Rolling Stone, at the time not predisposed to be favorable to exactly the kind of music Punk was a rebellion against, famously reviewed Queen’s seventh album, Jazz as “Fascist.”
That’s what happens when a band, and yes I think Queen was guilty of this, is so drunk with power that they indulge their every whim, brutally inflicting their excess on their audience.
Movies can be guilty of this too. Don’t get me wrong, I really loved Iron Man. I’ll see it again. But as I was searching for a way to describe the “ok, come on…” feeling I had during some moments (only a few!) the Queen analogy was the one that popped into my head. There are a few moments, particularly when explaining to the audience who Tony Stark is, that I laughed out loud because the people making this movie know they have their audience in the palm of their hand, and can abuse us with stuff like pictures of a young Tony Stark hanging out with a teenage Bill Gates. I laughed because it was funny, because it was so over the top, and because Jon Favreau had the balls to do it. Having read this, you’ve read the worst thing I can think of to say about this movie. It occasionally abuses the fact that we’re coming along for the ride no matter what, but it does so in an amusing manner. Hey, I love Queen too, they’re one of my favorite bands!
I knew we were in for a movie that paid more attention to storytelling than special effects when I saw the first trailer. I loved it because, unlike many summer blockbuster trailers that simply bombard you with shots, exciting moments from the movie, the trailer for Iron Man told a story. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end. This spoke to an attention to story and storytelling we don’t normally get in summer blockbusters but which, astonishingly, we’re now relying on Superhero Movies to deliver on. Transformers is just as exciting if you’re watching the movie in Farsi. You don’t need to actually understand the plot or the story, it’s neat to see giant robots fighting on screen.
Whereas Batman Begins, Hulk, and Iron Man tell real stories. Hulk and Batman Begins have an advantage over Iron Man in that they are about something. There is a psychological element to the first two movies that allows them to be more than just action movies, but engaging stories with something to say about the human condition.
Iron Man flirts with this idea in two ways, but ultimately rejects them both in favor of a more straightforward action movie story. That’s not a bad thing, per se , I wouldn’t say the movie suffers from lack of a psychological element, but it does mean you’re in for a damned fine Superhero Movie, rather than a damn fine movie that happens to be about superheros.
When I heard Robert Downey Jr. had been cast as Tony Stark, I had the same reaction everyone else did…well, everyone who knows who both those people are. I thought “Christ, he won’t have to act! He is Tony Stark!” Start is a rich, privileged, talented, dilettante playboy with a self-destructive, addictive personality who destroys his career through rampant and unapologetic substance abuse. Which is to say; he’s the Comic Book version of Robert Downey Jr.
Then I thought about it more and I was worried. Robert Downey Jr. is a very specific actor. When he’s doing what he’s known for, the very reason to cast him as Stark, he’s playing a very specific person. A romanticized, larger than life version of himself. That’s something that’s very hard to write for. I don’t think I could do it. I’m not a brilliant writer, but I think I’ve got some chops and I wouldn’t know where to start.Downey practically needs a personal writer for stuff like this.
Happily, he has one. Shane Black, who wrote Lethal Weapon, and Last Action Hero and a bunch of other great stuff, wrote and directed Downey in a fun little movie called Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and did some script doctor work on this as well. When you look at the list of writers, two different pairs of writers, you expect the screenplay to be an incoherent mess, but between Downey (who took an office on the lot for the duration of preproduction, specifically so he could oversee the development of his character and the scripts), Jon Favreau the director, and the occasional input of friend Shane Black, the script was in good hands.
The movie is very dense, opening with a flashback that, in retrospect, I don’t think we needed. Iron Man isn’t like other heroes. We don’t see him as a kid and learn about what happened to him as a young person to explain his motivation. Stark is an adult, in his 40s, when we first meet him and is already impossibly accomplished. He’s literally achieved everything everyone could ever want. He’s impossibly rich, a world-class scientist and engineer, with matinee-idol good looks. Well before he puts the armor on, he’s already a study in fantasy.
Stark is, among other things, a weapons manufacturer who produces AR-15 Rifles and in the opening, which we’ve seen in the trailer, he gets caught and kidnapped by some Jihadists who want…well, what they want is never made expressly clear. I have friends who will be offended that the Brown Man is the nameless motivation-free bad guy here and I am also somewhat offended, but purely from a storytelling point of view. Superhero movies are traditionally the realm of black-and-white morality, but if you’re telling the story of a 40 year old man who decides to fight crime, you might consider a little political complexity in your story.
