Monday, May 5, 2008

Iron Man

I'm not a Marvel guy—somehow I was only exposed to DC and became a DC-head. Since I was always interested in the golden age DC heroes and they had something of a continuity with their modern heroes, so every now and again I could catch up on the old guys I so admired from DC. As I've matured (?) and considered some of life's seminal questions, I've pondered the differences between DC and Marvel; one of my favorite theories is that Marvel is a giant soap opera, spending more time dealing with the interpersonal relationships of its characters while DC's stories are usually big mysteries. Whatever the cause, given my real exposure to comics was when Marvel's X-titles exploded and you had to read 10 comics a month just to keep up with what was happening in that world, I never really got into them.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I have been reading the Ultimate line, originally so I could get a condensed history of the Marvel continuity with a modern perspective. I've thoroughly enjoyed them. I also read almost the entirety of Peter David's run on The Incredible Hulk, just because I love his writing. But that's been about it.)

But I have been fascinated by the idea of some Marvel characters. For instance, the Jekyll and Hyde aspect of the Hulk has always been interesting to me, though I expect a lot of that has gotten played out over the life of the comic. Part of what I appreciated about David's run on the series was how he tied some of that to psychology, which in turns was used in the original Hulk movie from Ang Lee, which I kinda liked. The Fantastic Four has always been really cool to me as well; the idea of scientists just exploring and facing off with the things they meet, finding themselves in a much larger universe than they could have imagined. The concept just fits seamlessly with the science fiction I so love.

And then there is Iron Man. Almost all of my information about him comes from selling the comics or passing them by in the stores, but from that limited perspective, he also seems to fit in an archetype of the pulp stories—an American inventor creating the perfect science fiction invention, a super-powered exoskeleton. Given the limited range of story-telling, clearly much of the comic would have to be about the personality of the hero as much as about his fights. This whole concept just intrigues me. That said, Mrs. Speculator and I have enjoyed the commercials and trailers we've seen, so we decided to take in the movie this past weekend.

It's a whole lot of fun. Visually pleasing and with allusions to make the fanboys happy, the movie still offers a lot to the fan of movies who does not necessarily know very much about the characters or their story. Of course, a lot of the interest in the movie is in Robert Downey, and how he pulls off the character of Tony Stark. There is not a lot of mention that a great deal of the movie is character pieces, and there are only really three action sequences, and one of those is pretty short, so Downey has tons of screen-time. And he pulls it off very well. Stark is at once brilliant and easily distracted, skirting the edge of ADHD. He attracts rabid fans, especially female ones, supposedly for his glib sexuality but also clearly in part for his money. These are all characteristics of Tony Stark in the comics, especially the Ultimate universe. I freely admit that I had doubts about Downey fitting the physical standard of Tony Stark, but I never doubted he would sell the character. Downey has apparently buffed up some, and we often see him in costume or in full suits, so we don't need to know about his appearance so much. And it really doesn't matter; Downey just sells the character totally, even adding nuance in his reportedly improvised scenes with his robotic assistants.

While there are other characters in the movie, they just don't have nearly the importance of Stark. Gwyneth Paltrow is efficient as Pepper Potts, pretty useless when on the screen alone, but holding her own in her badinage with Downey in the scenes they share. Jeff Bridges really chews the scenery as Obadiah Stane, which is pretty much de rigeur for the villains in the first of a potential franchise. It is startling to see him with his shaved head—but when you get used to it, how could there be any mystery that he is the bad guy? And Terence Howard walks in and out of the scenes fairly well as James Rhodes, and there are broad hints of his role to come, which anyone who knows Iron Man fairly well can tell you about.

There is also, of course, the Iron Man suit. The special effects teams did a wonderful job with the various versions of the suit, making it visually exciting while latching on to existing examples of technology as reference points. I find it a little ironic that Iron Man's flight is clearly based on the twin thrusters of the space shuttle, down to even the sounds the rocket engines make. The weapons that are deployed are fairly standard, though there are uses of the iconic "repulsors" that are interesting. But in the development of the suit, the movie really touches the soul of the comics story—lone wolf inventor makes good, even if the lone wolf is a billionaire with more development tools in his garage than in most weapons developers' entire inventories.

And so the movie, at its heart, is a coming of age movie: Stark must shed his rote rationalization of weapons development and grow his own world-view while losing (some of) his immature habits and responses. At the same time, we follow the classic science fiction invention story line, from the initial conception (usually at a time of great need) to its most current iteration. And along the way the inventor has to deal with unscrupulous partners and jealous competition, using his invention to overcome the obstacles to its further development. I'm especially reminded of the Skylark books by E. E. Smith in this regard.

I have a few nits, most of which would not bother non-comics fans, and I should probably let go, but I just can't. I wish Jarvis were the human butler he appears as in the comic books, rather than an AI companion to Stark in his home and in his suit. I recognize non-comic fans would assume he is a rip-off of Batman's Alfred (which he is), but he is such a wonderful character that I would have liked to see him in the movie to give Stark a more constant foil. I also grew tired of the many references to the mercenary/terrorist group Ten Rings. To any Iron Man fan, this is clearly a reference to the Mandarin, Iron Man's arch-nemesis, a villain with a rig on every finger, each with a different magical power. And finally where did the hole in the roof of Stark's house, from one of his first test flights in the suit, go? Sometimes it is there and sometimes not.

And that’s it. That is the sum total of my issues with the movie. Iron Man is a fun popcorn movie that does not challenge its viewers and pays respect to its sources. I'll likely see it again, when my nephew comes to live with us for part of the summer, and I won't regret the time or money spent on another viewing. I could even foresee it being the first Marvel movie in the Speculator household.

Oh, and if you don't already know, if you do go see it, stay until after the credits. A franchise is being established, one with a major name associated with it.

1 comment:

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