Sunday, May 11, 2008

Iron Man

It's clear that things are going to be far too insular or self-congratulatory or poorly thought out in Iron Man when Robert Downey Jr, as Tony Stark, shows the plans for a robotic exoskeleton to his cellmate in a terrorist-run prison. The terrorists have captured Stark, an ingenious weapons manufacturer and engineer, so that they can force him to build his latest weapon of mass destruction for their use, not the US government's. Rather than capitulate to their demands, Stark decides to use the resources they provide him to craft the super-suit that will allow him to defeat his captors and gain his freedom. The cellmate, a man of not inconsiderable intelligence, looks at Stark's blueprints and, rather than ask, "What is that? A robot?" or any of the myriad rational responses to Stark's farfetched, ludicrous idea, intones with great reverence, "Impressive." It's not that it's not impressive. Stark's suit, even when cobbled together under these less-than-ideal conditions, is, indeed, the stuff dreams are made of. But at this moment the cellmate, the stand-in for the audience who acts as Watson to Stark's Holmes, has already bought the bill of goods. And, thus, in this early moment, the film assumes that the audience has too.

One scene or moment like this wouldn't be a particularly notable problem, but Iron Man's script keeps making the same problem over and over again. After Stark escapes from this prison, destroying the first incarnation of his supersuit in the process, he returns to the United States with a newfound political outlook. He announces, to the chagrin of his business partner, played by Jeff Bridges, that his company will abandon weapons manufacturing (where it has found great success) and focus on more altruistic pursuits. This creates considerable hubbub and Bridges, protecting his stock, I guess, chafes at such idealism. The film is poised to be a philosophical battle (Altruism vs. Capitalism, do we need advanced weapons to protect peace? and other such conundrums) between the two characters, but then Downey, for reasons that seem murky at best, begins building another one of his suits and all loftier ideas dissipate under the too-familiar story arc of an emerging superman. It's disappointing for a lot of reasons, mostly because the script never follows through on any of its more interesting concepts, but also because the actions of the characters feel so rote and perfunctory. At the end of the film, a newspaper article's headline reads something like, "Who is Iron Man?" but because the film focuses more on the construction of the suit than its utilization for vigilante justice in the public sphere, it doesn't seem as if Iron Man has really done enough to earn such a moniker. Again, it's like the movie assumes everyone is so completely on board with what it's going about, it doesn't have to work as hard to bring you into the world.

The film, as you've probably heard, is almost a success based on Robert Downey Jr.'s performance alone. Miraculously teasing the line between irony and earnestness, Downey brings off both Stark's hostility to the lesser mortals who don't possess his wealth of knowledge and his yearning for meaningful human contact with considerable charm. But, more than this, Downey, somehow manages to exemplify the American mood of the moment, giving us a hero who's drunk on American excess but plagued with non-specific liberal guilt over the global cost of his toys. In the current political climate, it is an endearing fantasy to see a successful corporate fellow renounce the means by which he gained his wealth and speak the truth about his own complicity in the horrors he's helped bring about. Anchoring the film with this utterly enjoyable performance was a smart move; Downey's playing at a higher level than the script and his work is a rising tide that lifts the entire operation from middling to highly enjoyable.

Even still, the whole thing feels pointless and milquetoast. It ends with a drab showdown between Downey and Bridges who battle it out in respective exoskeletons, but there's not a whiff of invention in this sequence. Bridges has a clunky, oversized suit that moves slowly, so the fight is often like watching a turtle battle a balloon (without the hilarious novelty of actually watching a real turtle literally battling a balloon). It's especially frustrating as Bridges plays a fun, charming corporate slimeball and his declared motivations are a perfect mirror of Tony Stark's. His climbing into a similar suit immediately puts him in a weaker position than the hero, since it's clear that he doesn't have the intimate understanding of the technology that Tony Stark possesses. His only advantage, then, is one of firepower, and if there's anything audiences weaned on the lessons of Star Wars (which are, of course, many of the same lessons the U.S. learned from the failure of the Vietnam War) understand it's that there's always a two-meter exhaust port on the hulking technology that the lesser folk can exploit. The stakes in this fight feel so small, so insignificant that all excitement is drained from the procedings. I left wishing that the scriptwriters had taken a page from Robocop, a film whose characters were smart enough to understand that technology is not nearly as threatening as people. (I also wished that the film began at the very moment it ends, since that was the moment in Iron Man that felt new, exciting, and actually interesting.)

6 comments:

John said...

But man, mad props to that lumberjack beard on Bridges!

David Wester said...

The beard abides.

Anonymous said...

my sentiments exactly---
the movie was only good when he was helping out the afgan kid --that was fun --those 10 minutes were the best. the end was the same lame lame boring fight that we've seen over and over again -matrixy/robotic lame fight stuff.
after the half way point it was just a countdown to the end. the way the pak/afgan's are always muttering also bothered me --that was annoying and repetitive/silly. i actually liked GPaltrow who is usually boring --he forehead was on the job and working in overdrive. RDJ was endearing and not stiff but he's been playing this guy since weird science. i guess from all the hype i wanted it to be better, but it was way more fun than any of the spiderman movies.

-san

David Wester said...

The sour look that was constantly on the chief terrorist villain's face cracked me up. It looked like the direction to the actor was, "Okay, you've just pooped your pants and sat in the poop. Now you've stood up and you're uncomfortable. ACTION!"

Dougray Scott had the same look in Mission Impossible 2. It's this weird pouty frown, petulant and silly. I'm not sure what it's meant to convey except a third-grader's dissatisfaction.

David Wester said...

San - I'd also like to object that Spiderman 2 was more fun and a better film than Iron Man. At least it knew what it was about. DaFoe's cameo by itself was more goony fun than all of Iron Man.

movies forum said...

Iron man too had its own place and I don't think it can be compared to a movie that is mainly loved by children. Spiderman series is basically enjoyed by kids and Iron man series is amazing.