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Feature


Tony Stark, billionaire industrialist (read arms dealer) and renowned playboy is on a PR exercise in Afghanistan when his convoy is ambushed by a bunch of generally nasty guys who want him to build his latest advanced missile system for them. Mortally wounded during the attack, Tony's life is saved by a Afghani physician who implants an electromagnet in his chest to prevent shrapnel from reaching his heart. However, electronics genius Stark decides he can go one better and uses the equipment intended for missile production to construct a more advanced version of the device that also acts as a power source for a rudimentary suit or armour, which he uses to escape from his captors.

 Iron Man
Upon his return to the US Tony, now a changed man, cancels all of Stark Industries' military contracts, much to the chagrin of his business associate, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges). Instead of enabling death and destruction, Tony decides to right the wrongs of his life by putting a stop to the warmongers who are using his company's weapons to terrorise innocent people. To that end, Tony refines his armour design, producing a sleek battle suit powered by his chest-mounted arc reactor. So it is that Tony Stark becomes Iron Man, a secret known only to his best friend Col. James 'Rhodey' Rhodes (Terrence Howard) and personal assistant Virginia 'Pepper' Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).

I think it's fair to say I enjoyed Iron Man's theatrical outing quite a lot more than I was expecting. Admittedly my expectations weren't particularly high to begin with, but I do like Robert Downey Jr. as an actor and my knowledge of the character is reasonable as I used to read a lot of Marvel comics in my younger days (although Iron Man was never one of my favourites). If I'm honest, I couldn't imagine anyone other than Downy Jr. playing Iron Man, because he literally makes the film with a fantastic turn as billionaire Tony Stark, striking just the right balance between arrogance and humility. He also has great comic timing, which helps to pull off a number of sight gags that might otherwise have fallen flat.

 Iron Man
As an origin story, Iron Man does the business without ever getting too complicated. We’ve seen it all before—a character goes through a traumatic event that forces them rethink their life, before gaining tremendous power and emerging as a force for good. The difference here is that Tony Stark doesn’t have his powers thrust upon him by way of a freak cosmic storm or radioactive spider bite, he actually chooses to become Iron Man in order to right the wrongs of past. He also seems to revel in it, which makes a welcome change from the angst-ridden Peter Parker’s of the Marvel Universe.

The supporting cast do a decent job, although the very nature of an origin story limits the amount of screen time that can be allotted to supporting characters. However, I suspect that they’ll be given a larger role to play in any sequels that might be on the cards. Jeff Bridges plays one of the least glamorous adversaries in comic book history, but he manages to make Obadiah Stane interesting beyond the limitations of the material. Unfortunately, while his Iron Monger is a thematic counterpart to Tony’s Iron Man, it did mean that the end of the film played out like a deleted scene from Transformers. This was possibly the weakest point in an otherwise strong feature, as the ‘cool’ factor is somewhat offset by the fact that you’re essentially watching a bunch of pixels wail on each other (a problem shared by finale of The Incredible Hulk).

 Iron Man
Ultimately though, I really enjoyed Iron Man. Downey Jr.’s performance is great, both the practical and digital effects are brilliantly realised and there’s a healthy dose of humour that’s often missing from superhero movies. I also enjoyed the plentiful nods to the Iron Man’s other incarnations and Marvel Comics in general (check out Jarvis, Rhodey’s mobile ringtone and subtle references to War Machine). It’s almost a shame that Marvel are pressing ahead with their Avengers movie, as it means we’re going to have to wait for shell-head’s second solo outing. What odds can I get on the Mandarin?

Video


Iron Man arrives with a 2.40:1 AVC encoded 1080p/24 transfer that looks pretty damn good. Of course this is to be expected given the age of the feature, but it's nice to see that Paramount didn't drop the ball on such a high-profile release. Even so, Iron Man is a film of two halves, stylistically speaking. Because a lot of the action takes place either inside of a dark cave or in the scorching desert, the first half of the film is alternately muddy and blown-out. The image is intentionally grainy, while blacks are a little inconsistent and shadow detail slightly lacking. Perhaps the best way to describe it is 'gritty'. Once the action rotates back to the 'real world' the image softens considerably, contrast is much cooler and black levels are more stable.