Such complexity is missing from Iron Man and I think it’s this kind of thing that could have made it really a great movie, rather than merely good and very exciting. If the Jihadists were Jihading against something Jihad-worthy, if perhaps the American government were less guilt-free than we see here, then perhaps we’d be operating on a higher plane. I don’t mind brown people (or any other people) being bad-guys, I mind it when they’re not treated like human beings with human motivations and are instead used to exploit the audiences’ fear-du-jour and in this case that’s exactly what our brown people are doing here. This is a comic book movie, however, and complaining about the absence of political complexity may be missing the point on my part.
Stark witnesses, for the first time, the extensive use of the weapons his company makes for the US Government being used by the bad guys. This point is a little ham-fistedly hammered home, with extensive shots showing every weapon the bad guys use being loudly branded with the Stark Industries logo, so we’re well-primed for his transformation when he returns home.
Stark builds a primitive suit of powered-armor, powered by some experimental technology that also happens to be keeping him alive, preventing injuries he sustained in the attack from becoming fatal. Using the bulky armor, he escapes his captors in the sequence we all saw in the trailer and decides, upon returning home, that the company he runs, the company his father founded, has gone astray. It’s a little hard to swallow the idea that Stark might be so naive as to think that his weapons weren’t falling into the wrong hands all along, but the movie does establish early on that he’s a dilettante, so probably we’re expected to believe he’s been too busy womanizing to notice what’s going on at his own company.
Deciding to abandon weapons manufacture, Stark comes into conflict with Obadiah Stane, ably played by Jeff Bridges. Stane was the man who ran Stark Industries between that period when Stark’s father, whom we never meet, died and Tony was old enough to take over. This is all breathlessly explained to us in an elaborate power-point presentation. Well, it was that or an extensive series of flashbacks.
Stane is obviously more interested in the financial bottom line than whatever morality has suddenly gripped the titular head of the company and here I felt another, more important opportunity was missed. I wished for, and I thought I detected in the beginnings of the movie, a more substantive human drama here. I thought initially that Obadiah Stane was a legitimate father-figure for Tony. The man who replaced his father, the man who helped raise him, helped him become a man. So that, when they finally come into conflict, it’s a tragedy. The kind that tears us apart as we watch these men, themselves torn apart by what they feel they have to do. I genuinely feel that with another 30 mins, they could have done that.
But while perhaps earlier drafts of the movie included this, and maybe that’s what I was detecting; their presence long-since written out, it doesn’t play out that way. Stane is obviously the bad guy and he goes from “corporate doosh” to “megalomaniacal supervillian” in about 20 seconds. Since we know it’s coming we’re less damaged by the whiplash. We’re slavering for a big fight, a big confrontation, and Stane vs Stark gives it to us.
As Stark Industries comes to grip with this new direction, Tony decides to build a more advanced version of the armor that let him escape his captors in the desert. We get about a 20 minute sequence of Tony Stark iterating through several designs of the not-yet-named Iron Man armor which, on paper, I doubt I’d have believed in. “There’s no way the audience will sit still for this,” I’d have said, where I only reading the script. Yes, there’s a lot of humor there, and it all works, and elaborate jokes are set up that pay off in spades much later, and almost literally everything in Stark’s laboratory has a personality, something I thought was very clever and well-executed. But even still, we paid to see Iron Man and we don’t get him until about 90 minutes into a 2 hour movie.
Robert Downey Jr. is the reason this sequence works. He’s so much fun to watch act and be this character and interact with all the little pet-like widgets in his lab that what might have made audiences impatient for some action and some face time with the actual armored hero in the title, instead engrosses us. This movie doesn’t commit many sins but any such indulgences are forgiven because of the syngery between Tony Stark the character, Iron Man the script, and Robert Downey Jr. the actor.
We also get a delightful performance from Gwyneth Paltrow whom I’ve always liked, as Pepper Potts (really?), Tony Stark’s Girl Friday. While the plot of this movie is well-built, it’s the characterization of Stark, Potts, and Tony’s best friend James Rhodes, that really makes this movie fly. Paltrow and Downey Jr. are delightful to watch. Their dialog is crisp and funny, the actors are in their element and we brighten up every time they’re on screen together.
