In another unexpectedly pleasant surprise, Iron Man turned out to be perhaps the strongest of this passing summer’s superhero movies. I say “perhaps” because, while it lacks The Dark Knight‘s length and The Incredible Hulk‘s emotional sequel-baggage, Iron Man never rises to anything other than the low-tide line of my expectations. Movies are like that these days. I’m spoiled. We’ve all become spoiled by the expectation of eye-gouging special effects. I’ve believed a man could fly all my life; seeing it no longer impresses me. Much.
This movie impressed me…but not with its showy, summer-movie action scenes. No. Instead, Iron Man outflanked me, scaling the battlements of my cold, critic’s heart by reminding me why I used to drag my ass out of bed a six a.m. on a Sunday morning to watch the Iron Man cartoon that played on the Fox affiliate of my youth. Why, in other words, I liked Iron Man in the first place.
The answer? Tony Stark.. In my youth, I admired the continuing adventures of ol’ shell head–especially once the show hit its stride in the second season, when an on-going storyline and a revolving cast of villains tore the show away from the He-Man-like formula of rising action-conflict-resolution-falling action. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your views, lack of access to a comic book store sheltered me from the seedier aspects of Tony Stark’s personality. Years later, first the “Heroes Reborn” storyline (a needlessly complicated bit of retroactive continuity I won’t go into here) and then the Marvel Ultimates universe drove a distasteful truth home: Tony Stark is a dick. Rather, he would be a dick under any circumstances even vaguely resembling those in the so-called “real world.” The artists and writers who give him life realized this back in the 1970s, when alcoholism-inspired dickishness turned Tony’s life into one big fire sale. Modern comics creators have done such a good job rounding out this note in Tony’s character (as have the movie-makers who look to comics for their pitch–see Ultimate Avengers and it’s sequel) that I thought it impossible to see him playing any other song.
In keeping with this, tonight’s feature opens with the all-too-familiar (to me) cords of AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” This desolate-looking waste is Kunar Province, Afghanistan, and here we see billionaire industrialist Tony Stark taking the U.S. Armed Forces Express back to civilization. Tony’s just concluded a demonstration of Stark Industry’s latest product: the Jericho missile system, and his dickish attempts to lighten the mood inside this APC go over well with his armed escort. Right away we know the these one-dimensional service people (I’d say “men” but the driver is a woman) are doomed to die.
It doesn’t take long for an ambush to kill them and send Tony scurrying into the high desert, which affords scant protection when a missile labeled “Stark Industries” lands within arm’s length. Billionaire industrialist Tony Stark wakes bound to a chair, with a new–albeit, bandaged–hole in his chest, the prisoner of either terrorists or ninjas. It really could be either. A product of the 70s, Iron Man originally suffered his Defining Moment of Tragedy at the hands of the Vietcong, another group famous for black pajamas.
At this point the film turns back time, allowing us to spend thirty-six hours living the uber-rich, playboy life. We watch Tony blow off an award dinner held in his honor to play the tables in Vegas, take a Vanity Fair reporter back to his seaside mansion in Malibu, blow her off the next morning, and leave Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his beleaguered assistant, to shuffle her out the door.
Tony generally inconveniences everyone he touches, letting others do the work of life while he does the living. On the flight to Kunar Province, Tony tries to distract his military liaison, Colonel “Rhodey” Rhodes with his private jet’s built-in stripper-poles. So much, then, for Tony Stark.
Ambushed and captured, he goes from castle to cave. Fellow prisoner Yinsin (Shaun Toub) informs him that, “I removed all the shrapnel I could,” one of those good-news bad-news statements. The bad news: tiny barbs of razor-sharp metal litter the flesh around Tony’s heart. The good news: Yinsin managed to implant an electromagnet in Tony’s chest, hooking it up to a car battery. Tony remains alive enough, at least, for his captors to blackmail him. They want their own Jericho missile. They certainly have enough spare parts (all marked “Stark Industries”) lying about the place. “Is this your legacy?” Yinsin asks, “the last act of defiance of the great Tony Stark?”
In case you were wondering, no, it’s not. Rather than build another weapon and sacrifice more souls to Holy Mars, Tony chooses to channel Hephaestus. From the guts of his “finest” products Tony constructs a miniature cold-fusion reactor (because that’s just how smart he is), the better to power his life support system…and, not coincidentally, the man-suit of weaponized armor he’s building from the other bits and pieces laying about his terrorist-cave cum workshop.
Complete with flamethrowers, rocket-boots, and on-board missiles, Tony rampages his way to freedom. Yinsin, his role fulfilled, dies …as does the suit, which fails to pass its first flight test. Any landing you can walk away from, Tony…
Picked up by U.S. forces, Our Hero returns to civilization. His first act: announce the death of Stark International’s weapons division to the consternation of his Board of Directors and his fellow SI Boss, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges!). “We’re iron mongers, Tony,” the oily Stane says, “we make weapons.” In case you didn’t known what an “iron monger” was.
Tony holds his ground. After all, he’s died and come back to life, literally going into, and then coming out of, a frickin’ cave. You can’t get much more Campbellian than that. He’s experienced the redemptive power of dressing up in a silly costume and blowing people away. No longer an “iron monger” he’s become an “iron man,” in spirit if not yet in fact. The tragedy being no one in his life–not Stane, not Rhodey, not even Pepper Potts–believes in this transformation.
