Friday, June 26, 2009

IRON MAN WEEK #6--In Which Movies Succeed Where Comics Fail

It's occurred to me, looking over the previous installments of Iron Man Week, that you would never guess that Iron Man is actually my favourite character, considering the amount of bitching and whinging I've been doing over the course of these. I began to ponder that if I were to wrap things up with today's entry, I damn well better end things on, well, if not a high note, then at least something vaguely positive.

Like, say, a particular favourite Iron Man issue or something.

Trouble is, they're a bit thin on the ground. Good Iron Man stories, like the defining moments of his canon, aren't as many as you'd think, considering he's been in constant publication for 40 years and all that. And, as DC fans can attest, all too often, one finds that they like their favourite comics characters in any format except the comics they're actually appearing in, which is as sad a commentary on anything as you're likely to find.

That said, today's topic is Iron Man. The movie. Otherwise known as the one time in the last 10 years Iron Man hasn't totally sucked wind. Very much the Goldfinger to The Dark Knight's Casino Royale, Iron Man is a film that exemplifies the best of and revels in the conventions of the superhero movie and treats the whole thing as the coolest thing ever (Compare with Dark Knight, which blew up the superhero movie as we knew it and showed us heretofore unexplored potential)

It didn't always look like it was going to work--It was an origin story, which in most cases (and in Iron Man's case in particular) origin stories are usually the dreariest and least interesting parts of a superhero's makeup--the best ones usually get it over with as soon as possible and get on with the whammo blammo action as well. Moreover, once again we're stuck with Tony Stark=wounded heart trope, but the movie ears some points by justifying it with probably-bullshit-but-gets-the-job-done-science and getting a little metaphorical weight out of it, and Pepper Potts is in the movie as well. Couple that with the fact that the powers that be had been doing everything in their power to make the character obnoxious and unlikeable for so very long . . .well, it didn't look good.

And, if I'm honest, there are parts that don't work. Pepper Potts is a nonentity, Jim Rhodes is annoying and generally useless (Terence Howard's performance doesn't help matters--he's fussy and awfully lacking in gravitas for someone who's supposed to be a military man) Pepper Potts is her usual ciphery self and the whole fight with Stane and the Iron Monger feels a bit . . .perfunctory.

But it also does two things very right, an this helps paper over the less successful bits.

For one thing, Favreau and company have an excellent handle on Tony Stark's character. The slight but very beneficial change to his origin (that one of his own fragmentation bombs is what nearly kills him) adds a certain thematic unity to his story that, surprisingly, no one had really exploited up to now--having been a victim of what he's been selling to everyone opens his eyes and reawakens his conscience.

But more than that, the film posits that Stark is brilliant . . .but lacks a natural focus for his talents. When we first meet him he's successful, but a little rudderless. Everything's come so easy to him that he seems almost bored with his life.

But he soon gets the kick in the pants he needs. To save his life, he miniaturizes the Arc Reactor and creates and artificial heart--a feat so amazing that Stane's people can't replicate it later. He's compelled to be brilliant to save his life, and that structure of action and Stark's reaction to it defines the shape of the movie.

The need to escape his captors without building weapons for them leads to the creation of the Iron Man armour. And it's his assumption of the responsibility for the weapons he's built that leads him to refine and improve the Iron Man armour. Now that his eyes are opened, and the weapons that he though were making the world safer are having the opposite effect, he is resolved to take responsibility (we're back in Armour Wars territory again) whatever the cost to his life.

"I shouldn't be alive," Stark says in a justification for what he's doing. "Unless it was for a reason."

The other success the movie pulls off is by picking the right guy to play Stark. I made the comparison to Goldfinger above (basically because it's universally considered to be the "perfect" Bond movie for how it hits every detail of the formula) and surely as Sean Connery holds that movie together with a relaxed sense of cool, so too does Downey as Stark. That he makes such a compelling hero without the obvious "badass" tics we've grown so used to (and actually, in several moments plays the fool) without losing the audience's sympathy is actually quite an amazing trick, when you think about it. The tone he sets, actually, keeps the movie fun without degenerating into Batman & Robin-esque camp.

I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention the film score (I'm kind of a soundtrack geek) I'm a sucker for the whole motif of "have various tracks foreshadow the main theme here and there and when the time comes for the Crowning Moment of Awesome, bang in the full theme in as loud and triumphant as possible," which works to great effect here when Iron Man takes off in the Mark II the first time & again when he takes out the terrorists in Gulmira in the Mark III.

The film managed to be more than the sum of its parts, and if it ultimately doesn't measure up to Dark Knight it's because it's a bit conventional by comparison isn't it. But, when weighed against the fact that getting an even passable Iron Man story in the comics in which he originated takes something on the order of a Herculean labour, it's quite an achievement on its own.


Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

An illuminating analysis, as always. :) The one thing I would've liked to see at the end was your own opinion on the character, why you find him appealing, what correctives might be applied nowadays to set Iron Man on a more stable path...

Kazekage said...

Illuminating, but holy hell--you'd never realise Iron Man is my favorite comic character, would you?

Hmm . . .maybe I'll do a bonus essay then--as that's a good idea. There's some of my opinions on what makes Iron Man work in this entry in particular and a few interspersed in the retrospective, but . . .yeah, guess it would be an idea to do that, wouldn't it? Look for #7 soon!