Terence Howard is largely wasted as James Rhodes, since he gets very little screen time, but foundations are being laid. There’s a franchise to build and if that means you have to take a back seat for this movie, well you suck it up. Howard is a huge fan of Iron Man and everyone involved with this movie, including the audience, knows what’s going on when, as Stark in the last version of the Iron Man armor takes off, Rhodes looks at an earlier iteration hanging on the wall and says “Next time…”
This nod to the comics tells us that in the next movie, probably because of Tony’s alcoholism, Rhodes will be forced to put on the armor. Because Downey and Howard have real chemistry and they really do feel and act like two very different people who are nonetheless close friends, the brief time we see them together works well. Casting. Like the relationship between these two men, which will grow and come to the fore in the next movie, Tony Stark’s alchoholism is also deftly set up. I’m not sure, if I didn’t already know what happens to Tony, that I’d have thought anything of the fact that Tony is always seen drinking in virtually every scene. But, of course, I do know what’s going on.
The story is being told slightly out of order. In the comics, Tony becomes a drunk, loses his company, then battles Obadiah Stane. In the movie, he battles Stane, then presumably becomes an alcoholic in the next movie.
There are a million little nods to the comics, watch as Tony and Obadiah battle on the streets of L.A. in front of the Roxxon Building. And Marvel was, it should be remembered, famous for creating The Marvel Universe, in which different superheroes appeared in each other’s comics, creating the idea that they all inhabited the same world. Well, as this is Marvel’s first official production under the Marvel Studios imprint, we get that setup. We meet a government agent, played by one of the guys from David Mamet’s repertory, and I was squealing with delight like everyone else when he rattled off the current words that make up the acronym S.H.I.E.L.D. And you must stay through the movie to the end, past the credits. I and my friends got to our showing too early and walked in to the credits of the previous showing, so we hung out and watched the last scene first, then stayed for our showing. It was, as you might expect, awesome.
The movie ends with the aforementioned confrontation between Stark and Stane. Jeff Bridges has never really played a bad guy before, to the best of my knowledge and is one of those actors that everyone loves and says “oh yeah, he’s an amazing actor, where has he been?” We don’t see him in enough movies. He does a good job here but I must admit than when he becomes the Iron Monger (a phrase used in the movie, but never to describe Stane’s armor) and starts trying to beat the shit out of Iron Man, something weird was going on. The movie was doing what the movie had to do, because there were rules to follow and an inertia to obey and we needed, we really needed a big fight between Iron Man and someone to wrap this movie up, but I couldn’t help wondering “What does Stane think he’s going to do if he wins?”
Pepper Pots (really?) says “Obadiah’s gone insane!!” Which indeed he has, but why? I couldn’t completely shake that as I watched them fight. There’s a moment in Batman Begins where Bruce Wayne, in costume, says “I’m Batman!” to a thug who asks what he is and I thought “you would only say that if you knew you were in a Batman movie.” But it’s the only moment like that in Batman Begins. Stane building his own suit of armor for the express purpose of destroying his own company, his career, and Iron Man, feels like the same thing. “Well, I’m the bad guy in an Iron Man movie, guess I better make a suit of armor and kill everyone.”
In spite of this, this sense of one note out of place in an otherwise fine orchestral performance, Iron Man is a pretty good movie, and one hell of a summer blockbuster. Tony’s transformation from aging callow youth to a man seeking a purpose-driven life is handled well. Strangely the only false note was the line where Downey says “I finally know what I have to do.” In an otherwise excellent scene, where Pepper Potts (really?) refuses to help Tony build a machine that will likely result in his own death, and Tony confronts her with the fact that she’s helped him his whole life when all he did was screw a series of beautiful women and build weapons that killed people but will not help him now when he’s finally decided to do the right thing (now that is one hell of a good scene) it’s the one line that falls flat. Robert Downey is a great Tony Stark, but he’s no Christopher Reeve and in the pinch cannot do what Reeve did. Sincerely deliver the “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” bit.
Downey said “I’d sign on for 15 more of these” and it’s obvious why. It’s a great character for him, it’s going to make him a lot of money, it’s just good enough to be proud of, and these people, we can tell, had fun making this movie. It’s going to be one hell of a summer for Summer Movies, and this is a great blockbuster opening.