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Monday 5 May 2008

Review of Iron Man

by Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person

Directed by Jon Favreau

Written by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway (based on characters created by Stan Lee, Don Heck, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby)

Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow

Lawrence Person: How much are you willing to turn off your mind to avoid irritation over the various idiot plot devices in the movie? That's how much you'll enjoy Iron Man. If you think the phrase "He's gone insane!" is an all-purpose Get-Out-Of-Plot-Stupidity-Free card, you'll have a grand old time.

Howard Waldrop; When I heard they were going to do Iron Man, I said "That's interesting." A mid-level Marvel hero, not up there with the Big 3 — Fantastic Four, Spiderman, The Hulk — of the '60s, not even the Big 3 of the '40s — Captain America, Submariner, the Human Torch. Not quite the equivalent of the '40s The Vision or The Angel, but above the level of the '60s Giant/Ant Man or The Wasp. "It'll be okay," I said "as long as we get to see the original suit."

In the comics, the original suit lasted one issue: it was an iron-grey great hulking robot-looking thing, like something out of a dime-novel that should have been coal-powered. The next few issues, it was the same suit but colored yellowish-gold. A little later, Tony Stark went inventor meshuganeh and built a slim, form-fitting 60s-looking superhero outfit, and Iron Man became just another guy artists could draw muscles on.

The original story took place in 1963: Anthony Stark, armaments mogul gets captured by Commies, builds the Iron Man suit and It's Clobberin' Time. With a little updating, that's the start of the movie.

Stark's in Afghanistan, demonstrating new and better bangs for the megabuck, his Jericho missile, to the military. Faster than you can say IED the convoy coming back from the demonstration is ambushed by baddies: Stark finds himself with a chest full of shrapnel, in the hands of, we assume, Islamofascists, who want him to build missiles for them in the equivalent of the village smithy.

First thing, he builds a new, compact power plant, to replace the car battery a scientist (left over from the Mujahideen war?) has hooked to an electromagnet to keep shrapnel from migrating to Stark's heart. Then we go to the build-the-suit, clobber the baddies, escape plot. Except things don't go quite as planned and Stark, like Saul on the way to Damascus, is blinded by the light.

This, folks, is a comic-book movie About Something.

LP: Yes, it's About Something, but in order for you to get to Hollywood's usual, simple-minded War is Bad mantra (gee, thanks Hollywood, no one's ever brought that theme up before), you have to swallow numerous concurrent plot idiocies:

  1. Why do you have to fly to Afghanistan for weapon demonstrations, when you have no shortage of weapons testing ranges in the western U.S. that are more convenient for the people who actually sign the checks (Congress and Pentagon officials) to visit?
  2. Though they look like Islamofascists, the Bad Guys act like generic movie villains. Because having them actually mention Islam and jihad might, you know, offend people. And Hollywood has a spine of overcooked ramen, so they'd never do that.
  3. The Bad Guys want Stark to build him their own Jericho missile, which is a wide area, aerial-dispersed submunition system. Which makes it nearly-useless for a mountain-based guerilla group either practicing asymmetrical warfare or carving out its own little Badguyistan like these guys seem to be doing.
  4. Unless Stark Industries has purchased General Dynamics, it's hard to see how the Bad Guys would have the M1A2 tank Stark blows up with the original suit.
  5. Having that handy little fusion reactor in his chest to keep the shrapnel from his heart was pretty smart in the wilds of Afghanistan. But once back here, the U.S. doesn't exactly lack for open-heart surgeons willing to operate on billionaires.
  6. In an MST3K episode, one of Joel's inventions was the "Plot Point Radio"; every time you turned it on, the news story advanced the plot. Here they have "Plot Point Television" that just happens to talk about the horrible things Bad Guys are doing in that particular village Stark knows about. In truth, atrocities like that happen all the time in places like Waziristan, and networks don't even think of putting it on the national news.
  7. Jeff Bridge's character doesn't seem to do have a good grasp of risk-to-reward ratio analysis.
  8. Does Stark Industries really have a group of paramilitary flunkies willing to fly halfway around the world and execute people on an executive's command? What sort of benefits package do you need to offer to recruit people for that sort of position? "Sure I have to kill people on command, but my dental co-pay is only $5!"
  9. His office laptop has an automatic language translation widget that just happens to be able to translate spoken Pushtan (or whatever) at the push of a button, which is necessary for the requisite plot point. Yeah, I'm sure Google is going to release that any day now...
  10. "I've successfully immobilized you and taken your heart reactor. Now that you're helpless and you know I'm the villain, should I finish you off once and for all? Nahhhhh..."
  11. Etc.

