Rating: 4 out of 5
To be a superhero these days, you have to be depressed. Mindlessly entertaining popcorn flicks about invincible caped crusaders didn’t used to bum me out, but ever since The Dark Knight, every superhero seems to be going through some sort of existential crisis. Just look at the upcoming slate of summer blockbusters: Pacific Rim, The Wolverine, After Earth, Man of Steel, and World War Z all feature heroes struggling with their own vulnerabilities while trying to survive a brutal (often post-apocalyptic) world. The new Star Trek movie even has the word “darkness” in its title. Things are bleak, folks.
So it goes with Tony Stark in the latest Iron Man film. Our usually puckish hero is still shaken by the events that unfolded in The Avengers, so much so that he can’t sleep, instead spending his nights obsessing over ways to keep his now live-in girlfriend Pepper Potts safe. But there’s one thing that differentiates this franchise from all those other tortured superhero flicks: we’re supposed to find his angst hilarious. The more Tony (a self-described “piping hot mess”) spirals, the funnier this thing gets. It even plays his increasingly frequent panic attacks for laughs.
It works, mostly because Robert Downey Jr. still totally owns this role. Though he feels a bit less plugged in than in the previous Iron Man flicks, a slightly distant RDJ is still better than none at all. It remains fascinating to watch the choices he makes. Take the scene below; other actors may have tried to wring more emotion out of his declaration of love for Pepper, but RJD’s casually tossed-off comment about protecting her lands harder than any tear-soaked speech. It echoes what he said about characters being too melodramatic in his recent GQ profile: “In movies people seem to be more emotional than they would ever be if that situation was actually happening to them.”
Also amping up the humour is the film’s dedication to upending our expectations. When a precious child sidekick enters the scene, you think it’s going to follow the tired little-kid-teaches-hero-about-himself trope. But Tony is having none of it. When the adorable moppet explains that his father went to the corner store to buy some “scratchers” six years ago and hasn’t been seen since, Tony barely lets him get the sob story out before cutting him off with an abrupt, “Dads leave. There’s no need to be a pussy about it.” And thanks to director Shane Black’s welcome attempts to keep Tony out of his iron suit as much as possible, a portion of the final action sequence plays out like a buddy cop movie, with Tony fumbling with a gun while struggling to keep up with Don Cheadle’s Colonel Rhodes.
Speaking of the action sequences, you’ve probably already seen the destruction of Tony’s palatial estate in the trailer which, while impressive, pales in comparison to the film’s thrilling mid-air rescue of 13 plummeting passengers that plays out like an acrobatic game of Barrel of Monkeys. Even Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts gets in on some of the action, kicking butt and hinting at a possible future as a superhero herself.
The supporting cast mostly works, with Guy Pearce at his oily best as the main villain (though his character’s master plan for taking over the universe remains a confusing, glossed-over afterthought). Happy Endings’ Adam Pally threatens to steal the show as a Tony Stark groupie and he might have gotten away with it, it if weren’t for Ben Kingsley. Try not to read spoilers about his character; just sit back and enjoy the reveal. Because sitting back and enjoying it is what summer movies are all about. Just because the hero is depressed, it doesn’t mean we have to be.