Last year I reviewed Superman Returns without using my handy Criteria for Comic Book Movies, and ended up giving it an 8. I have regretted that review several times since then. Nothing major, but I had a clouded judgment, given that it was a Superman movie, and I am a huge Superman fan. If I'd used my Criteria for Comic Book Movies, I think Superman Returns is a 6, maybe 7 at the most.
By contrast, I am fully convinced that Iron Man is a 10. It is a perfect comic book movie. But just to make sure I'm not biased, I'll stick to the Criteria this time.
1. Source Material. Iron Man sticks to its source material as though it were scripture. The origin story in the film is same as the original comic book. The characters are pulled right from the pages of Iron Man, and the villain, Obadiah Stane and his Iron Monger suit, were the wrap up to a long-running animosity between the two. The film achieves a tight summation of the first 20 years of the Iron Man mythos without sacrificing the heart of the tale.
2. Visual Storytelling. The montage giving the audience Tony Stark's back-story was brilliant, and epitomizes what comic book film-making should be about. The story jumps time several times without losing linear continuity, effectively saying more with less. The Iron Man suit's powers are demonstrated, rather than revealed through exposition.
3. Costume. While it is definitely sleeker and sexier than the original Iron Man armor, the armor of the film is undeniably the same as the comic book's. Any improvements made are in the details, rather than the obvious choice some might have made years ago, which would have been to lose the red and gold colors in favor of something less bold and...well, comic book.
4. The fourth rule is that Superheroes don't shag everything that comes their way. I should have added the caveat, unless they're Tony Stark. However, while Tony starts out as a womanizing playboy, his serial sexual escapades are framed in a negative way. Early Tony is not presented as a moral exemplar. His experience in the Middle East is transformational beyond his becoming Iron Man. He seeks to become a better person in his private life as well. I like this, because it means that when I take my kids to films like this some day, I don't have to explain why Superman humping Lois in the fortress of solitude wasn't considered morally reprehensible (I'd like to say that I don't think this is prudery. And perhaps I need to limit my criteria to Superhero Comic Book Movies, since films like Sin City are adaptations of comic books with lots of sex in them. )
5. The fifth rule used to be "Keep Joel Shumacher away from your film." I might add Sam Raimi to that list now, given the general public's response to the third Spider-man film. I think the core idea behind this rule is that good special effects, flashy special effects and glitzy sets do not a comic book movie make. The mise-en-scene of the film should not be garish or painted entirely in oversaturated primary colors. The setting can look completely realistic, which ostensibly allows for the actions of the super-hero to be even more fantastic. Iron Man does not take place in some fictional world, but in our world, with something to say about the issues taking place in our world. While it might not actually change anything about the real world's problems, I have to say that the moment where Iron Man descends with a vengeance upon terrorists preparing to wipe out a small village has a certain cathartic joy to it you just can't get from watching Hotel Rwanda. It's part of the fantasy of the comic book, that these heroes are real in some possible world somewhere, making things right in a way our world never seems to achieve.
6. Give the fanboys and girls things only they will appreciate. Iron Man showcases one of the best Stan Lee cameos ever, when Tony Stark mistakes him for Hugh Hefner. Or perhaps he's supposed to be Hugh Hefner. As a fanboy, I know that Stan Lee was Hugh Hefner in Fantastic Four many years ago when She-Hulk was taking Ben Grimm's place for a while. A magazine of ill-repute got pictures of She-Hulk while she was sunbathing on the roof of the Baxter Building and when She-Hulk shows up at their office demanding the pictures, the sleazy mogul behind the magazine was modeled on none other than Marvel Comic's mogul himself, Stan Lee.
7. Make sure you've got good villains. Jeff Bridges was positively menacing, and when Iron Man and Iron Monger go at it, the slug-fest is worthy of the best splash pages of any comic book. There's nothing like using a motor cycle as a weapon after you've clotheslined its rider.
Beyond my formalist, anal-retentive comic book criteria, Iron Man is what summer blockbusters are meant to be, with Robert Downey Jr. reminding us all throughout the film why he was once nominated for an Academy Award.
The preview for Dark Knight was amazing. But all I could think when I left the theater is that Batman has some big shoes to fill this year. They look a lot like red and gold ski boots and if you're wearing repulsor gloves...and yeah. You can fly.