 Iron Man
Surprisingly for a film utilising such a lot of CGI, the filmmakers haven't shied away from showing Iron Man in the harsh light of day, which really highlights the quality of the digital effects used to create the Mark II armour. Although the palette is fairly muted, colour rendition is actually pretty good, even if the film's visual style means that colours don't pop off of the screen in quite the same way as the more outlandish comic book features. However, when things blow up the resulting brilliant orange fireballs look terrific. The transfer is very clean, but detail is slightly variable, with the brightly lit, digital effects laden sequences looking more impressive than the darker, more traditionally photographed scenes (which looked a little soft on occasion).

While the transfer might not be as impressive as the very best on the format, a lot of that is down to the visual style of the film. This leaves me with a tricky decision. Do I accept that the transfer is faithful to the source material and go with the higher score, or do I play it safe and go with a more conservative option? It's times like this I wish we didn't have to substantiate our opinions with a numerical value. In lieu of 'half marks', it seemed only fair to opt for the slightly higher score.

 Iron Man

Audio


The only English audio option is a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track, which is also very impressive. Things get off to a literal bang with the attack on Tony Stark's military convoy, and although brief it's actually a pretty good indicator of things to come. Iron Man has four of five 'event' scenes; big action set-pieces that allow the TrueHD track to flex its muscle. Stark's escape from his captors in the prototype suit is one of the best from an aural perspective, as it features plenty of directionality and great dynamic rage. You can pick out individual shell casings as they hit the floor, and the bass from his footfalls when he emerges from the cave is simply Earth-shattering. Other highlights include the Mark I test flight, the Mark II taking out the weapons cache in Gulmira and, to an extent, Iron Man's face-off with Iron Monger.

As well as handling the bombastic moments with aplomb, the track aslo handles the subtitles well. Little things like the whirring of servos, or the bleeping of Iron Man's H.U.D. really sell the on-screen action. Hands up anyone who noticed the sound of a Space Invaders arcade machine being used in the Mark I H.U.D.? The various different elements of the mix are blended together well, although there were one or two instances where dialogue was masked by the effects. However, these moments were few and far between. Ramin Djawadi's score, a mix of traditional orchestral and heavier, almost industrial music, isn't as memorable as those for other Marvel or DC properties, but it's solid enough. I did enjoy the renditions of AC/DC's 'Back in Black' and Black Sabbath's 'Iron Man', which played during the opening and closing credits respectively.

 Iron Man
Although I've read quite a few reviews of the American disc which proclaim the audio to be 'reference quality', I'm not totally convinced. I thought more could have been done with the sound design, particularly during the climactic battle, and I just didn't find the track as 'immersive' as I'd hoped. I'm also taking the occasional instance of muddied dialogue into consideration. I'm not calling this a bad track, not at all, but it's not the best I've heard this week (*cough* Casino Royale *cough*). It's for this reason that it narrowly misses out on a 'DVDActive Audio Award'.

Extras


Disc one kicks off with a ‘Hall of Armor’ feature, which offers 360 degree CGI renderings of the three main suits of armour featured in the film. Each rendering includes information on all of the suit's different components and sub-systems, so it's actaully fairly enlightening for a relatively 'fluffy' piece.

 Iron Man
‘The Invincible Iron Man’ (47:05) is a six-part documentary that is intended to introduce the character to the uninitiated. As is usual for these Marvel documentaries, there's plenty of interesting information about the character's origins, as well as interviews with leading artists and writers. Of course no Marvel doc would be complete without an appearance by Stan 'the Man' Lee, and sure enough he shows up here. Not being the world's greatest Iron Man fan, I actually learned a fair bit from this documentary, especially about the evolution of the character in recent years (I don't read many comic books these days).

