Skip to main content

I never said you were a superhero.

Iron Man
(2008)

(SPOILERS) The Marvel-verse clearly owes Jon Favreau a huge debt. As much as Kevin Feige in his own formative way, he’s the man who set the tone for their cinematic endeavours. You only have to look at the okay performances of the other contenders in the then-forthcoming Avengers to recognise Favreau had found a particular alchemy that the rest, at the time, lacked. It was he who pushed for not-so-long-since persona non-grata Robert Downey Jr to take the lead (and there hasn’t been a piece of Marvel casting so assured since, with the possible exception of Tom Holland), and his looser style that allowed the characters to breathe, ensuring a solid, workmanlike structure didn’t feel restrictive. Yeah, then he went and made Iron Man II, but nobody’s perfect.


Favreau isn’t a great director, mind. He’s a proficient journeyman – no shame in that whatsoever –  but he has several crucial tools in his arsenal that put him ahead of many of his peers. Firstly, as an actor, he’s a dab hand with eliciting strong performances. Added to which, he has no fear of special effects. Where he isn’t necessarily so hot is with story, something you can see to a greater or lesser extent with all the pictures he’s made since Iron Man made him a hot property (Iron Man II, Cowboys and Aliens, The Jungle Book). At his worst, his naturally relaxed style can lead to a sense of bloat and lack of focus (Iron Man II, ironically Chef, which many saw as a response to being critically hauled over coals with Cowboys). At his best you get Iron Man, where the majority of the movie works like gangbusters. It’s only with Marvel’s Achilles’ heel, the final act, that the picture comes something of a cropper, and even then, it’s through simply being rote rather than rubbish.


As with Hulk, Iron Man had undergone in the region of two decades of development hell by the time it finally entered production (including directors Stuart Gordon and Joss Whedon, and actors Nicolas Cage and Tom Cruise). The screenplay wasn’t even finished during filming, hence more nerves for Marvel (a lead they weren’t sold on, dialogue changing by the day). The process had seen Favreau cherry pick the best of two different scripts, with a polish by the reliable John August, but it’s difficult to tell if the improv of the leads (and Downey Jr in particular) was really a result of this or Favreau’s approach generally (“if Robert Altman had directed Superman”). Jeff Bridges called it a “$200m student film” (it cost $140m, but $200m is the common price tag these days), but the freedom of performance and interaction is only possible because the chosen structure is tried and tested.


Well, to an extent. The most obvious path would be a complete change on the part of the protagonist, from unscrupulous arms dealer to saint. Instead, we have a cake-and-eat-it transition from amoral self-involved narcissist to moral self-involved narcissist, one with a healthy disrespect for authority to boot; the seeds are here for the shift in attitude Stark will undergo in Civil War, but right now he’s on the other side of the fence. Indeed, the picture’s one that juggles an apparently overt shift that perhaps isn’t as resounding as we’d like it to be. “Peace means having a bigger stick than the other guy” has only really moved from Tony giving the United States Corporation a free hand to making himself the arbiter of what’s appropriate; he’s the one wielding the bigger stick now, and implicitly right in his course based on what a really bad guy would do (Bridges’ Obadiah Stane). Most superficially demonstrating this “Do as I say not do as I do” ethos is that the first thing he does on returning to “civilisation” is get a McDonalds.


Black Panther co-writer Joe Robert Cole, who helped deliver possibly the blandest superhero yet committed to celluloid in T’Challa (and that’s including Captain America) recently offered his thoughts on whether Tony would be acceptable in the current environment, one with “this very vapid, unintelligent President… Think back to Tony Stark, him being douche and being okay. I wonder if the response would be ‘Oh, it’s cool that he’s douchey and disrespectful to women… That’s fine’. I think we’re at a different place. I think that it’s a better place”. Given the moribund characterisation in Black Panther, that less than insightful analysis doesn’t really surprise me; Tony’s entire arc is that of a flawed individual required to grow as he continues to make mistakes, and accordingly, his every facet isn’t intended as a positive (he was an unabashed playboy, one who eventually forsook the lifestyle). Of course Tony Stark’s cool (which doesn’t mean everything he says or does is cool); he’s an enormously charismatic character as played by Downey Jr – superhero movies haven’t seen the like before or since – and alas, T’Challa’s an unfortunate vacuum by comparison. So, if you’re keen on the elimination of nuance and movies delivering anodyne product, yeah, we’re in a better place; I’d much rather not have to make a choice between having interesting characters at the heart of superhero movies and ones ticking boxes on the progressiveness scale (get a strong writer, and they can be both), but both Black Panther and Wonder Woman are deeply average pictures, however laudable their achievements in changing perceptions of movie-going demographics.


