So close as I can tell, Hollywood doesn’t really like doing superhero movies. Back when I reviewed Transformers, and, for that matter, back when I reviewed Knight Rider, I pointed out that the Transformers and KITT both came off more as props than as characters. What Hollywood is interested in is characters and situations, and superheroism is really just a category of special effect. Consider a movie about two former lovers who meet again in the midst of dangerous circumstances, and there’s a corporate sellout who is antagonistic. This movie has special effects. Now, if those special effects are a dude in tights flying, the movie is Superman Returns. If the effects are a tornado, it’s Twister. Okay, that’s not the best example, but you get the idea. Far as Hollywood is concerned, superheroism isn’t what the story is about; it’s just a framing device for the special effects. (Now, this can be contrasted with the martial arts genre, as I’ve also seen The Forbidden Kingdom recently. There’s a movie where being capable of chi-magic is not simply a prop, but is really what the story is all about. Now, I thought it felt a bit silly, but maybe that’s just because I’ve been trained by Hollywood) They don’t want you to think in terms of “It’s a movie about a giant monster” or “It’s a movie about giant robots” or “It’s a show about a talking car.” Cloverfield was a movie about young, frightened people surviving a disaster in New York, and it had a giant monster in it. Transformers is a movie about a dorky boy and a hot girl surviving a disaster in middle America, and it has giant robots in it. Knight Rider is a story about a reckless womanizer learning responsibility while protecting a former lover from evil mercenaries, and it’s got a talking car in it.
Iron Man is a story about a hard-drinking, womanizing arms-manufacturer, who is forced to come to terms with the fact that there are indeed negative repercussions to selling dearly weapons after he is gravely wounded. And it’s got a flying armored war-suit in it.
2008, Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges
Anyway, hit the jump for the spoilers, but even if you don’t, if you’ve somehow managed to avoid knowing this: FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, STAY UNTIL THE END OF THE CREDITS.
The story opens with
Lockheed MartinTony Stark, rich alcoholic arms dealer getting — y’know what, this bit is in the trailer. Frankly, everything but the actual climax itself that you need to know is in the trailer, so I’ll be brief where I can.
Anyway, you know this bit: Tony’s been captured by Generic Middle Eastern Villains in Afghanistan. A flashback conveniently takes us to a brief presentation explaining how Tony Stark is an exceptionally brilliant guy who runs the weapons company founded by his late father (who was one of the inventors of the nuclear bomb). His business partner is Obidiah Stane, who we know instantly is evil because he is (a) bald, (b) the guy who ran the company from the death of Stark’s dad until the younger Stark came of age, and is therefore a Grand Vizir archetype, and (c)named Obidiah. Stark gambles, has words with a reporter who accuses him of being a merchant of death, explains to the audience, through her, that making weapons is actually good for world peace, then beds her.
The cute reporter wakes up alone the next morning, just in time to see Stark’s really cool house, which prompted Leah to comment, “I want one of those.” She does this while not wearing pants, which elicited the same comment from me, and is escorted out, into minor character status by Tony’s personal assistant, the tragically named Pepper Potts.
The cute reporter will reappear to deliver the occasional plot coupon, but will not be a major character or love interest because, cute though she is, Pepper is (a) The Girl Friday archetype, and (b) Gwenneth Paltrow, and therefore wins.
We also meet Tony’s chatty, British voiced computer, who Leah thinks would have done a better job than Val Kilmer at KITT. We’ve also met by now the Air Force liaison to Stark Industries, who is so unimportant to the story that one gets the feeling that during writers’ meetings, they just referred to him as “Stark’s Black Friend” (Though I have a suspicion that should they go to franchise, he will eventually play whichever of War Machine and Iron Monger is the guy who’s just like Iron Man, but black and beige instead of red and yellow)
Anyway, Stark gives some speeches about how using weapons is the American Way.
