New Armour, Same Climax: a review of Iron Man

Now the title is gonna make you think I didn’t like Iron Man. But I did. I enjoyed it. Robert Downey Jr. is not the most conventional superhero actor–and he definitely brings a new level of cycnism and self-deprecating humour to the superhero idea. The heart-device is completely cool–and makes our hero vulnerable. There’s great stuff here that stretches the superhero genre. But I’m noticing something about Marvel superhero movies that is making me just a little…well…concerned.

Iron Man had a great beginning. Starting the movie with a horrendous attack in Afghanistan, it then brought us back in time 36 hours to show how things got so wonky for Mr. Tony Stark. Usually superhero movies stick to straight biopic rules–start us at childhood, move us forward—but I like this prelude dug out from the middle of the movie. Then it brought us up to where we began and put him in Afghanistan, with terrorists. This was such a bold plot move by the writers–to make Iron Man contemporary, to make him relevant. (Why didn’t they stay there?)

When terrorists begin to rebuild Iron Man version 1, and have a Jericho missile (missiles that look like fireworks–fun!) and threaten to fire it –and do– then the unique story of hero facing war in the middle east takes a left turn back into cliche. Iron man zooms over and takes care of pesky, GOOD, plot with one shot.

Inevitably, in these superhero movies, one hero must face one villain (or in the case of Spidey 3, 3 villains!) and inevitably it must be someone with mucho screen time, who is close to our hero who decides to follow in the footsteps of the hero and brazenly “duplicate” the process of “transformation”. Abomination in Hulk; souped up Jeff Bridges in Iron Man; even in some ways, Venom (the “copy” of Spiderman) in Spidey 3 (the Goblins earlier, the mad Doc Oc).

But what a story Iron Man left behind! Weapons manufacturer held hostage by Afghani terrorists who turns the table on them–shown to a theater of people who are longing for an end, or any victory, in this war; why didn’t they just send Iron Man back into the fray again and again? They could have shown us that the issues were complicated, the fixes not so easy and that Iron Man was really one big Tank as hero–a suit of armor with weapons. Tony Stark is still a weapon–he’s manufactured himself as a weapon. He has not changed, in a sense, though he has foregone making money from the weapons industry–a huge difference. But that’s not really followed up on because we’ve got to move this plot towards Jeff Bridges and the one-on-one shoot ’em up which has become the hallmark of superhero movies.

Perhaps superhero movies have been influenced by the game industry, pitting the largest foe at the end of the movie–a foe that is his “equal” if not his doppelganger. But then, it could just be adventure plots which nearly dictate that a climax has to be between the protagonist and the antagonist. It’s just that Jeff Bridges was the B-class antagonist and the Afghanis were so much more interesting. More complex. It is their style of fighting–which resists making one man a central figure (Bin Laden is not in control in Iraq–Al Queda is a hydra with many heads, hence the difficulty of defeating it)–which challenges the antagonist-protagonist motif.

Wouldn’t you like a movie that dealt with the issue of the war from a superhero POV? We almost had it. And then Iron Man went on autopilot.

Still Iron Man is a great movie for what it is: two hours of great entertainment. Robert Downey Jr at his best. Jeff Bridges looking cool as a bald, bearded guy. Gwenyth Paltrow as Pepper Potts. Dialogue is snappy. There’s lots of good joke moments. Rent it and enjoy. But I had a writing teacher tell me this once: “The good is the enemy of the best.” And here, I think this is a good movie that wanted to be the best.

For another thought on this movie–and a four star rating–read Roger Ebert, my hero.

Rocketmen of a Different Time

Well, now that Yves Rossy has flown across the English Channel, I’m feeling nostalgic for a great film called The Rocketeer.  Yeah, it was Disney, but it was fun.  And it had that same joy–a man finds a jetpack and flies through 1938, doing good.  Started as a comic book, The Rocketeer was an homage to the early adventure serials (much in the same way Indiana Jones was a nod to them).  It didn’t do so well at the box office, but I bet it gets a revival.  Superhero movies are popular.  Superhero Literature is taking over the publishing industry.  Now a man flies with his jetpack without crashing.

I remember the movie because the art deco of the poster extended to the sets, Timothy Dalton (the current, at that time, James Bond) was the villain, and the hero was so gosh-darn good.  I really enjoyed the whole triumphant feel of the movie–the lack of cynicism.  This wasn’t The Dark Knight.  It was just far enough removed from Superman movies with their movie-brand idealism and perky people but not deep in the reverse-cycle we’re on now with the Watchman coming soon.

Lastly, we come to Iron Man, the jetpack story with political commentary.  I mean, we’re in a political age.  So that’s cool.  But there’s less innocent joy and more revenge, more concentration on this as a weapon of mass destruction as hero.  The villain is not a Dalton-esque individual, but a war, a people, even greed.  Iron Man is fighting conceptions.  The Rocketeer had his Nazis, an ideological flashpoint for heroes forged in the thirties and forties.  They were also a people, in a war, bent on world domination.  Funny thing now is– the people, the war, the greed — it’s US we’re fighting — both U.S. and us…

So, remember as you take up your Jet pack:

With great technology comes responsible ideology….