There are also eleven deleted/extended scenes (23:56), most of which are in time-coded. There are a couple of amusing scenes that expand on the billionaire playboy side of Stark's character, even if they add little to the plot, but all things considered it's easy to see why most of these scenes were trimmed or removed. Exposition is one thing, but unnecessary exposition just bogs a film down.

 Iron Man
Finally on disc one is a BD-Live trivia challenge called 'Iron Man I.Q.'. The idea is basically to watch clips from the film and answer predetermined questions from the 'featured quizzes', but the disc also claims that you'll eventually be able to create and upload your own quizzes. Now I've been very critical of BD-Live features in the past, but this one is actually quite entertaining. I imagine it will only get better once the expanded version comes on-line.

Disc two opens with 'I Am Iron Man' (01:49:00), which is just about as comprehensive a making of doc as you could reasonably ask for. Every facet of production is covered in detail, from the inception of the project to the design and creation of the Iron man suit by Stan Winston Studios. Stan Winston himself shows up periodically throughout the documentary, which is great in a bitter-sweet sort of way. He clearly wasn't well during the making of the film, even going so far as to reference his illness himself. His contribution to the field of special effects is legendary and he will be missed. The doc also features plenty of behind the scenes footage with director Jon Favreau and actors Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow and Terrence Howard. Favreau and Downey Jr. have much of the screen time, which is lucky as Favreau is very congenial and Downey Jr. is quite a character. All things considered, this is probably the best Marvel making of documentary yet.

 Iron Man
Moving on we come to ‘Wired: The Visual Effects of Iron Man’ (27:01), which is a decent look at the lengths the creative teams went to when designing every minute detail of the various suits of armour. When watching a film it's easy to get caught up in the story and just take everything at face value, but this featurette does an excellent job of reminding you that someone had to create all of the on-screen visual splendour to begin with. I'm not just talking about the obvious things like the CGI Iron Man, but little things like the design of his armour's HUD and the digital matte paintings.

Next up is a 'Robert Downey Jr. Screen Test' (06:03), which mostly consists of the actor riffing with some stand-ins and generally mucking around. If nothing else it showcases his playful sense of humour, but that's about it. ‘The Actor's Process’ (04:13) shows Robert Downey Jr. and Jeff Bridges rehearsing a scene for director Jon Favreau. It’s quite rare to see two actors spit-balling ideas around on the set, which is a pity. It would be good to see more of this sort of thing on DVD/BD releases, rather than the usually EPK nonsense.

 Iron Man
The Onion 'Wildly Popular Iron Man Trailer to be Adapted into Full-Length Film' (02:38) is a strange little feature that satirises the recent trend in films failing to live up to expectations generated by their trailers, at least from a fanboy's point of view. There are a few giggles to be had (the line about the film 'alienating the trailer's core fan base' made me chuckle), but there's little re-watch value. It's also the only bonus feature presented in standard definition.

Ironically, a series of trailers comes next. There are four in total, including the teaser, which is great if you like that sort of thing. Four galleries are also included, showcasing a variety of production sketches and pre-viz designs.

 Iron Man

Overall


Iron Man’s theatrical debut is a success on par with the first Spider-Man and X-Men movies, and it’s a testament to the skills of all involved that they’ve managed to deliver a well-paced, exciting film based around a lesser-known character from the Marvel stable. The film isn’t without its faults—an unfortunate side effect of having to cram so much into a two hour origin story is that the villain isn’t as fully developed as he might have been—but the good definitely outweighs the bad. I just hope we get something on the level of Spider-Man 2 or X2 for the sequel.

This is the first Paramount UK Blu-ray release that I've encountered, and it sets the bar extremely high. Putting aside the superb audio-visual quality, the disc almost earns its retail price tag with a collection of interesting and informative bonus material presented almost entirely in high-definition. In fact, if there had been a commentary track and a few more interviews with the cast and crew, this could have been a true reference disc. As it stands it's still an excellent release and one that I can wholeheartedly recommend to both die-hard fans and those looking for a great demo disc.

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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