I’m going to point out at this point that, unlike Leah, I never much cared for Iron Man. In the world of Superheroes, especially in the Marvel world of angsty superheroes like Spider-Man, Tony Stark is the Superhero who sold out to The Man. In fact, he didn’t even sell out. He is the Man. Iron Man is sort of Marvel’s answer to Batman: just a normal guy who makes up for his lack of super-powers by being disgustingly rich, and applying his wealth to heroism. He’s not super strong, super fast, or able to climb walls. But he’s got a freaking suit of armor. But that’s pretty much where the parallels to Batman end. Batman’s a vigilante. Iron Man is basically a government contractor. Bruce Wayne maintains peak physical condition. Tony Stark drinks like the freshman girl who lived across the hall from me junior year who got carted off on a stretcher twice in one week while the EMTs gossiped to each other about her having had the highest BAC on record. Batman actively resists authority, even actively trying to overthrow the oppressive government of the dystopian future in The Dark Knight Returns. Iron Man becomes the poster-child for the government’s side in the Marvel Civil War.
And indeed, Tony Stark is an easy man to hate. He beds, then summarily dismisses — and not even in person, but rather via his assistant — the cute reporter. He drinks too much. He speaks gleefully about weapons of mass destruction. He doesn’t seem to care in the slightest about the deaths he causes. He’s chipper and upbeat about war. He misses an award ceremony because he’s got a hot hand in a dice game. In short, Tony Stark is kind of a bastard.
But he’s the kind of bastard you just love to watch.
Tony wakes up, a prisoner of the Ethnically-Evil thugs (I noticed that they do make a point that these thugs, who turn out not even to be the actual big bads, are not politically or religiously motivated, but are just megalomaniacal. I assume this was a touch of political correctness), and with a new accessory: he’s got to lug around a car battery which is wired to his chest. He took some shrapnel in the attack, and only an electromagnet embedded in his chest keeps it from piercing his heart. His co-prisoner fashioned the device, for some reason not having any unpowered magnets which wouldn’t require him to lug around a car battery.
After being shocked, shocked, to find the
Lockheed MartinStark Industries logo on a bunch of weapons being passed around the terrorist camp, Stark is ordered by his captors to build them one of his latest WMDs. Instead, Stark builds himself a miniature magic free-energy device which he can plug into his chest to replace the car battery. It would, hint hint, power Stark for a lifetime or two, or “something big for fifteen minutes”. Then, he decides that, with death likely to only be days away, what he’d really like to do with his remaining time is cosplay Fullmetal Alchemist and makes himself a suit of armor. Stark breaks out, busts shit up, and escapes, trashing his tin man suit.
Safely rescued, Hollywood decides that Stark is a bit too capitalistic for a big budget movie, and has him forswear the barren road of making weapons, and orders the arms manufacturing division of Stark Industries shut down, to instead focus on exploiting magic free-energy devices, like the one in his chest, and its big brother back in the lab, which isn’t cost effective, but looks kind of cool. Obidiah Stane, being evil, wants none of this, and tells Tony to lay low while people freak out about him trashing the company. Jim Cramer of CNBC’s Mad Money advises everyone to sell their Stark Industries stock, prompting suspicions that this movie was filmed before March 11, when Jim Cramer lost a lot of people a lot of money by shouting that it was crazy to take your money out of Bear Stearnes, which proceeded to completely collapse over the next few days. The scene probably doesn’t have its desired impact any more.
So, having decided to forswear the barren road of weapons development, Tony decides to make himself a new and better suit of armor armed to the teeth with all kinds of weapons. At no point does it occur to him that an unobtanium-powered electromagnet keeping the shrapnel out of his heart is, just possibly, not the best of all possible treatments for his injury. Also, as a womanizer, isn’t it going to be inconvenient explaining the big glowing circle on his chest all the time?
At this point, I’m going to identify one of my points of evidence that Hollywood is not really into superhero movies:
1. Every Superhero Movie must be an origin story. Specifically, it must take at least 2/3 of the movie for the superhero to actually become the superhero. Ideally, we should not see the hero in full costume until the climax. Preferably, no one even uses the superhero’s name, at least until the end.
Spider-Man is an origin story. Batman Begins is an origin story. Heck, Transformers is an origin story. So is The Hulk and possibly The Incredible Hulk too. And Ghost Rider. And Daredevil. And, somehow, Electra despite the fact that she was already in Daredevil. And The Punisher. For team-superheroes, interestingly, you don’t need to do an origin story per se, instead, you do the origin of an individual character, showing how they came to be part of the group, as X-Men did with Rogue, though if you’re the Fantastic Four you can still do an origin story. Now, I’m not all that well versed with comic book superhero tropes, but if my memory serves me correctly, in print, they usually don’t start with the origin story. They start us out right smack in medias res, and let us start caring for the character, and then they go back and do the origin story. (It is entirely possible that I am simply mistaken on this point). In Iron Man, we get to watch Tony create Iron Man thrice. In fact, just about the only thing anyone does in this movie is to build super robot armor. Tony builds himself the Mark I suit. Then Tony builds the Mark 2 suit (which is going to turn out to be whichever of Iron Monger or War Machine is Iron Man’s Black Friend). Then Tony builds the Mark 3 suit. Then the (non-religious, we promise) terrorists reassemble the Mark I suit. Then Stane builds his robot suit. Then we get to see some robot fighting.
