Monday, May 05, 2008
The Anti-Superhero Flick: Iron Man
In terms of superheroes, my loyalty has long lain with Batman, the greatest superhero of all time. I love Batman because he isn't technically a superhero, he's just a rich guy who watched his parents get murdered and decided he'd like to try and make the degenerate world a little better. The beautiful thing about Batman's plight is that his efforts don't necessarily make much of a difference. But the effort, the action he takes is the only thing that keeps him from going insane.
So when Iron Man opened last week and threatened to steal the Bat's thunder this summer, I was skeptical. Iron Man? Really? What's the premise, anyway? I pictured lots of cars blowing up and Gwyneth Paltrow's stilted smile and would've much preferred to have watched another episode of "The 15 Most Violent Acts," on E!
But I was persuaded by my male company last night, and A.O. Scott's favorable review in The New York Times. At ten o'clock I was queuing up outside the theater, milk duds in tow.
To some extent, all superhero movies (especially those released in the summer) ride the surf of hype and excitement oftentimes into success. The theater was packed, everyone was talking about what they had heard about the movie, both men and women were discussing their love of Robert Downey Jr. The previews aid to the success of the film as well: the new M. Night, "The Happening," the new Indiana Jones, and of course, "The Dark Knight." You could almost here the audience sigh when Heath Ledger's ghoulish joker danced across the screen.
And finally, the movie begins. In Afghanistan.
Afghanistan. Immediately I tensed up. Who will Iron Man be fighting, the Arabs? Is this a Republican made film? Where am I? The movie spends a good bit of the first hour avoiding the answer to any of those questions, just like Tony Stark (Iron Man's real guy persona) avoids any accountability in his family's weapons business. But that will all change, for Tony, and for us.
The success of this film is largely due to Jon Favreau's directing and Robert Downey Jr.'s acting. Tony Stark is not a caricatured excuse to get to the real deal, the hero. Downey's Stark is embedded in everything about Iron Man, down to his heart made of . . . well, here I would say steal, but I'm not entirely sure what his heart is really made out of. Robert Downey Jr., in many ways, is the only actor I can see in this part, because he embodies the anti-hero, both in his career choices and in his personal life. As a reformed bad-boy, Downey has the chops to feel this transformation from selfish prick to "hero" in a believable, genuine way. There is a scene where he tells Pepper Potts, his assistant (Ms. Paltrow), that he hasn't lost his mind, he just suddenly knows what he needs to do, and he knows it's right in his heart. I imagine this is what RDJ must have told himself when he finally decided to kick his long-standing drug habit for good.
Iron Man is the perfect balance of action and emotion. In some ways, it cow-tows to the standard super-hero flick, but in many ways it veers off course, allowing its hero to make very human mistakes. The supporting cast of characters do a great job billowing about Robert Downey Jr., giving him the space to steal the show. (For instance, some of the funniest moments are between RDJ and his technology. Think Luke Skywalker and R2D2). And, interestingly, Favreau almost completely avoids the over-the-top lady friend element with Pepper Potts. Pepper is no Vicki Vale, that's for sure. Paltrow's Potts is as bland as burnt toast, and, in my opinion, the only failure of the film.
But in conclusion, Iron Man was surprisingly well done. It was everything a superhero movie is supposed to be but just a little bit more . . . I found myself laughing and falling in love with Tony Stark. His sense of right and wrong becomes clearly defined by the end of the film, unlike many of his fellow superheroes, who find themselves confused and misled to the dark side. While others might find this kind of optimism repellent, it felt almost revolutionary to me . . . as if Favreau, in turning the tables on what classifies a hero, has invented a separate genre for a thinking and feeling cad who, when running into goodness, decides to commit. Now, there's an idea.