June 18, 2008

"Iron Man"

From my review in The American Conservative:

In contrast to the manga-addicted Japanese, Americans don't actually like comic books much. Sales have been sluggish since the collapse of the speculator-driven collectible bubble in the early 1990s. The fundamental flaw of comic books is that by using pictures to dispense with time-consuming verbal descriptions, they quickly chew through countless plot permutations, exhausting all but the most obsessive readers.

What Americans like instead, as the $100 million opening weekend for the entertaining "Iron Man" shows, are comic book movies. Two hours is the right amount of time for the tragic death of the parents of the superhero, his dawning awareness of his powers for good and evil, a bruising fight with an older supervillain in the skies over a megalopolis, and an epilogue setting up the sequel.

Granted, Hollywood is scraping the bottom of the comic book barrel with Iron Man, a name more famous as the title of the thudding heavy metal classic by Black Sabbath. (Was the song inspired by the superhero? Nobody seems to know -- you try getting a straight story out of an elderly English rock star about what he was thinking in 1970.) Yet, Iron Man's obscurity didn't prove a marketing problem because, as Canadian journalist Colby Cosh has noted, "The public adores the familiar, even if all they know is that it should be familiar."

Iron Man was dreamed up by Stan Lee in 1963 as Marvel Comics' answer to DC's Batman. Like Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark lacked superpowers, but he made up for it by being a billionaire playboy inventor a la Howard Hughes. That was an era of engineer heroes, such as Hyman Rickover of the nuclear navy, Wernher von Braun of the space program, and Kelly Johnson of Lockheed's Skunk Works. In contrast, today's most celebrated tech tycoon is Apple's Steve Jobs, whose specialty is simplifying user interfaces (while the boring manufacturing is subcontracted off somewhere overseas).

Rather than fighting crime like Wayne, Stark's focus was foreign policy. While prototyping a new Stark Industries weapons system for our advisors in Vietnam, he was captured by "red guerilla tyrant" Wong Chu, who put him to work building a superweapon for some nefarious purpose. Stark, though, secretly banged together a robot exoskeleton (probably inspired by the mobile infantry powers suits in Robert A. Heinlein's 1959 novel Starship Troopers) and smashed his way out.

The movie is transplanted to Afghanistan in 2008. The villain isn't the Taliban (there are a lot of Muslim potential ticket-buyers out there), but a freelance warlord who has assembled a multicultural gang of mercenaries from across the Eurasian steppe, from Hungary to Mongolia, to rebuild the empire of Genghis Khan. (How using Stark's high tech weaponry to pillage one mud brick village in the Hindu Kush gets him closer to world domination isn't explained.)

In most action movies, the bad guys' henchmen are suicidally devoted to the cause, even if they are just in it for money. In a clever touch of realism in this consistently enjoyable film, however, the hired goons are just bullies who flee in terror from what looks like a man wrapped in pick-up truck bumpers.

Soon, the engineering genius is back in his workshop in his John Lautner-designed Iron Mansion in Malibu, building a more advanced suit to track down who is bootlegging his firm's weaponry. "Iron Man" is a refreshing throwback to the pre-virtual age when heroes forged tools out of metal, rather than just tap on a computer keyboard. It's the most loving tribute to machinery since James Cameron vanished.

Casting the twice-imprisoned Robert Downey Jr. as the hero was a risk because the leading man in a $186 million production must be insurable, and his work ethic should provide a role model for the crew. That's one reason Cameron made Arnold Schwarzenegger a huge star, even though he can barely speak English. Downey, in contrast, is blessed with the most nimble articulation of any American actor since James Woods. He could whip through Hamlet in three hours. Indeed, one of the more intriguing what-ifs of recent American theatre history was the drug-cancelled 2001 production of Hamlet, in which Downey was to be directed by his friend Mel Gibson.

Sober for half a decade, Downey remains the master of the throwaway line. Watch how lightly he tosses off his inevitable last line, "I am Iron Man," just before Black Sabbath's power chords clang over the credits.

Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and brief suggestive content.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

15 comments:

Potswain said...

In most action movies, the bad guys' henchmen are suicidally devoted to the cause, even if they are just in it for money.

Sad they've decided to ignore the Muslim menace: then you would have a group of thugs with a rational reason to be fanatically devoted to the cause to the point of death. OTOH, if the villains had some evolutionary reason to be true to the cause - such as the desire to spread their seed all over Central Asia, ala Ghengis Khan - that too would work.

Acilius said...

The fundamental flaw of comic books is that by using pictures to dispense with time-consuming verbal descriptions, they quickly chew through countless plot permutations, exhausting all but the most obsessive readers.

