Friday, May 16, 2008

Iron Man

Iron Man, the first of Marvel Comics' superhero properties to be adapted to the screen through their new in-house production apparatus rather than through licensing, is a strong start for the company's ambitious new effort at cinematic universe-building. Not just economically, although that should be rather obvious from the film's blockbuster performance for the past few weeks, but creatively, in terms of successfully translating a complicated character with a long history into an equally complicated and compelling onscreen hero. The film isn't entirely successful, to be sure — it's especially marred by a silly and over-the-top final battle scene — but it does succeed in the kind of grounded, patient storytelling that Marvel seems to be adapting as the new standard for their film productions.

In particular, Marvel and director Jon Favreau have learned a lot of lessons from Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, which became a new model for superhero filmmaking by keeping its title character in the developmental stages for the entire first half of the film. It signaled a new kind of superhero movie. While older superhero films tended to view the origin story as a bothersome hurdle to jump as fast as possible in order to get to the "good stuff," these new tights-and-capes films are taking a more leisurely, painstaking approach to superhero origins, which inevitably gives the films a more grounded, realistic feel. Just as in Nolan's film we saw millionaire Bruce Wayne slowly accumulate the experience, fighting skill, and technology that would enable him to take on the mantle of Batman, in Iron Man we see Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) building the eponymous suit of armor not just once, but twice. These scenes are grounded in realism and, importantly, in physical process, even if the actual physics and mechanics behind the suit's operation are obscure and fantastic. Even if they could never be real, these scenes still feel real, and that's the crucial touch that brings both Nolan's Batman and Favreau's Iron Man to convincing life. These are both heroes who essentially make themselves through ingenuity and technological progress, rather than with super powers, and it's admirable that both of these films spend considerable time in the workshop with their heroes. In terms of the ratio of screen time given to making the armor suit as opposed to actually using it, Iron Man is a film more about building than about fighting, even if the wanton destruction of the typical urban battle scene at the end tends to obscure that point.

Meanwhile, since Stark spends so much of the film out of his armor, Downey is a very welcome presence here as the man beneath the iron mask. Stark is a great, complicated character: a compulsive womanizer who can even be downright nasty towards his conquests, a budding alcoholic, and yet also a businessman with a conscience, who when he learns of evils committed in his name, decides to actually do something about it. Downey is a surprisingly perfect fit for the role, bringing a sarcastic wit and easygoing screen presence to the conflicted would-be hero. The film shines especially in its humor, an essential aspect of superhero comics that doesn't often translate so well to the screen. But Downey seems equally comfortable with his character's verbal sparring (especially with his perky assistant Pepper Potts, admirably embodied by Gwyneth Paltrow despite her underwritten role) and the film's occasional deadpan physical humor, like a recurring gag with a puppyish robot in Stark's studio, or some painful-looking snags in the development of his suit's propulsion units.

Of course, the film isn't without its own snags, most notably on the villain front. Many have pointed out how the film's Afghani warlords are essentially stock Hollywood "darkies," fitting the evil dark-skinned mold perhaps too perfectly. But it's worth pointing out that not only are these evil terrorists depicted as terrorizing their own (also dark-skinned) innocent civilians, they're shown to be doing so with American-made weapons, supplied directly from American companies. Moreover, these villains don't wind up dying in an explosive final dust-up with Iron Man, but rather die off-screen, eliminated by American political expediency once their purpose had been served. The real villain here isn't the dark other or the stock Arab terrorist, but the American weapons manufacturers who supply these evil men, and the American political complacency that allows such atrocities to occur routinely as long as US interests are protected. This bit of real-world political mirroring goes some way towards defusing the accusations of stock racism, and it's important to remember that even though the film's political message is sometimes obscured and confused, it always remains basically an anti-war polemic about a weapons manufacturer who decides not to make weapons anymore.

I have more reservations about Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) as a villain, though in that case not because of any problematic racial elements. He's simply a boring enemy, as melodramatic as a soap opera's evil twin brother, and almost as unlikely. He's especially unconvincing in the inevitable final showdown with Iron Man, which eschews the slightly more restrained and realistic battle scenes of earlier in the film for a full-on superhero urban destruction scenario, complete with cars hurtling through the air, buildings recklessly smashed, and iron suits flying everywhere. And what to say about the ridiculous processed voice that Stane has when he's encased in his own armored suit? When a film has to remind us of who the villain is by making his voice sound evil, things are not looking good. It's the only time when the film reminds us of the over-the-top silliness that superhero flicks too often descend to, like the similarly ridiculous Batmobile chase sequence that Nolan unnecessarily shoehorned into Batman Begins. These moments sabotage the tone of these films, which otherwise walk a tight rope between realism and fantasy.

For the most part, though, Iron Man is an auspicious debut for Marvel's in-house film productions. It sets the stage for many things to come in the Marvel film universe, especially in terms of the introduction of S.H.I.E.L.D. and a surprising cameo after the credits, one that will have special relevance for fans of Marvel's Ultimate line, and one that also foreshadows the already-planned Avengers movie for the future. More importantly, it's a fine movie on its own merits, capturing the excitement and adventure of the best superhero tales, bringing both Iron Man and Tony Stark to vivid life. The film's overall tone is perhaps best encapsulated in the scene when Stark first takes his second, slickly designed suit out for a test flight; the joy and excitement on Downey's face, seen inside the suit surrounded by computerized readings, is inevitably passed on to the audience.


Craig said...

Welcome back, Ed!

Mike Leader said...

Great to see you posting again, and a fair assessment of Iron Man!

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Craig & Mike. Hopefully I'll get myself back on track to posting regularly again.