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— Kathleen Quinlan, Event Horizon

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Overall, Iron Man makes for a solid Blu-ray release, but it skimps a bit in taking advantage of the high-def format’s full capabilities.

You’re So Money

Skimps a bit in the high-def format's full capabilities
Skimps a bit in the high-def format’s full capabilities

Perhaps of all the comic book superhero characters none is quite the geek’s delight as much as Tony Stark, particularly in this lavish big screen adaptation. He’s a tech-savvy guy with an enormous brain (he graduated from MIT at age 17) and he knows how to party like… well, Robert Downey, Jr., back in his free-wheeling days of not too long ago. In fact, he even slept with an entire year of Maxim cover girls (that’s Tony, not Robert). Well, OK. There is a technicality: there were scheduling conflicts with March, but December rounded out the year with twins.

Tony’s inherited the family business, Stark Industries, and he’s worked under the fatherly auspices of Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges, The Big Lebowski) following his dad’s death. As this background information is given to the audience in a perfectly cheesy fashion via an awards ceremony presentation in Las Vegas, it’s clear “Obi” can be thought of as a Steve Jobs type. Bridges sports a magnificently gleaming bald head and goatee and carries himself with the air – and arrogance – of a man who has a whole lotta moolah.

Stark Industries specializes in defense contracts and a hung-over Stark is sent to Afghanistan to make a sales pitch and demonstrate the company’s latest bad boy, the Jericho missile. The splinter-action rocket creates an awesome scene of destruction reminiscent of Atari’s old Missile Command video game.

While Stark is not exactly Bob Hope in the goodwill-generating department, he does manage to get his military escort to lighten up a tad as he jokes around about gang signs and their masculine female driver. All is well until a missile (manufactured by Stark Industries) blows Stark’s life onto a whole new trajectory.

Rocket Man

Unlike Bruce Wayne, Tony isn’t a troubled soul. He’s got the whole world at his fingertips and he enjoys life tremendously. In his case, the catalyst for his journey to superhero status is the need to save his own life. After the explosion, Tony’s taken captive and held for ransom: his captors want him to build a Jericho missile for them in exchange for his life. They’ve been hoarding all sorts of equipment from Stark Industries, so he should certainly have everything he needs.

Instead of building that missile, even under the watchful gaze of his captor’s “cavecam,” Tony fashions a sweet, bullet-proof, hydraulic-powered suit that allows him to pummel his way out of the cave and zoom, up, up and away, into the desert sky.

OK. That part of the storyline is a bit of a stretch. Holed up in a cave with one other prisoner, it’s slightly unreasonable to expect a major technological achievement, no matter the magnitude of Tony’s genius. But, of course, this is a comic book movie that doesn’t aspire to the same level of reality-based possibilities that have sent Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies to the head of the pack.

Another dust bunny swept under the rug is the fact that Tony’s Afghan adventure takes him out of circulation for three months and yet he returns home without having lost an ounce. Sure, he had a severe craving for a major hamburger chain, but come on. Christian Bale would’ve gone back down to the bone to convey a sense of time passage. Instead, it’s simply an after thought to drop the hint that Tony had been away for awhile – after Tony had already returned to the States and snarfed down a burger.

Those quibbles – and there are one or two others – over narrative expediency aside, Iron Man turns into a surprisingly well done movie that sits with the best of the Marvel movies, particularly Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man flicks.

There is a good, human grounding in the story. Out in the real world, seeing the by-products of his weaponry, Tony undergoes his own transformation. While Peter Parker got bitten by a spider and gained super skills, and Bruce Banner got exposed to some gamma rays that made him go green with rage, Tony’s major alteration is that he gains something akin to a conscience and is stunned to see the weapons he created to protect his own country and its soldiers turned against them.

Heart Light

While Tony plans on shutting down Stark Industries’ major line of business in favor of turning his Iron Man suit into a new form of global policeman, that’s not to say he’s turned into a tree-hugging liberal. Returning to Afghanistan – and a little dustup with the U.S. Air Force – Iron Man is perfectly content to leave one of his Afghan captors in the vengeful hands of those his terrorist group has displaced and oppressed.

