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Iron Man (2008)
Director: Jon Favreau

review by Jonathan McCalmont
Spoiler alert!
It's no surprise that it has taken Iron Man such a long time to make his way to our cinema screens. Unlike the angsty and driven Batman or the unapologetically Christ-like Superman, Iron Man has always had a whiff of trade about him. This is because Iron Man symbolises two deeply unfashionable concepts: firstly, the moral righteousness of capitalism, and secondly, the perfectibility of humanity through science. Given that kind of intellectual baggage, Jon Favreau's Iron Man was always going to struggle, and, despite some nice stylistic flourishes, that is exactly what it does.

Iron Man was created in 1963 as an anticommunist hero. His alter ego, Tony Stark was a billionaire capitalist and engineer who, after a brush with death that left him reliant upon an electromagnet on his chest to stay alive, devoted his considerable genius and resources to fighting the forces of communism in the shape of the enigmatic Mandarin and the decidedly red Crimson Dynamo. Forged in a cave in South East Asia, Iron Man always stood for the redemptory power of American capitalism as well as the idea that science could save not just the individual but the world as well. Unfortunately for Iron Man, neither of these ideas was ever likely to net him a glamorous new film incarnation, as, unlike existing movie superheroes, Iron Man is not a victim.

The problem facing the directors and writers who spent the 1990s trying to get Hollywood to sign up to big screen adaptations of superhero comics is that the comics' audiences, as large as they might have been, were never going to be enough to justify the kind of budget that superheroes demand. With $100-200 million on the line, the fanboy market was not enough. The films required mainstream appeal. However, many of the most popular comics were written at a time when values and demographics were very different, alienating potential audiences with their quasi-fascistic imagery and vast backlog of politically incorrect characters and plots. So, in order to make Hollywood take the bait, screenwriters and film directors turned to those superheroes whose back-stories were the most relevant to modern audiences.

Bryan Singer's X-Men and X2 set the bar for this new approach to comics' adaptation. Picking up on the fact that government mistreats the mutants, Singer painted the X-Men as members of a minority community oppressed for things that they can no more change about themselves than black people could make themselves white, or gay people can make themselves straight. The film even goes so far as to compare humanity's treatment of mutants to that of the Jews by the Nazis. By presenting the X-Men to us in terms of a social narrative of disempowerment and alienation, Singer was able to sell the idea of unaccountable and hugely powerful ubermensch to a public that has grown distrustful of such imagery. And the money flowed.

Modern superhero films manage to work by tapping into popular sociological narratives about how we come to be who we are. Two of the most popular narratives we use to describe ourselves are our membership in a community (I'm a Muslim/ African-American/ geek/ furry), and the pop-psychoanalysis of a compulsion rooted in childhood (..and that's when I knew I was going to become a lawyer!). What is intriguing in both of these cases is that they are narratives that are strongly favoured by less powerful social groups. This choice of narrative is quite deliberate as it re-invents the superhero as someone who has decided to try and change the world into someone who cannot help but fight to save the world. They are not sinister authoritarians using their greater power to enforce their will, they are victims and therefore likeable. A particularly extreme attempt by filmmakers to tap into an acceptable psychological narrative was Singer's Superman Returns, which changed Superman from the defender of "peace, justice and the American way" into a Christ-like figure who returns and proves to be a moral touchstone for people who had once turned their backs on him, and this is without mentioning Batman and Spider-Man who are both compelled to do good by traumatic events in the past. So where does this leave the billionaire tycoon and moral entrepreneur Tony Stark?

In Favreau's Iron Man, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) is a wastrel billionaire. The heir to an arms manufacturing empire, Stark squanders his genius on booze and supermodels, while his father's old friend Obadiah Stone (Jeff Bridges) does all the real work. When it eventually comes time for Stone to do away with the limelight hogging Stark, he does so by hiring the services of a Taliban warlord in exchange for a few shipments of arms (including the Jericho missile, a weapon whose destructive power is as awesome as it is indiscriminate). However, the warlord recognises Stark and double-crosses Stone, demanding that Stark instead build a missile for him. A plan Stark agrees to while secretly working on what will become the mark one Iron Man suit.

