Iron Man – Blu-Ray Review

Iron Man was almost too good. By that I mean the superhero movie capitalized at the start of the summer season, and was so big that in subsequent weeks no other release could match its popcorn-to-mouth ratio. Flashy and funny all in one, no one could have ever imagined that a recovering drug addict, who was clearly not the hero type, could morph into one of the hottest stars of the summer, if not the year.

Robert Downey Jr. was on a path of self-destruction in the mid-’90s. Repeatedly arrested for drug possession, he was slipping farther and farther away from his critically acclaimed turn in Chaplin. For me, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang was a step in the right direction. As one of the best, if overlooked, films released in 2005, the black comedy/mystery was a Downey calling card that read, “I’m back.” And people called; Downey had a string of supporting roles in films like George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck and David Fincher’s Zodiac. Yet again, nobody saw him as someone ready to infiltrate the mainstream, let alone play a comic-book hero. But with the help of Jon Favreau, an actor-turned-director with three films under his belt (none of them the magnitude of Iron Man), he donned the iron – actually Gold-Titanium alloy – suit and jet-propelled his way to box office gold.

Outside of the suit Downey Jr. is Tony Stark, an arms dealer who grows a conscience. This is after the engineering prodigy turned billionaire playboy has a dose of reality when his Humvee is bombarded with bullets and RPGs in Afghanistan following a weapons demonstration. The attackers kidnap him and demand that Stark build them a missile, borrowing munitions from some of the weapons his own company, Stark Industries, manufactured. Seeing his weapons in the wrong hands was but one of the mitigating factors in trying to survive the ordeal and return home. The design takes a 180-degree turn, though, and instead of a missile he’s made a flame-throwing trash compactor-looking suit of iron. The rough design and metallurgy is just enough to escape his captors and be rescued. Safe and sound, Stark sees it as a moral obligation for his company to get out of the arms business and move in a different direction. This does not sit well for the shareholders and Stark’s number two: Obediah Stane (Jeff Bridges).

Jon Favreau, having acted in films like Rudy and Swingers, has slowly been building his directing rep, going from small-time comedy, to spearheading an Elf‘s quest, to a family-sized intergalactic adventure. The progression paid off, because with Iron Man he delivers a bit of everything that makes going to the movies so much fun. Splendid action, with CGI that will rock your eye sockets; a dose of comedy, to which Downey is witty and is at his self-deprecating best; and a little romantic interplay to keep the female viewers engaged.

It’s tough to decide who is the real star of Iron Man. Is it the Mark III armor with the fire-engine red color, or is it Downey as Tony Stark? Well, the pedigree behind the suit’s look came from Stan Winston, who designed the aliens in Aliens and the cyborgs for the Terminator movies. But Downey was spot-on casting for the role of the billionaire playboy, modeled after Howard Hughes. Reading about his run-ins with the law, there is so much of Downey in Stark. Cockiness and insecurity and bouts with alcohol (a fault not stressed too much in the film) are shortcomings that counterbalance his good qualities – most notably heroism.

With all this gushing praise you’d think this was the most perfect comic-book movie. It does have drawbacks, however. The final confrontation doesn’t have the epic feel one should be expecting. Also, logic is thrown out the window various times throughout the two-hour running time; but it’s such a cool movie overall you just have to keep telling yourself that it’s a comic book and not one of Oprah’s book club selections.

Iron Man is how you do a summer blockbuster. I myself saw it three times in theaters, and not once did I avert my eyes to look at a watch, wondering how much longer until it’s over. The reason is simple: Robert Downey Jr. All that good will he built up while getting clean and sober, working in supporting roles, has finally paid off. With the public embracing Downey, he’s now experiencing that same wave of industry chatter that followed Johnny Depp after the success of Pirates of the Caribbean. Both Downey and Favreau can basically cherry pick the projects they work on from now on. Guess that’s what happens when you create something that is fun and exciting. Just like great summer movies ought to be.

You know, for a company that was wishy-washy with the whole supporting HD DVD or Blu-ray, Paramount has really embraced the BD format, now that it’s the only game in town. And boy have they made Iron Man look phenomenal on Blu-ray, presented in 1080p at its theatrical ratio of 2.39:1 and encoded using Paramount’s preferred codec, AVC. Being a new release, the image is startlingly detailed. The black levels aren’t as rich as they should be. When framed against the black bars at the top and bottom of the screen, you can see the difference in weight. So while the blacks lack some dimensional punch, and the image may fluctuate in clarity, Iron Man is easily something to throw in the player and show off your home theater.

With an elaborate and immersive sound design, the mix is reproduced on Blu-ray in Dolby TrueHD 5.1 A comic-book movie with missiles exploding and suits of armor screaming through the skies, to bursts of gunfire and two war machines duking it out across Los Angeles, all six channels are used to extraordinary effect. Such an immersive mix driven by loud sound effects, but even tame effects (the breaking of a light tube, for instance) sound amazing in this lossless soundtrack.

Besides the TrueHD, the Blu-ray includes Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs in French and Spanish, and subtitles offered in English (both traditional and SDH), French, Spanish and Portuguese.