Favreau’s movie has a habit of telling you one thing while doing another, much as the ramifications of later Marvel movies don’t quite seem to follow through (the corruption of SHIELD in The Winter Soldier, for example). It’s evident that arms dealing is bad, and dealing arms to terrorists is badder, but by moving the Vietnam of the original comic to Afghanistan, a choice of convenience, the picture is guilty of complicity in perpetuating the myth of the justified War on Terror. Indeed, the best, most effective sequences come from Tony fighting this foreign foe, rather than the corporate overlord who makes hay from conflict. It’s essentially the kind of lazy villainy that gives us the Libyans in Back to the Future, but unlike the guilt-free catch-all of Nazis in The First Avenger, it carries with it strains of racism and stereotyping.


That’s evidently why Professor Yinsen (Shaun Toub) is on hand to help Tony, serving the get-out of the filmmakers being able to say they weren’t racist because look. He not only literally saves the hero’s life, but also serves the function of the “Magic Negro” trope, displaying impossibly spiritual wisdom (“So you are a man who has everything… and nothing”) in the face of materialist ignorance. This is revealed to be a particularly cynical and arbitrary device in Iron Man, as Yinsen in sacrificed in the most blatant and unnecessary fashion to buy Tony time; in other words, he’s immediately expendable so Tony can get on with his own, more important story.


The device of repositioning the man who has everything as the underdog is well-worn and so entirely succeeds, helped in no small way by Downey’s ready wit. It’s such a thoroughbred that it could be retooled for Dr. Strange eight years later and not feel repetitive (unlike Stark, Strange does undergo a dramatic change of personality). Favreau delivers the escape with due care, ensuring that it’s imperfect by design (the prototype War Monger) and execution (Stark shoots high before plummeting low).


The best staging comes with his subsequent revenge on his captors, however, when Yinsen’s village comes under threat (because there needs to be a personal stake, or they wouldn’t matter?) This sequence stands up with the best action Marvel has offered, and crucially the effects still look dynamite (Favreau took care to make the cuts between the CGI and physical suits seamless). He can blast Afghani terrorists with impunity, of course, but when he encounters the US Air Force (continuing a superlative extended set piece), resulting in a mishap to one of the F-22 Raptors, he saves these innocent war mongers.


Tony’s necessary surgery, inserting an electromagnet that keeps shrapnel from entering his heart, is about as grisly as a PG-13 will allow, and Favreau shrewdly opts to dilute subsequent sequences with humour, such as Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) helping Stark connect up the MKII arc reactor. It does, nevertheless, beggar belief that he can survive with a hole in his chest so massive that Pepper can all-but stick her arm in there and fiddle around (and while we’re being practical about these things, it’s a wonder he doesn’t need to be permanently on drugs to prevent infection and rejection).


Tony effectively becomes a cyborg as a result, and the Stan Winston suit design is just great (a rare case where it’s arguably superior to the comics). I suspect it’s no coincidence that the two most popular big screen superheroes (the other being Spidey) have the most effectively transposed “costumes”. As such, Iron Man is the positive, friendly face of Elon Musk’s nefarious transhumanism agenda (tellingly, Favreau and Downey met Musk prior to production), one oddly shaded by his converse sounding the alarm about the AI threat. Albeit, Tony will ultimately buck the trend of relying ever-increasing reliance on technology, wrestling back his own body and personal space, at least to a degree. Iron Man’s sharp relief is a more tangible, immediate threat, however: the overt weaponisation of Stark’s invention by Stane (“Do you really think that, just because you have an idea, that it belongs to you?”)