As it turns out, a bit of corporate malfeasance is behind the enemy’s acquisition of Stark’s technology and that story thread is an interesting development that, ultimately, turns into a fairly standard CGI-driven climax.

Ah, but while the story sometimes flounders and stretches credibility beyond all standard reason, it makes up for the high gloss with a nice amount of heart. Not only is Iron Man’s chest light a physical, literal symbol of the inner man’s life-altering experience, but it also becomes a sweetly gentle joke between Tony and his long-time assistant, the perfectly proper Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow).

Each admits the other is all they have and their relationship turns into something really interesting to watch, much more interesting than the requisite clash of superpowers between Iron Man and an evil competitor dubbed Iron Monger.

Throw in another interesting relationship, the friendship between Tony and Lt. Colonel James Rhodes (Terrence Howard, Ray), and director Jon Favreau, who co-starred with Vince Vaughn in Swingers and makes a cameo here as Tony’s chauffeur, Happy Hogan, has certainly set the groundwork for what undoubtedly will turn into the next blockbuster trilogy.

Blu-ray Extras

The recent Godfather release notwithstanding, Iron Man is the first major Paramount title to get an exclusive Blu-ray release following the demise of HD-DVD. But, thanks to their more extensive selection of interactive options, their Transformers and Beowulf ports from the defunct format still get the nod as overall better packages that are also reference quality presentations.

On the bright side, all of the supplemental materials are presented in full high-def, which is particularly nice given all the graphics and illustrations used in the materials. Also, the studio has finally ditched their ugly generic, gray “Loading” progress bar in favor of a movie-themed icon, in this case Iron Man’s chest light.

Disc 1:

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the lack of any sort of running commentary with the feature film. Instead, there is a lengthy, in-depth documentary on Disc 2.

Accompanying the movie on Disc 1 is The Invincible Iron Man – a 45-minute, in-depth look at the history of Iron Man, from Stan Lee’s creation of the character in 1963 to the latest graphic novels. As Lee describes Tony Stark, “Without being crazy, he was Howard Hughes.” Since its focus is strictly on the comic incarnations, this feature has a fairly limited appeal.

There are also 11 Deleted/Extended Scenes. Some of these are surprisingly good. In particular, be sure to check out the extended opening of Tony being taken hostage. It’s more intimidating than the final cut, and as such it’s probably too much so for the lighter type of movie Iron Man wants to be. Another notable cut is a scene in which Tony returns home from his ordeal and finds a gift from Obadiah. It’s the Bulgari watch he’s seen wearing later on. With the watch is a note, “Thank God it wasn’t your time – Obadiah.” There’s also a clunker involving a party in Dubai. It doesn’t mesh with Tony’s changed ways and it makes sense that one was sent to the floor.

Disc 2:

The main attraction here is a mighty in-depth look at the making of the movie. Entitled I Am Iron Man, it’s a 110-minute, exhaustive document that starts with the comic book, shows some of the suit designs, and goes all the way through production to a fairly lengthy discussion of the end credits design. It’s certainly Iron Man nirvana for the die-hard fans. Among the interesting footage is an interview Favreau as he honestly surveys the movie’s prospects. He’s not at all sure how it’ll be received. There’s a lot of great behind-the-scenes footage to be had here that does an effective job of giving a sense of what it was like to be on the set.

There’s one sad omission to note here. Stan Winston, the legendary effects wizard, died only a few weeks after Iron Man was released. The documentary includes a moment where Stan says he’s sick and he needs to go home to rest while the rest of his team keeps working away. There’s no acknowledgement anywhere of Stan’s passing.

Perhaps it demonstrates the completely mechanical process that is now in place in transitioning a movie from theatrical release to home video. With the supplements being made in tandem with the movie, there’s apparently no room to accommodate such a gesture – even in the months that lapse between the theatrical run and the video street date.

Also on the disc is Wired: The Visual Effects of Iron Man. Basically a 30-minute extension of the main documentary, this one includes some cool ILM test footage and a lot of information about Iron Man’s heads up display.

Robert Downey, Jr., Screen Test is a six-minute collection of test footage, including scenes of Downey cutting up with the troops and getting grilled by a hot reporter.