Steve-

This sounds interesting. What do you mean? Do comics, equipped with still pictures and text, "chew through" more storylines than do media which use moving pictures and sound? If so, how and why? I don't doubt you're right, I just don't get your drift.

testing99 said...

Steve, Americans used to LOVE comics and comic books. Well, teen age boys because the stories were all about teen agers or young men low on the social status totem pole, nerdy and shy, whom girls had ill-concealed contempt for and the jocks tormented.

They were of course, often created by shy Jewish outsiders and loners, with artistic and writing skills that weren't in demand in High School.

What happened is that Comics slowly devolved after the speculator boom of the early 1990's into a very niche and expensive product aimed at men in their late thirties, and available only in specialty comic shops of which there are not many. Less than 2,000 nationwide. Only the "trade paperbacks" or collected story arcs are available in places like Barnes and Noble. There is not much money in comics, many properties are published simply to retain the rights (like Wonder Woman, which reverts back to the creator's estate if DC stops publishing).

Among Marvel fans, Iron Man is a well-known character, and as you point out has only one real superpower, that of building cool technology. His character is sort of throw-back, in that he's usually pitted against "the Mandarin" who has magic rings against Iron Man's unabashed Howard Hughes like love of technology and progress.

Anonymous said...

The first half of the movie was excellent, IMO. It's a little disheartening that they had to go for the old standby of the American corporate types being the bad guys, especially because in this case even greed wasn't a plausible motivation. What multicultural band of Eurasian Genghis Khan admirers is going to be a better customer for a defense contractor than the U.S. government? Even if the arms dealers were amoral traitors, there is no financial incentive for them to do business with warlords; the warlords can't pay enough.

Jeff Bridges looked a little like Wayne Dyer bald.

- Fred

Kevin said...

It's a fun movie. "I am Iron Man" is not Downey's last line, however. If you haven't seen it, stay through the credits for an additional bit of footage, setting up a sequel.

Anonymous said...

"...The title of the song was conceived by Ozzy Osbourne; As a child Ozzy would spray paint Ironman and Ozzy Ironman everywhere he went. Geezer Butler took to writing the lyrics around the title, but was careful not to make it about the comic book character so as to avoid a copyright infringement lawsuit."
(wikipedia)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron_Man_(song)

David Davenport said...

OTOH, if the villains had some evolutionary reason to be true to the cause - such as the desire to spread their seed all over Central Asia, ala Ghengis Khan - that too would work.

Isn't spreading the seed of the faithful the real gist of Islam?

Mild Colonial Boy, Esq. said...

I think the song is more likely to be "based on" the Ted Hughes' children's story 'Iron Man' ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Iron_Man_(novel) )

Half Sigma said...

I thought the movie sucked. The whole plot can be fit into three sentences: (1) Good guy builds Iron Man suit; (2) Bad guy builds Iron Man suit; (3) Good guy and bad guy fight it out in their Iron Man suits--guess who wins?

Anonymous said...

(1) Good guy builds Iron Man suit; (2) Bad guy builds Iron Man suit; (3) Good guy and bad guy fight it out in their Iron Man suits

What's so bad about that?

Anonymous said...

Sort of like life...

1. Get born
2. Some stuff happens
3. Die

Citizen Cane it's not, but getting to three is more fun than most movies.

bkult the world is round said...

The Black Sabbath song starts with Ozzy Osborne intoning "I am Iron Man!" in a robotic voice, so either the film has copied the song or the song has copied the comic.

Anonymous said...

In contrasting present vs past celebrated tech tycoons you left out the more important contrast between Jobs (Dell, Case, etc) and previous tech tycoons: Jobs has no technical training or abilities - he is fundamentally a marketing/sales guy.

Today, Tony Stark would be a smooth-talking trust fund blesse MBA who wouldn't know the inside of a lab from a Star Trek movie set.

Thus has the world shifted.

Anonymous said...

"the leading man in a $186 million production must be insurable, and his work ethic should provide a role model for the crew"

I seem to remember Michael Caine saying years ago something along the lines of; he knew he wasn't the greatest actor in the world but he always turned up to work on set, on time, in the morning and didn't throw tantrums over the size of his trailer. The message being directors and producers knew they could count on him not to hold up production.

Anonymous said...

For everyone complaining about the bad guys not being straight up and up Muslims, the terrorist organization was called "The Ten Rings", a reference to one of Iron Man's enemies, the Mandarin. Like a lot of Marvel movies, its a nice setup for the next movie, and a nice little fan service. As another side note, one of the Mandarin's powers was mind control.