Now, it is a testament to just how awesome this movie is that I just sat here and told you that, for the better part of two hours, we get to watch Tony build Iron Man suits, and yet I still maintain that this is the bestest superhero movie in decades. Intermixed with a few comical injuries resulting from his various attempts to master flight, Tony upgrades his warm glowey heart-enhancement. Not into something that would render him able to survive independently in the event something were to happen to his batteries, but rather into a warmer and glowier chest batteyr, which he has Pepper install for him, firstly because it isn’t, as it turns out, a good idea to perform open-hearty surgery on yourself (The easy part was taking my brain out [2 pts]), secondly, because Pepper fondling Stark’s heart is a good visual metaphor, and thirdly, so that Stark can tell her to discard it, not being sentimental, and she can respond by bronzing it instead, which he will eventually find heartwarming.
Between hard drinking and having Obidiah warn him that the board isn’t going to stand for Stark Industries getting out of the WMD business, he has time to fly the Mark 2 Iron Man suit out to the edge of space, whereupon he ices up and nearly crashes. This is largely an excuse for him to come up with using a gold-titanium alloy for the next revision, which will solve the icing problem, and make him red and gold, instead of looking like a Cyberman.
Ever since I started to study television and movies with a critical eye, I’ve found that, with very little effort, you can predict a good 90% of what’s going to happen in a show. Ghost Rider was especially bad about this, with me calling the last scene of the movie in the third scene. What bothers me the most these days is that conflict so often feels artificial, not an extension of the characters and situations but rather “Movies without conflict are boring, so here’s some.” This is largely why Leah and I are the only two people in the world who didn’t like Superbad. For me, the litmus test for whether or not a movie is good is not that I didn’t see it coming: you can just have random shit happen for an hour and it’ll be unexpected, but not good. The litmus test is whether, having anticipated the resolution, it is still enjoyable to watch it play out. I know how Casablanca, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Citizen Kane end, and it’s still a pleasure to watch it happen. That’s real quality. If it’s only good because it’s unexpected, that’s, in the words of Mr. Rodriguez, “Interesting… No, wait; the other thing: Tedious.”
Now, all that said, I totally did not see one element of the resolution, and that’s what’s just happened. So far, the running count: 1. Spare Heart-battery; 2. Flying too high causes you to meet not Icarus’s firey end, but an icy one. 3. Stark Industries has a giant-size version of the Heart-Battery Unobtanium reactor. 4. Heart Mark One has enough juice to power something big for fifteen minutes.
So, Stark goes to a party. This is because Stark is a drunk and a womanizer, and we need a bit more sexual tension between him and Pepper, because this is a movie and we don’t have years and years over which to build something like this. Fortunately, the one night stand from act 1 has an important plot delivery, from which Stark learns that his company, which he’s been too busy building a superhero costume to pay much attention to, is still selling weapons, and, apparently, is intentionally selling them to terrorists. And Obidiah Stane is behind it. Because it’s always a sound capitalist decision to sell weapons to your enemies, because that’s profitable, unlike selling to the US government — of course, you can do both at the same time to make the maximum money because no one will catch you even though your logos are printed in huge letters on your wares. And if anyone catches you, you can always go on a murder spree to kill all the witnesses, as this will never spiral out of control.
So, with about fifteen minutes of movie left, Tony takes the proper Iron Man suit out for a spin, blowing up all the Stark Industries weapons that had been sold to terrorists, leading to that awesome scene in the trailer where Iron Man shoots at a tank and then walks away before it even hits.
He also destroys a US fighter jet, about which he is very sorry, but they really should not have been shooting at him.
