As a comic book reading kid, the phrase—used to describe Tony Stark, i.e. the superhero Iron Man—evoked a combination of mystery and envy. I wasn’t really sure what the hell it meant, of course, beyond that the guy was apparently made of money, but it sure looked like a life worth having. Accountable to no one but somehow possessed of the moral compass to use his God-given genius and man-made fortune for the forces of good, Stark was by no means an Everyman—the rich, as F. Scott Fitzgerald (according to Hemingway) so aptly pointed out, are different from you and me—but his status as a mere mortal made him more accessible than the average mutant freak superhero. And as far as role models go, well, it was a lot more practical to aspire to massive wealth than to a cosmic solar storm, a nuclear mishap, or a Soviet-experiment-gone-wrong as the path to superhero-dom.
Marvel Comics patriarch Stan Lee reportedly based Stark in part on Howard Hughes, the eccentric engineer philanthropist who philandered his way through the mid-1900s before a host of mental disorders turned him into urine-pickling wack job. Now, despite the avid comic book research as a kid, I’m no expert in the history of wealthy industrialists, but it seems to me that the Golden Age of such creatures has come and gone. The Rockefellers, Carnegies and Vanderbilts of yore have been replaced by the Buffets, Gates and the Waltons of today, and you’ve got to go down (as well as across the pond) all the way to Richard Branson at number 236 on the Forbes list to find one who could be considered a legit social maverick.
But now, in this dark time for wealthy industrialism, the comic book genre may be giving something back. Director Jon Favreau (known more for his acting in movies like Swingers than for directing, though he did call the shots on Elf, among others), has updated the Iron Man story in brilliant fashion. In fact, during a time in which comic book heroes are trotted out on the silver screen on a regular basis, this may well be the most fully realized work of the entire genre.
The original Iron Man genesis is a relatively simple one, as these things go. Stark, after being captured and ordered to build a weapon of mass destruction, instead creates a suit of powered armor that both keeps him alive (in a clever twist, he requires an electromagnet to prevent the shrapnel he took to the chest during his abduction from migrating to his heart) and enables him to become the ass-kicking force for justice known as Iron Man.
Lee first created Iron Man in 1963 as an anti-communist avenger, but as the worm turned on that war Iron Man became less politicized, and Lee later admitted regret to his hero’s early focus. Favreau, working with a script that had been honed through several different phalanxes of screenwriters (the movie went through many pre-production incarnations; at one point, Quentin Tarantino was slated to both write and direct), moves the action to modern-day Afghanistan. But he deftly avoids any overt stereotyping by grounding the bad-guy terrorists in the legacy of one of Iron Man’s early arch-villains, with a nifty parallel to none other than Genghis Khan.
Favreau re-portedly went to production with a loose final script in terms of dialogue, allowing an Altmanesque degree of improvisation on the set. Given the combination of snappy repartee and grounded realism evident in the dialogue throughout the film, this was an excellent move, though it wouldn’t have paid off nearly so well if it hadn’t been for the presence of Robert Downey Jr. in the lead role.
It may be overly simplistic to suggest that Downey’s well-chronicled struggles with substance abuse—and his subsequent stint of actual jail time, as opposed to your garden-variety celebrity rehab/community service gig—makes him distinctly qualified to illuminate Stark’s publicly conflicted persona, but it’s hard to imagine any of his contemporaries nailing this role as well as he does.
From the title sequence, where Stark hilariously charms a nervous group of military escorts, to the cat-and-mouse sexual tension between Stark and his invaluable secretary Pepper Potts (a coy and sparkling Gwyneth Paltrow), to the righteous rebirth of a man on a mission to right the wrongs of his own hubris, Downey is a marvel to behold. He’s funny, dashing, sophisticated, genuine and charming; he’s also physically ripped, making Stark’s mechanized body parts seem like an honest extension of his own.
If that sounds like a bit of a man-crush, well, I suppose it is. But I have to say it’s a pretty neat and rare feeling for a crusty old fart like me to feel even a hint of adolescent longing. And this movie has me thinking, once again, about a career as a wealthy industrialist.