The Actor’s Process is a painfully-detailed 5-minute discussion about how to approach the confrontation between Stark and Stane at the concert hall.

The Onion: “Wildly Popular Iron Man Trailer to Be Adapted into Full-Length Film” is at its core a spoof of Entertainment Tonight and the whole hardcore treatment of “entertainment news.” It perfectly fleshes out the fine, fine newspaper’s satiric tone. This one is HILARIOUS, with comments like describing the trailer as “a breathtaking 90-second thrill ride” and an on-screen “factoid” stating that the “movie will draw heavily from trailer’s source material.”

Rounding out the standard supplements are four Iron Man theatrical trailers, including the one the Onion spoof dubs “one of the most beloved trailers.”

There are also four image galleries broken down by Concept Art for Characters, including four Iron Man styles, Iron Monger, and Tony Stark, and Concept Art for Environments, featuring four different sets. There’s a Tech gallery, one for Unit Photography, and a small collection of Iron Man movie posters. This material is mostly for the graphic designers in the crowd.

A quick note about the art of packaging: The paper jacket with Iron Man on the front lifts off to reveal, on the case liner, Tony Stark in his tank top and chest light. It’s a nice touch.

Blu-ray Exclusives

At press time, the only available Blu-ray exclusive was the Hall of Armor, a feature similar to the Tech Inspector found on the Transformers set. In the Hall of Armor, users can analyze and navigate around all three Iron Man renditions as well as the Iron Monger. It is a slick feature for those craving a much closer, detailed look at the artistry involved.

A BD-Live Iron Man IQ trivia game went “live” on street date and it’s actually a pretty nice piece of work, allbeit a little glitchy. At launch, there were 10 “Featured” quizzes, all created by Marvel Entertainment and each includes 10 questions, except for one 9-question quiz. Some of the questions are mighty darn tricky and require either a painful level of attention to on-screen detail or a painful level of comic book and celebrity knowledge.

The IQ trivia game holds a lot of promise, as this initial release greets users with the message that an “expanded version” will be available soon. With that upgrade, other quiz options such as Highest Rated, Most Recent, My Quizzes, and My Favorites will be unlocked and users will be able to create and post their own quizzes. That’s one way to keep people coming back for more.

Hopefully the expanded IQ game will iron out a couple bugs. When taking the General Movie quiz, for example, getting 7 out of 10 yielded a score of only 461 out of 1,000 even though each question is supposed to be weighted equally. A second time through went better, but only 9 out of the 10 questions actually appeared, penalizing the player.

Performance-wise, it’s a little slow. The quiz plays over selected scenes from the movie, so there’s often a wait while the system queues up the next scene and questions.

So, overall, it’s an interesting feature that holds the potential – and promise – to be something more over time. But, considering the gremlins in the existing content, the overall rating for these Blu-ray exclusives lies somewhere around 3 stars with an asterisk.

Paramount can certainly take advantage of this type of functionality for marketing and cross-promotional purposes when it comes time for Iron Man 2 in 2010, so it’ll be interesting to see where this technology goes.

Picture and Sound

The picture here is gorgeously crisp and does a fine job of showing off the shiny gleam on Iron Man Mark III. The soundtrack is equally effective, sporting tracks in English 5.1 Dolby TrueHD, French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital. It’s a smidge – a difference of mere degrees – shy of the reference quality found on the Transformers and Beowulf sets, but overall it’s an excellent presentation. And, given the relative lack of interactivity and Blu-exploitation, it would’ve been a better use of space to perhaps move the Invincible Iron Man documentary over to Disc 2 in favor of an alternate audio track, perferably DTS-HD Master Audio.

Subtitles on the feature are available in English, English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.

Subtitles on the supplements are available in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.

How to Use This Blu-ray

First go to Disc 2’s collection of trailers and watch the first one. Then watch The Onion: “Wildly Popular Iron Man Trailer to be Adapted into Full-Length Film.” Then move over to Disc 1, enjoy the movie and draw your own conclusions regarding the “adaptation” of the “much beloved” trailer into a feature-length motion picture. Finally, be sure to check out the extended cut of the opening.

After that, how far you go with the rest of the supplements depends on how much you want to iron out your understanding of Tony Stark and Iron Man.