So it falls to Tony, a man alone, to toil in the garage/workshop under his house (a cave by any other name) perfecting his armor through a series of hilarious beta tests. All the while the terrorists who kidnapped Tony continue their Stark-weapons-fueled rampage through Afghanistan. After Obadiah Stane all-but admits Stark Industries is indeed providing the bang for those terrorist’s bucks, Tony takes his newly-manufactured Sunday Best out of the garage and out onto the warpath. How he manages to make the up-to-twelve hour flight without a bathroom break puzzles me. (Try flying over the Pole without a bathroom break, I dare you.) I imagine Tony took a cue or three from Dune and installed some condensers in that tin can…but what do I know? I’m sitting here musing on these idiotic questions instead of enjoying the inevitable special effects spectacular.
That it is spectacular is a foregone conclusion. What isn’t? The depth and humanity displayed throughout, particularly by Downey and Paltrow. That’s what. This is the most believable portrayal of Hero and Love Interest I’ve seen in a long time. The two are married in a way polite society dictates must not be sexual, and they pull it off. The Inevitable Kiss becomes an almost-Kiss, so awkward both our leads need a drink just to recover from it. And that’s refreshing in a land soaked by rom-com conventions that should’ve been thrown overboard after Rock Hudson came out of the closet.
I thought this film’s politics would drive me to drink as well. How could a film about a weapons-manufacturing superhero possibly survive Hollywood Focus Groupthink without turning into a two-hour army commercial? How can you transplant Iron Man’s origin story into the modern world without turning him into a mascot for the War on Terror? Tony can’t be a peacenik; he must be a hero, requiring yet-another Evil Muslim. Hollywood, ladies and gentlemen: demonizing The Other since 1901. Perhaps in awareness of this, the Token Evil Muslims become little more than pawns themselves in a great power game run by (spoiler alert–God, I just love doing that) an Evil Capitalist with the rather-blatant name of Stane.
With their pregnant moniker “the Ten Rings,” these “terrists” are an obvious reference to standard Iron Man villain, the Mandarin, a racist stereotype in his own right. A few degrees east of the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu…as played by Christopher Lee, at least the Mandarin’s magical powers made him more than an interchangeable, goddamned, dirty, islamofacists. Stane’s inclusion changes the entire political dynamic here. The first half of this movie might’ve passed for a supped-up action movie from the middle 1980s. The second half becomes a story of personal betrayal so littered with symbolism you’d think it got caught in an English Lit class explosion. It ducks an issue of contemporary politics by changing tracks, barreling straight into pseudo-mythic territory…which a part of me considers more fitting for the source material anyway.
A holdover from the régime of Tony’s father, Howard Stark (an obvious nod to Mr. Hughes, the closest Stark-analogue our universe has yet to produce), Obadiah Stane is introduced as the closest thing to a father figure left alive in Tony’s life. I should’ve guessed the inevitability of their confrontation, which doubles as our Climactic Fight Scene. Tony’s past incarnate, Obadiah sees nothing but dollar signs and American hegemony in Tony’s armor. It falls on the Iron Man to literally wrestle the future out of the Iron Monger’s hands. The film is trying to remind us of the duality of technology. It speaks only in terms of weapons, but its point is applicable across the board. Early in the film, Tony tries to shut down that reporter I mention (whom he eventually beds) by reminding her, “My father worked on the Manhattan Project. Now a lot of people…would call that being a hero.” And, indeed, they were the heroes of their age. But as the full horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki became apparent, how many of those same heroes grew to regret what they’d done at Trinity? As Tony may yet regret ever even dreaming of Iron Man. His comic book incarnations have reached this point several times.
And don’t get me started on the image of Obadiah stealing Tony’s chest piece…literally, carving out Tony’s heart, like some bald Aztec priest about to feed the ravenous Sun God… in order to power his own, monstrous warsuit…
Maybe it’s a function of my lowered expectations, but for some reason this movie’s demerits are more bearable somehow. Stilted dialogue (even when powered by Downey’s machine-gun delivery) reigns throughout, particularly over Obadiah. Must all our villains speechify (or “monologue”, if you will)? It can really ruin a good head of menace, like the one Jeff Bridges managed to work up. No War Machine, and thus no one to call Tony’s armor out for what it is: a flying coffin. And while I appreciate all the little hints recent Marvel movies have dropped concerning S.H.E.I.L.D., “the Avenger Initiative”, and special guest star Nicholas Fury (Samuel L.-Motherfucking- Jackson)…why do you think it’s cute to stick them at the end of the credits? The Incredible Hulk‘s makers knew better…though seeing the Hulk first has thrown my chronology all to hell.
Director Jon Favreau is almost invisible. Who knew the guy who made Elf could give us such breath of action? But these are minor inconveniences, if not piddly complaints. I wound up liking it a lot more than I thought I would. See if you will as well, and pray for the sequel, already begun, according to Favreau, who’s working on the script as we speak. Let’s all hope all this stacks up to something grand. Then we can all look back, once The Avengers comes out, and fondly remember that we stood here.