This is where Marvel’s villain problem first announces itself, right at the outset of the decade-spanning endeavour. There’s nothing to complain about regarding Bridges’ performance; quite the contrary, he’s the perfect combination of charm and duplicity (it’s also one of his last roles prior to becoming fatally infected with mumble mouth). Stane was originally intended to become the villain in the sequel (we have, ironically, Mark Millar to thank for nixing that, having voiced his complaints about the Mandarin), moved up when the Mandarin fell away. The problem is, there’s nothing original or engaging about Stane’s scheming; he’s out of the Lex Luther school of corporate mischief making, and by the time he suits up as the Iron Monger he’s been well and truly reduced to B-grade villainy. That functionality is evident in the climactic fight too, a better rendered version of the unending finale of Robocop 2 as two metal men slug it out and the more diminutive ultimately perseveres.


Other elements have gone through evolution since, but remain essentially the same, positive or negative. Rhodey is essentially a massively boring character, whether played by Terence Howard or Don Cheadle (just as his War Machine suit is an uninspired derivation of the Iron Man costume). As such, the sequel beckoning “Damn. Next time, baby” could only possibly titillate the comics faithful.


In contrast, Pepper Potts ought to be a bit of a loss, the faithful assistant nursing unrequited love for her boss, but Paltrow and Downey bring such chemistry to bear that she’s one of the highlights of the movie whenever on screen (all the Gwynie deniers will no doubt strenuously disagree). Paul Bettany’s J.A.R.V.I.S. is likewise a treat, entirely deadpan and earning regular laughs accordingly.


One thing I can’t get on board with is SHIELD, though. Even when used deliberately as a plot mechanism in The Winter Soldier, the fact of them fails to fascinate, so being expected to appreciate Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) popping up throughout, unable to reduce his organisation to an acronym, is no kind of treat. Coulson is ultra-bland (I never understood the appreciation for the character, or why his death was supposed to mean anything in Avengers – which, of course, it didn’t, thanks to the Whedon magic wand), and as much as the group may serve to whet appetites for the eventual Avengers Initiative (cue: the first in an albatross of post-credits sequences), in and of themselves they’re dramatically inert.


Also of note: a decent score from Ramin Djawadi, but what you remember, alas, is the insistent AC/DC and Black Sabbath, neither of whom really grab me. The Stan Lee cameo represents one of the series’ best gags full stop (“You look great, Heff”), meanwhile. Iron Man’s secret is that it’s a solid movie elevated by its key casting decision and intuitive design nods. Neither of which is to be underestimated, but the plot is only ever serviceable and unremarkable. It doesn’t need to be anything more to introduce the character (busying it up further would likely have led to diminishing returns): it works, it’s agreeable and it’s all about the star-making Downey Jr turn; he’s given the role and runs with it, doing what he does best, which is a ball of relentless, whip-smart energy and creativity. The lesson is, you can also apply all those elements without a solid backbone plot-wise, and you get Iron Man II. That said, the sheer confidence with which Stark concedes the traditional secret identity trappings is the perfect capper to Iron Man, announcing that, however many beats this makes that are readily recognisable, it’s hero is fundamentally distinct. And remains so a decade on.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998)
An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar.

Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins, and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch, in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whether the audience was on …

Old Boggy walks on Lammas Eve.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.5: Kidnapped  (aka The Mysterious Stranger)
Kidnapped continues the saga of Chuffnell Hall. Having said of 2.4 that the best Wodehouse adaptations tend to stick closely to the text, this one is an exception that proves the rule, diverging significantly yet still scoring with its highly preposterous additions.

Jeeves: Tis old boggy. He be abroad tonight. He be heading for the railway station.
Gone are many of the imbroglios involving Stoker and Glossop (the estimable Roger Brierley), including the contesting of the former’s uncle’s will. Also gone, sadly, is the inebriated Brinkley throwing potatoes at Stoker, which surely would have been enormous fun. Instead, we concentrate on Bertie being locked aboard Stoker’s yacht in order to secure his marriage to Pauline (as per the novel), Chuffy tailing Pauline in disguise (so there’s a different/additional reason for Stoker to believe Bertie and she spent the night together, this time at a pub en route to Chufnell Hall) and …

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).