Meanwhile, in the middle east, the terrorists round up all the bits of the Mark 1 Iron Man suit, and try to sell it to Obidiah, who is pissed at them for not having successfully murdered Stark as he’d hired them to do (The filmmakers clearly meant for this to be a surprise, because they think we are stupid). Obidiah whips out a gizmo he’d borrowed from the guys with the blue gloves from Serenity and uses it to paralyze the head terrorist while he steals the suit and has everyone slaughtered.
Unfortunately, Stane’s head geek is not geeky enough, and can’t sort out a way to fit a big giant unobtanium reactor into their new robot suit, which they intend to sell, but probably not to the US, because the real money is in funding terrorism. Well, okay, because Stane is just a universe-class douchebag.
Pepper gets sent off to steal some secret files from Stark Industries, because Tony wants a list of things to blow up. Pepper also finds all of Stane’s evil plans (Apparently, the filmmakers thought it would be a surprise to us that Stane was behind Tony’s kidnapping, as there’s a big reveal when Pepper turns on the universal translator and finds that the terrorist video we caught a second of at the beginning of the movie was them asking for more money. This is because the filmmakers think we’re too damned stupid to have figured it out when they told us outright) . Which would be awesome, except that Stane catches her. Fortunately for Pepper, a representative from the Society for Humorous Initials Evading Lady Deadness who Stark’s been avoiding for two thirds of the movie is nearby and provides a convenient distraction while she escapes.
Pepper really needs a better cellular carrier, because it takes her exactly the same length of time to get a call through to Tony as it takes Stane to walk to Casa de Stark and use his Blue Man Group device to incapacitate Tony. So as it turns out, all Pepper was going to tell Tony was that Stane was planning to kill him, so it’s okay that he missed the message, because Stane tries to kill Tony by yoinking out his heart-battery. While Tony tries to crawl down to his garage, Pepper calls his black friend (I promise that the fact that I can’t remember his name is entirely due to the fact that the film treats him like the “Token Black Guy”, not that I do. Also, it’s a funny visual to keep imagining Robert Downey Jr. doing the Stephen Colbert grin-and-point pose). He shows up just in time to not be of any help, as Tony has successfully handled the whole “In Case of Emergency, Break Memento From Your Secretary” thing and stuck his old heart-battery in his chest-hole. Far as I can tell, he shows up purely so that he can look approvingly at the Spare Iron Man Suit, so that existing Iron Man fans can get a chuckle. Both of them.
Pepper and the Super Hero Idiom Enhancement League of Dispatch break into Stane’s lab, where they don some red shirts and get killed by whichever of War Machine and Iron Monger isn’t Iron Man’s black friend.
2. In a Superhero Movie, the good guy must face off against someone with equal and opposite powers
Batman Begins versus Ras Al Ghul, who basically taught him everything he knows and therefore has the diametric opposite powers. Spider-Man versus Venom (or “Evil Spider-Man”). The Hulk versus Evil Hulk in the trailer we saw before the movie. The X-Men movies are basically just one example after another of “And here’s my equal and opposite team”: Wolverine pairs off against Sabretooth, who is evil and has cat-related powers; Pyro versus Ice-Man or whatever. I gather that had Superman Returns done better in the box office, he’d have been facing off against Bizarro.
I don’t think this quite gets it. It’s the Matrix Reloaded problem: The people who make movies think “Smith fighting Neo good. Neo fighting A ZILLION SMITHS better!” One Iron Man good. Two Iron Mans better. It’s cool and all, but at the end of the day, Good Spider Man fighting Bad Spider Man is really only different from, say, me getting in a prissy little bitch fight with some other computer scientist in scale. The great rivalries in superherodom aren’t really about “equal and opposite”: Look at Superman versus Lex Luthor (Strongest anyone anywhere, versus a mad scientist. Who is bald.) Batman versus the Joker (Ultrarational guy in peak physical condition versus a guy who makes up for being a bit on the frail side purely by being the craziest motherfucker since Samuel L. Motherfucking Jackson) . The Flash versus Slowpoke Rodriguez (Just kidding).
Anyway, now that I’ve got that out of the way — FUCKING IRON MAN VERSUS EVIL IRON MAN HELL YEAH. KICK ASS.
Specifically, Stark’s ass. Using his spare heart, it takes about 81% of his power just to fly from his house to Stark Industries, a trip which is apparently short enough that Obidiah Stane could make it faster than Pepper could place a local phone call to someone she’s got on speed dial.
Stane and Stark fight, with Stane showing callous disregard for life and trying such things as throwing SUVs full of orphans at Stark. This is because Stane is a capitalist, and we know thati t makes good capitalist sense to kill women and children, because if you’ve been *caught* in your plan to sell weapons to terrorists and murder your boss, you can make all that go away by just murdering as many people as possible. At some point, you’ll have murdered so many people, and done it so obviously, that not only will no one remember that you murdered: 1. your boss; 2. his secretary; 3. An entire government shadow agency; 4. An alternative-fuels powered bus; 5. An SUV full of orphans. Also, they won’t notice that you are now selling the EXACT SAME ARMOR SUIT you used to commit all these murders.
Stane has moved firmly into the “Just keep killing people, that will make it better” phase of villainy which increasingly drives me flat-out crazy.
So, I called Stane being evil, and I called Stane yoinking out Tony’s heart-battery, and I called Stark having to use his spare heart battery. What I did not call was the near-climax of the fight, where Iron Man takes off for the stratosphere, with Stane following close behind. Just as Stane prepares to kill Tony with his much-more-powerful-at-least-with-Stark-running-on-fumes super suit, Tony reminds physics that Stane’s armor isn’t hot rod red, and therefore is still susceptible to freezing over.
Which would totally be enough to finish him once and for all, except that we paid for these special effects, damnit, and we’re going to use them. Stane unhelmets Stark, because they also paid for Robert Downey Jr., damnit, and they’re going to use him. Stark has Pepper blow up his heart’s big brother, which for some reason doesn’t kill Iron Man despite his being right on top of it, but does kill Stane. Or at least removes him from the story. (I think the canonical answer is that Iron Man, being more fleet-of-foot ducks.
Stark’s batteries give out as we fade out on the scene, in order that we can wonder for a second whether or not Tony’s force of will is strong enough to overcome shrapnel in his heart. Remember, this is hollywood, where asthma is an illness caused by being a wuss, and nearsightedness is a condition caused by being bookish and nerdy, and purity of heart literally means not allowing your heart to become contaminated by shrapnel. Which is to say that Stark is fine, aside from a sling on his arm. I mean, and he’s also still got to have a battery in his chest to keep his heart working properly.
The next morning, with the help of the government goon from the Society Who You Have Somehow Not Noticed Yet Acronyms Down To “SHIELD”, Tony has convinced everyone that there’s absolutely nothing to see here people, and it was all just a Training Accident. They’ve concocted a cover story about Iron Man being Stark’s body guard, though the only reason for this that I can see is “Well, superheroes always have secret identities.” It’s not like Tony has a family to protect, or like he’ll somehow be less of a target for villains if he’s just Iron Man’s Boss and not Iron Man. It should be needless to say that Tony goes off-script at the press conference and tells the world that, yes, he is Iron Man. It’s not needless, though, because, as I said, Superheroes have Secret Identities. So, kudos.
And that’s the end of the movie. Nothing else to see. The end. Really. Promise.
Okay, just kidding. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.
These guys must be pooping money, because they paid to have Samuel L. Motherfucking Jackson show up for a cameo after the credits, where he shows up uninvited at Stark’s house to ask him if he’s interested in hearing the good news about
Jesus Christ The Avengers (Who are kind of like the Justice League of America, but in the Marvel Universe, so angstier and less gay).
So that’s the story of Iron Man. I think maybe the reason this superhero movie seemed so much better than other superhero movies is that I don’t really care all that much about Iron Man. Which means that my feelings and Hollywood’s feelings were well-aligned; they don’t care much about the actual superhero. Tony Stark is a great character, and he’s who they really care about. I can do what Hollywood does: I can sit back and say “Man, this is cool character drama which has nothing to do with superheroics. And now, because it is the end of the movie, let’s see some freaking sweet action sequences. This movie contained, on the face of it, insufficient Iron Man, at least in the sense that, had this been a Spider-Man movie and contained the amount of Spider-Man that this movie contained Iron Man, I would have thought this movie contained insufficient Spider-Man. But it’s not really insufficient Iron Man, because, frankly, I don’t care much about Iron Man. A little bit of Iron Man is really all I needed.
So, what does this say about the way forward for Superhero movies? Well, make them about second-tier superheroes. People who aren’t all that huge in the public mind.