I'll admit it: when I first saw the trailer for 'Iron Man' earlier this year, I thought the film was going to tank. I just couldn't see it -- Robert Downey, Jr., while no doubt a wonderful actor, as a playboy millionaire turned anti-war superhero? Gwenyth Paltrow as his passive, long-suffering assistant who could make Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane look tough? And Iron Man himself, a giant tin man who appeared (at least in the trailer) to be little more than some sort of CGI RoboCop? On top of all this, the film was directed by Jon Favreau, who last had a genuine hit with 'Elf' -- not exactly a calling card for directing a mega-budgeted comic book blockbuster.
Then, of course, I actually saw 'Iron Man,' and I had to eat almost all of my negative preconceptions. Here's a comic book movie that's one of the best Hollywood has created in recent years. It's not jokey. It's not silly. And it's not condescending to its comic book origins, or its audience. It's also highly entertaining and simply great fun, while remaining literate and serious about its anti-war profiteering message. It's a cliche to say "thinking man's comic book movie," but that's exactly what 'Iron Man' is.
The story will likely be familiar to any fan of the original Marvel comic. Downey's Tony Stark is the perfect embodiment of the Alpha Male. He's Bill Gates with pecs, blessed with a genius IQ, movie star good looks, and a teflon coat of cockiness. He also happens to be an amoral (if legal) arms dealer, with his Stark Industries the world's leading supplier of weapons of mass destruction. As the film begins, Stark is casual and cavalier -- on his way to his latest weapons demo for the military that he treats with all the seriousness of the opening of a nightclub. Then real bombs are dropped, and Stark is captured by a group of revolutionary terrorists. Pressed into service for his hi-tech skills, he plots his escape by turning himself into (in a mere few minutes of screen time) his own weapon of mass destruction -- Iron Man.
After Stark's triumph against the terrorists, he announces that Stark Industries is droppings its weapons division -- much to the chagrin of his CFO Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) and their stockholders. Newly-reborn as an altruistic media hero (the theme of transformation will permeate the film), he sets about to perfect an even more advanced Iron Man suit -- capable of amazing feats of strength and flight. No mere man in tights or an aberration of nature, Stark is a comic book hero of his own creation, out to mete justice not just because it is the American Way, but to atone for his own legacy of sins. Even his covert longings for his assistant Pepper Potts (Paltrow) are transformed by his personal evolution. The ironies are none-too-subtle -- he who was once flesh-and-blood is now infused with iron and technology, and finally ready to become a real... man?
For its first two-thirds, 'Iron Man' works on just about every level. As social commentary, as an effects-filled adventure, as romance, and as a wholly entertaining comic book thrill ride. And that's largely thanks to Downey -- he's terrific. Stark's alcohol-fueled party-boy persona is a perfect fit for the actor (it's now impossible to imagine anyone better suited for the role), and his natural humor makes even the most implausible aspects of the character and story strangely believable. Let's face it, the concept of Stark building an Iron Man in about three days is absurd. But Downey simply pulls it off, and does what the best actors in a comic book movie do -- he makes us metaphorically believe that a "man can fly."
Unfortunately, what kept 'Iron Man' from ranking as a true classic of the genre is in its disappointing third act. As the true villain of the piece will make himself known, much of the interesting themes and character machinations that were set up early in the film will grind to a halt. The climactic battle between "good" and "bad" iron men may be well staged, but it feels like 'Transformers' light, even ripping off some of the locations of that Michael Bay hit. And the Paltrow character is absolutely wasted -- she's turned into a wimpy damsel-in-distress who stands around waiting for Downey to save her, which drains all the sexual spark from a character who so perked up the first half of the film.
