Monday, May 05, 2008

IRON MAN (English; 2008)

The Marvel comics explosion at the start of the 1960s was a two-headed beast. On the one hand the world was treated to newfangled types of superheroes like Spiderman and the Fantastic Four, "all too human" in a way unrecognizable from many of the godlike (and boring) DC comics superheroes of the 1940s (we won't speak of the 1950s, the imbecilic decade that gave us the Batbaby), and even from Marvel's own Captain America. Spidey, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men were fresh, and they were most definitely A-list (although the X-Men probably had to wait till the mid-1970s before they could be considered permanent fixtures of comicdom's upper echelon). The second head of the Marvel Janus, however, were superheroes who were either knockoffs of characters created by the Distinguished Competition, or too weird to be loved by the public-at-large (Antman, anyone?), or even low-grade versions of Marvel's OWN A-listers (Daredevil vis-a-vis Spiderman; the blind man's revenge would be long in coming, but once it did in the form of Frank Miller, it would be pretty permanent). We may callously group these cheerful, but low-prestige, heroes together as Marvel's B-listers.

Iron Man was one of them. Old tin can didn't even have his own comic until 1970, and had to share Tales of Suspense with fellow Avenger Captain America (who was, of course, the bigger draw) in a "split book" format. And while things did change for Tony Stark and Iron Man in the decades to follow, he never could live down the sense that the multi-millionaire Stark was simply a brasher version of Bruce Wayne; never did make it to Marvel's upper echelon; nor did he ever cross over into the wider popular (i.e. non-comic reading) culture in the way that Batman, Hulk, and Spiderman did. He did become a stalwart of the Marvel universe, however, even becoming a pivotal (if somewhat authoritarian) figure during Marvel's recent "Civil War" story arc, willing to serve as Uncle Sam's super-suited cop against his old friends and teammates (not to mention that he enabled Marvel to pander to post-9/11 Republican readers in addition to whatever Democratic ones they might have been pandering to with Captain America). All of which is a rather long-winded way of saying, my friends, that if ever there was a hero who wouldn't be in a $100 million opening weekend film, it was Iron Man.

Oops. Scratch that last sentence.

Iron Man's sensational opening weekend illustrates yet again that this is truly the golden age of superhero movies: not only has the special effects technology caught up to the comic books' conceit, but just as important, the filmmakers behind Batman Begins, X-Men, Spiderman, and now Iron Man, have displayed a firm grasp on the comic medium, and on how its heroes might be re-imagined for cinema. Often the goofy earnestness of the 1960s comics is preserved to an extent, but blended with much-needed contemporary irony. The over-arching conviction, of course, is that comics are as respectable a medium as any other: and rather than crushing the filmmakers beneath the weight of pious attempts to placate fanboys, this conviction seems have liberated Hollywood to take as many liberties with them as they do with literary adaptations. All of which weirdly preserves the freshness of the 1960s comics, no small feat given that we've seen it all by now, and means: bring on Ant Man (Henry Pym, we never knew ye).

Iron Man reaps the benefit of having an unusually strong cast for a superhero film: Robert Downey Jr. plays Tony Stark, the billionaire scientist-genius, tycoon, and playboy, who is captured by Afghan warlords and forced to build his famed weapons for them. Except what he builds is the first Iron Man suit, using it to kick some ass and high tail it out of the bad guys' lair. Stark's character has rightly been termed "preposterous", absurdly so, in fact, yet Downey plays him to perfection, with the sort of twinkle-eyed lightness that is essential for pulling off the sort of role even the film's target audiences will have trouble taking seriously. Downey is matched step-for-step by Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays Stark's long-suffering assistant Pepper Potts with a bemused charm that would be the envy of bombshells everywhere (such as the journalist who beds Stark, reminding me that I went to the wrong college). Jeff Bridges was almost unrecognizable as Stark's business partner Obadiah Stern, but no less wonderful for that, an old-school baddie you can see coming a mile away.

The story, or how-do-we-get-to-the-part-with-the-nifty-suit: Stark's sojourn in Afghanistan has revealed to him the human cost of the international weapons industry his work helps propel, and he decides to get Stark Industries out of the business of weapons manufacture. He also decides to devote time to perfecting his Iron Man concept (in order to track down the baddies who've been using Stark weaponry, and take out their stockpiles), and while the run-up to the new suit's unveiling is about as hackneyed as they come, it nevertheless succeeds in holding the viewer's attention. Director Jon Favreau is able to do this because he dwells long enough upon the plot to make it seem that he is taking it seriously, but not long enough to be bogged down by its silliness. Many wonderful SFX moments and a (to me, disappointing) climactic fight with a "bad" Iron Man later (and, much much later, Samuel Jackson as Nick Fury), the movie does not so much end as point toward a sequel -- which might well be even more fun than this instalment.

Iron Man contains much to delight the comic book purists too: the red-and-golden armor is a throwback to one of the "classic" Iron Man looks (thank God they dispensed with the golden monstrosity Stark wore in Avengers #1), and it was gratifying to see Stark's first armor as grey as it was in the 1960s comics when he created it in captivity at the hands of Communists in South-East Asia -- indeed, the scenes of the first Iron Man armor being forged in an underground cavern in Afghanistan went a longer way toward justifying Stark's character (independent of the spectre of Bruce Wayne) than anything I'd encountered in the comic books; for in those sequences, Stark's brashness, his rough edges, began to make sense: he is the Marvel Universe's Hephaestus, metalsmith to the Gods, and a practical, blunt, fact of a man (in contrast to Wayne's blue-blooded intellectualism; the latter loves to play detective, the former, to get his hands greasy taking things apart). There are plenty of other "insider" references to comic nerds like yours truly: to Stark's budding alcoholism; to just how much of a mouthful the long form of the acronym for Marvel's premier cloak and dagger agency, S.H.I.E.L.D., is; to the fact that Stark's buddy Jim Rhodes did end up wearing the Iron Man armour for a period in the comics; and to the sheer lameness of the notion that Stark's secret identity was protected by virtue of the pretense that Iron Man was really his bodyguard (the movie puts this idea in play, and then cheerfully discards it).

Iron Man will never have the mythic resonance of a well-made Batman film; but Favreau is to be commended for avoiding the sort of fake angst that can mar even a well-made Spiderman film. Despite his heart condition, public ridicule, and threats to his life, Tony Stark knows life is good (why wouldn't it be, when you have Gwyneth Paltrow for an assistant?). And Favreau, given a monster budget to seemingly do as he wished, knows it too. The film reflects that; and, as its opening weekend box office receipts showed, good cheer can be infectious.


Monika said...

I enjoyed your review, especially the comic-book book context from which the character emerges. The explicit progressive political narrative is surprising to me, but perhaps, the film is picking up on the change of mood in the American public which is due to the current economic crisis is understanding the costs of weaponry, all too well. By the way, have you seen "Mithiya" or "Johnny Gaddhar"--I think you would enjoy both.

Qalandar said...

Thanks Monika. I have seen both those films. My review for Johnny Gaddar is at: