Now that Iron Man is almost out of the theaters, it is finally time for me to sing its praises. At the Schreiber house, we are often a month or more behind everyone else concerning popular culture, which is our way of disrespecting it. We pretend to be apathetic, but keep up on it, kind of, so as to be behind by just enough to be irrelevant.
So, I’ve come late to the Iron Man party. Usually, when people shout at me or beg me to go to a movie that they swear is the best superhero movie they’ve ever seen, I mumble some excuse and slowly back away. And yet, after finally seeing this movie, I find myself on the other side, shouting at people, and begging them to go see this movie. Maybe it’s because the hero is over 40 and acknowledges the myth of redemptive violence. More likely, it is the neato, super-cool Iron Man body armor suit.
Robert Downey Jr. plays the hero, Tony Stark, who is anything but a hero at the beginning. He is a smarmy playboy inventor, who owns a weapons manufacturing company his father built. In public, he’s an enthusiastic supporter of weapons of war that make us safe, which belies his disinterest in anything other than women, booze and fun.
In a nice contemporary touch to superhero movies, he is kidnapped in Afghanistan by guerillas who own a lot of weapons his own company produced. He manages to escape by building a prototype iron suit that flies, and hence, develops the functional ability to be a superhero.
Deft writing and superb acting combine for an unusually believable comic book movie. No spider bites, radioactivity, or cosmic rays bequeathing superpowers here, and there is no moment (with soaring music in the background) where he decides to become good, or get over his fear of bats, or whatever. Downey plays him smarmy and arrogant at the start, and crazed but focused after he realizes that more and better weapons don’t make us more and better safe, because they eventually find their way into the hands of enemies. His transformation into a more or less good guy is organic and natural, as is everything else in the movie.
Also, the big fight scenarios were remarkably restrained for a comic book movie. The world is not about to blow up, Gotham isn’t about to be gassed, the world does not need to be spun backwards to reverse time. The Iron Man is content to save a village in Afghanistan, and fight against a copied version of his suit while imperiling only a small part of Los Angeles. Even so, the action itself was intense and gripping, especially when fighter jets are involved.
Downey’s masterpiece performance has been rightly praised from all corners of the earth, but I enjoyed Jeff Bridges just as much, as Stark’s business partner, Obadiah Stane. He remains so genuinely cheery and unflappable during the many insults and complications brought about by Stark’s initial negligence, that you know he must be either a really good guy or a really bad buy. Bridges plays it perfectly, not giving anything away until it becomes obvious which side he is on.
For those of us who really want to be pacifist but can’t always muster up the courage, big dumb action flicks are always guilty pleasures. So, it is refreshing to see the usual comic book formula of righteous violence challenged a little in Iron Man. I was afraid half way through that Stark’s pursuit of a perfected Iron Man suit was just going to be more of the same — we need a better weapon to kill all those previously better weapons, plus the bad people who now have them.
Predictably, that does happen in the movie, but at least this time there is acknowledgement that a cycle of violence exists. The Iron Suit isn’t the final answer to bad guys or violence. The suit by itself isn’t even a good thing – one person with this suit could rule the world, and it all depends on who that person is. Of course, this is always the comic book hero dilemma — will supernatural power be used for good or evil?
So, I appreciate that the movie acknowledges power and violence is itself problematic, even if it can’t do much about it as stay entertaining. Let’s face it, solving problems peacefully through negotiation and mutual understanding would make for an incredibly boring superhero movie.
That’s why these movies are such guilty pleasures. They are fun, but many people have trouble distinguishing the narrative of needing more, better violence from the reality of needing more, better diplomacy. Movies like this should be harmless, but when we have a president who dresses up like an imaginary flight hero to announce the imaginary end of real war, and then calls his political opponents “appeasers” because they are not afraid to talk to their enemies, the narrative of redemptive violence has sunk a little too deep into the culture.
Nonetheless, did I mention how cool the super-hero suit is?