an encounter with a mysterious figure sees him thrust into the world of the mystic arts…

In review

With the runaway successes of Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, Marvel Studios have proved adept at bringing lesser and more obscure comic book properties to the big screen and in a manner that manages to please fans and regular audiences alike.  Doctor Strange would immediately seem a far trickier and more daring gamble than those previous hits but for the most part, Marvel Studios succeed once more.

Based on the Marvel comic books by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, the journey of neurosurgeon Doctor Stephen Strange from arrogance to fall from grace and eventual redemption may be a little clichéd but via the film’s exploration of magical abilities and mystic realms there lies another dimension to the storytelling that opens up the possibilities for future Marvel Studios productions.  It’s fair to say in that sense that this makes the “Sorcerer Supreme” an important character as the looming apex of Avengers: Infinity War approaches.

In the role of Stephen Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch makes for a strong lead and although for some it may take a little time to adjust to his American accent, the Sherlock and Star Trek Into Darkness star laps up the material handed to him in a performance that’s impassioned, witty and by the end of it all, noble.  Seemingly the requisite love interest, Rachel McAdams is somewhat underserved as Christine Palmer although she does share some vital scenes with Cumberbatch that helps the audience become more invested in the character and his arc throughout this origin story.

Tilda Swinton is wise and otherworldly as the enigmatic Ancient One and co-stars Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong fit nicely into the mix as fellow sorcerers Mordo and Wong respectively.  As the main antagonist, Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius – a former pupil seeking to unlock the secrets of dark magic –  has some great moments, rising to the challenge of being pitted against the talents of Cumberbatch and Swinton but is ultimately less memorable than Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull (Captain America: The First Avenger) or James Spader’s Ultron (Avengers: Age of Ultron).

There’s a slight over reliance on humour at times, parts of it are welcome relief but some moments feel forced, included merely for the sake of it and arguably undermine several key scenes that would have benefitted from a more dramatic tone.  Where Doctor Strange really excels is via its jaw-dropping, kaleidoscopic visuals as director Scott Derrickson intertwines influences of Escher with the cinematic awe of Inception and the mesmerising psychedelia of 2001: A Space Odyssey that bring the trippy imaginings of Messrs. Lee and Ditko breathtakingly to life.  The extra expense of an IMAX 3D ticket is fully warranted for the fullest possible immersion in the mind-bending spectacle of folding cityscapes and unravelling astral planes.

Ultimately it’s the visual elements that gloss over the overall flaws in the tone and narrative of Doctor Strange but there’s no denying the charm of Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance and the potential of further adventures of Marvel’s Master of the Mystic Arts.

The bottom line:  Despite some formulaic elements and jarring moments of silliness, Doctor Strange is a reliably entertaining and visually stunning addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Doctor Strange is screening in UK cinemas now and opens in the US and worldwide from 4th November.

Benedict Cumberbatch confidently leads Marvel Studios' 'Doctor Strange'.

Benedict Cumberbatch confidently leads Marvel Studios’ ‘Doctor Strange’.