Despite all that, I actually did enjoy the movie. And it sure beats the hell out of Ghost Rider.

HW: The acting is the best so far in any superhero movie. Robert Downey Jr. (looking more and more like the late Roy Scheider) is Tony Stark. You can see him wrestling with his past. He becomes fixated on undoing everything he's done his whole life, which causes Big Trouble for the board of directors of Stark Industries, led by Jeff Bridges (looking more and more like Rob Reiner). Bridges, one of our best actors, has, I think with this movie, decided to become one of our best character actors, and be busy in those roles til he drops in his tracks many many years from now. His character (and acting) are a mixture of the sophisticated and the good ol' boy, with an undercurrent of menace, no matter how much he smiles.

LP: Downey plays Stark to the hilt. Then again, who wouldn't love sinking their teeth into this role? Stark is half engineering genius, half testosterone-and-alcohol-fueled playboy billionaire with a thing or two to teach Bruce Wayne about wealthy excess. (Stan Lee even has a cameo as Hef.)

HW: Gwyneth Paltrow is Pepper Potts, personal assistant extraordinaire (not like the ditz of the comics). Tony before the conversion was a womanizer and single-minded; there's a scene at a charity ball where he treats Pepper like an actual human being and they dance. The way it's played, it seems to affect both the characters and the actors.

We get to see the original suit. Oh boy, do we. First as Tony and the other scientist make it, and Tony uses it to escape. Then we see the baddies gathering up the pieces (and the blueprints) after the original suit's been smashed during the escape. We assume we're going to see a sky full of flying armored Islamoterrorists descending on downtown Kabul...

But the movie's better thought-out than that: we get into global corporate-hood, playing fast and loose with the rules, and money doing the talking. All the while Tony's developing Suit Mark II, the form-fitting one.

There are some truly funny scenes while he's trying to get the suit to fly right; it's mostly in the camera set-ups; you're looking for an accident to happen in one direction, but they go in another. (Humor is used as counterpoint throughout the film — the conversion comes when Stark, running from the ambushed convoy has an RPG with a flechette warhead on it land near him: stenciled on the side is Stark Industries — talk about the one that gets you having your name on it — Blooie.)

There's some, but not too much, high tech weapons porn here, and CGI — here's the good part — at no time did I feel like it wasn't happening, or that they were showing off.

One small glitch: at one point, Stark is being chased by two F-22s: they've all gone supersonic. One plane starts firing at him with what appears to be a Vulcan Gatling gun. Unh-unh. As the Russians in MIG-21s found out in Vietnam — you're supersonic: you fire your cannon; the tracers and rounds go out a half-mile then seem to stop. Then you overtake your own gunfire. That's why they later slowed down, dropped the wheels and popped the braking flaps before they fired. Someone should have done a little checking with old self-shot-down pilots.

We get to see a 20-minute battle royal between an upgraded Suit I and Stark in Suit II — Brute design vs. technological finesse, Lots of stuff blows up real good.

LP: Most of my complaints have to do with the nature of the plot, but the direction is first rate, and the first 20 minutes fly along with just the right economy of motion. I also like the fact that Stark is actually shown doing engineering design work. Sure it's streamlined, and improbable, and nobody has such a spiffy holographic interface yet, but even that glimpse is more than you usually get.

Actually, of the recent spate of superhero movies, this is probably better than anything but the first two Spiderman and X-Men films and Batman Begins. And it has a skillfully assembled, tasty hard rock/heavy metal soundtrack, including AC/DC's "Black in Black" and Suicidal Tendencies' "Institutionalized", in addition to the obvious Black Sabbath tune.

HW: Pretty damned good for a movie about a 2nd banana hero. I can't wait for a movie in the Marvel Universe where some hero faces Paste-Pot Pete.

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