But no matter. Even a weak resolution can't dim the fun of 'Iron Man.' Faithful to the political undercurrents of the original comic, brilliant in its casting of Downey, and with finely-tuned action thanks to the tight direction of Favreau (who knew?), here's the rare comic book film that has something to say and says it with great excitement and nerve. 'Iron Man' isn't perfect (and not truly genre-elevating, like 'The Dark Knight'), but if only all comic book movies were this much fun. Even if you don't think you like the genre -- like I usually don't -- 'Iron Man' may well surprise you.
'Iron Man' comes to Blu-ray as easily the most anticipated Paramount title of the year, and perhaps that of any major studio. This is the kind of film you hope will deliver a new demo disc, and the kind of film that you bought a Blu-ray player for in the first place. While I don't think this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (framed at 2.40:1 and spread across a BD-50 dual-layer disc) is absolutely reference-quality, it's a mighty fine presentation that largely hits the bull's-eye.
The film has a split personality for a visual style. Shot with both traditional anamorphic and Super35 film processes, the early desert scenes have a much starker, grittier quality, while the latter half of the film is much more glossy and slick. As such, while the source is spotless, there are some apparently intentional inconsistencies in contrast, blacks and color saturation.
Some of the early scenes suffer from a color palette that tends to be slightly oversaturated, which mucks up fleshtones a bit and can leave the image looking fuzzy and slightly flat. Darker scenes here also tend to flatten out a bit, while contrast runs hot which results in blown out whites. There is also slight grain here, though I welcomed it as it added a film-like look and offset some of the digital-ization due to the more stylized elements of the transfer.
When the film really kicks into gear and introduces Iron Man 2.0, is when the presentation really soars. Colors are vibrant and lush, blacks excellent, and detail and depth quite wonderful. Fleshtones also become a bit more realistic, giving the film a very polished look yet still retaining a natural and dimensional picture. There are many sequences here (particularly Iron Man's first night flight, as well as the climactic battle) that can easily serve as demo material.
Despite some inconsistencies, Paramount has produced an impeccable encode. There are no obvious artifacts, noise or any motion jaggies. Edge enhancement is also not an issue. 'Iron Man' doesn't quite earn a five-star rating from me, but this is still a generally excellent presentation that shouldn't disappoint.
Paramount provides a English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround mix (48kHz/24-bit) for 'Iron Man,' and it's terrific. Now, this is what home theater is all about, and this Blu-ray is bound to be a new showroom staple at Best Buys across the nation.
'Iron Man' is so much fun because the character himself is a one-man crash test dummy. He clangs, he bashes, he bursts, he blows shit up. Discrete effects alight the surrounds every moment he's on-screen, especially as he's usually in the middle of some big-budget action sequences surrounded by gunfire, explosions and lots of screaming baddies. The rears creating a completely convincing, three-dimensional environment with airtight imaging between channels and a depth of fidelity to dynamic range that's top-notch. Minor ambiance is also very well sustained, so there's rarely a dull moment on this soundtrack.
Dynamics are also superb. Low bass is some of the best I've heard since titles like 'Transformers,' with the film's climactic battle in particular a real scorcher. The full frequency spectrum is note-perfect, and at a loud volume, the level of clarity and detail is reference-quality. Dialogue is firmly placed in the center channel except for a few vocal effects, and is never overwhelmed by the action. 'Iron Man' is definitely going to be one of this year's most justifiably-praised demo soundtracks on Blu-ray.
Paramount has wisely pulled out all the stops for 'Iron Man,' giving it the full special edition treatment (the Blu-ray is premiering day-and-date with the standard DVD, and with matching extras). The studio also gives us great-looking material, with all video extras in full 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 video. (Optional English, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles are also provided.)
'Iron Man' is one of the better comic book adaptations to come out of Hollywood in eons. Though a bit too long, and with a climax that underwhelms, it's enlivened by a wonderful performance by Robert Downey, Jr., and even classifies as a sleeper as expectations weren't necessarily that high upon its original release. This Blu-ray is unequivocally terrific, however, with great video and even better audio, plus hours of HD-quality supplements. 'Iron Man' on Blu-ray is a no-brainer.