While in captivity, Stark is fitted with his electromagnetic chest piece, an act that is clearly symbolic of Stark growing a conscience as he realises the destruction his weapons wreak upon the world. Once escaped from captivity, Stark declares that his company will no longer make weapons prompting a 60-point drop in the company's share price and a period of extended seclusion for Stark during which he perfects the design for his suit and returns to Afghanistan where he destroys a Taliban army. Unfortunately, back in the US, Stone has caught wind of the existence of the suit and has built his own version, setting up an all-robotic battle royale as an ending.

Favreau cut his directorial teeth on small budget character pieces and we can see a real attempt to bring this sensibility to Iron Man. Indeed, the first two acts of the film are quite character intensive as Downey plays off first Shaun Toub, and then Bridges and Gwyneth Paltrow. The problem is that this film gives these actors surprisingly little to work with.

We never learn the reasons for Stark's original commitment to the arms business. When pressed, Stark comes out with little more than a slogan passed to him by his father, an example of Cold War thinking that preposterously suggests that as long as America has the best weapons then war will be eliminated. Indeed, Stark begins the film as an almost otherworldly character that seemingly has as little interest in the day to day running of his company as he does in the consequences of his business deals. This would explain why his commitment to arms manufacturing feels so insubstantial, but it creates a larger problem in the shape of explaining why it is that Stark is so unconcerned with the real world. After all, this is a man who not only has someone else run his company for him, he gets his secretary (Paltrow) to dump his one night stands for him. The result is that the character of Tony Stark the arms dealer never has any substance, so when the film tries to show him turning from being an arms dealer to a superhero, it never has anything to work with. Stark's character arc is as unbelievable and insubstantial as someone flicking a switch marked 'conscience'.

On a purely practical level, this is nothing short of disastrous as Favreau spends the bulk of the film on Stark and his relationships, resulting in the final showdown with Stone feeling rushed, underwritten and unbelievable. This is a similar problem to the one that faced Ang Lee's Hulk, where two-thirds of the film were spent posturing and saying very little before a poorly thought and directed fight scene was tacked on at the end to keep the fanboys smiling.

On a dramatic level, this lack of depth means that we never do get an answer to why it is that Iron Man fights evil. The closest we get is Stark mumbling something about responsibility and accountability before he rushes off to blow up some of his own weapons. Whether or not Stark would use his powers to solve a problem that was not of his own creation is really quite unclear. So while Iron Man may no longer be a symbol of the transformative powers of capitalism and science, it is not clear what he is instead. He's not a victim as he's ultimately responsible for the wrongs he seeks to right, but neither is he compelled to save the world by a traumatic event as he has shown no indication of wanting to do anything other than clean up his own mess.

Speaking of messes; that is exactly what Iron Man is. It lacks any kind of substance, either political or dramatic, and every minute shows the problems inherent in trying to shoot a film that boasts four different screenwriters drawing on characters and situations created by a further four comicbook writers. Its plot is undercooked as a result of an excessive focus upon poorly written characters with unclear goals and motivations. Even as an action film it fails to satisfy, as the action scenes are few and far between and lack the panache or excitement of those in other blockbusters. The film also weirdly makes the same mistake as Flubber (1997), in that much hoop-la is made of some effects-heavy invention while completely ignoring the fact that the inventor also appears to have created an incredibly sophisticated AI. But apparently a suit of armour that flies is far more interesting and important than unleashing the singularity.

All of which is a disappointment as Robert Downey Jr is still a remarkably capable and charismatic actor whose rebelliousness is a welcome change to all of those incredibly intense and earnest superheroes that have been gracing our screens of late. The film also bravely refuses to take the often travelled 'dark and gritty' path of 'adult' superhero filmmaking, opting instead to shoot on the west coast of America and filling every scene with sunshine, optimism and laidback glamour.

On the whole, Iron Man is a film that shows potential but is let down by a lousy script. The Marvel franchise's feel, as well as its choice of a slightly left-field director and leading man, show real promise on the producers, parts. We can only hope that a sequel will appear, as it would almost certainly be a good deal better than this.
Iron Man

read other reviews:
Invincible Iron Man
Iron Man vol.1



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