Paramount again delivers in the extras department with this two-disc special edition, with the meat of the features (the featurettes) pristine high definition. The first set of extras is an interactive “Hall of Armor”, which goes way beyond the design of Tony Stark’s suits of armor as well as the Iron Monger design. A few clicks of the remote allows you to rotate each 3-D rendered model a full 360 degrees. The technical details go far to describe the alloys used in each suit of armor, and even reveals how many rounds of ammunition the Iron Monger is actually packing. Such an insane amount a detail can be gleamed from just navigating with the click of button.

The twenty-three minute reel of deleted and extended scenes is a combination of rough and finished sequences. Those that are finished have digital effects, which probably make them the last to cut in the editing room. The bulk of the deletions are minor extensions that would have been included during the first hour. One of which is a longer humvee attack, and it just drags. What’s left in the film is the better choice, as it makes the point in quicker and dramatic fashion.

As someone who’s never read an Iron Man comic, the 47-minute “The Invincible Iron Man” doc feature is perfect. It is a comprehensive overview of how the superhero has evolved over the last forty-five years. The doc’s six parts can be watched individually or a whole, and it features some of Marvel’s best writers and artists – Stan Lee, Gerry Conway, John Romita Jrl, Warren Ellis, Joe Casey, and Joe Quesada for starters. Highlights of the feature include Tony Stark’s transformation during the height of the Vietnam War, his struggling with alcoholism, not to mention his new Extremis-based armor, which essentially turns him into a cyborg-like figure, where the inner layers of the Iron Man armor is stored in the hollows of his bones.

And if that’s not a big enough extra for you, check out disc two and the feature-length documentary “I Am Iron Man”. Running one hour and forty-nine minutes, this is the nuts and bolts of the production. Every stage is explored: storyboards and animatics; design and construction of the different suits; post-production work at Skywalker Sound – it’s all here. The documentary deals with the struggles of producing a hundred million dollar feature. Not only was it Jon Favreau’s first big shot of directing such a feature, but this was also the first fully financed picture by Marvel Studios. So headaches are expected. During one of the featurettes about post-production work there were still a hundred-plus effects shots outstanding and the deadline was but a few weeks away. You also see how much Favreau changed during the filming. The guy lost fifty pounds or more seeing the project from 2006 all the way to its summer 2008 release. Taken as a whole, this is a great behind-the-scenes look at one of the biggest movies of the year. And you even get a cameo by Christmas Story‘s Peter Billingsley to boot. Little Ralphie Parker all grown up.

The other making-of piece is “Wired: Inside the Visual Effects of Iron Man”. Twenty-seven minutes is well enough time with each of the three SFX warehouses that were assigned specific tasks to bring the comic book alive on the silver screen. Tasks include texturing, but mostly the seamless mix of digital effects and the more practical man-made effects.

Robert Downey Jr.’s screen test and “The Actor’s Process” are two features that pertain to the actors honing their acting chops through practice and rehearsal. The screen test runs six minutes and contains excerpts from three scenes. Here you get to see Downey charming a nosy reporter, as well as him interacting with a group of soldiers in a Humvee, and letting his pal Jim Rhodes know about the suit and to keep it on the DL. The “Process” is four minutes in length and Downey, along with Favreau and Jeff Bridges, rehearses a scene, which involves the two actors engaged in a tense moment outside a Stark Industries benefit where the paparazzi would be waiting to snap a picture.

Also included on the second disc is a surplus of still galleries, and the contents include conceptual art, unit photography, and poster art. And we also get a set of four trailers: the teaser, domestic trailer and two from overseas. It should be pointed out that the scene with Stark showing off his new Jericho missile is altered in the international trailers. “They say that the best weapon is the one you never have to fire. I respectfully disagree. I prefer the weapon you only have to fire once. That’s how Dad did it, that’s how America does it… and it’s worked out pretty well so far.” The America reference is omitted.

As the lone standard definition extra on either disc is The Onion News Network’s report on the ever-so-popular Iron Man trailer being adapted into a feature-length film.

One extra that isn’t included with the regular DVD release is BD Live, an interactive feature that allows you to download different add-ons. With one package I was able to test what little Iron Man knowledge I had with a series of different trivia games.

Still, even with all of these features, you have to wonder why an audio commentary wasn’t included. I’m pretty sure I read that Favreau recorded a track, but maybe he, or the producers of the BD release, didn’t think it was good enough to include.

As someone who has never read an Iron Man comic, I must admit that the flick was six hours well spent – the three times I saw it in theaters. You almost have to hand it to Marvel Studios for entrusting Jon Favreau with such a big project, and an actor who seemed all but washed-up. Iron Man may have been one of the biggest special-effects driven spectacles of the summer, but the biggest highlight was Robert Downey Jr.’s performance. Charming, womanizing, smart and heroic, he’s just something else. The same goes for this Blu-ray, with high-definition extras clocking in at more than four hours. Watching it again on the home theater, the movie has not lost any of its magic. A definite must buy.

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Paramount Pictures and Marvel Entetainment present Iron Man. Directed by Jon Favreau. Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Terrence Howard. Written by Mark Fergus & Hank Ostby and Art Marcum & Matt Holloway. Running time: 126 minutes. Rated PG-13. Released on BD: September 30, 2008. Available at Amazon.

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