Not super enough...
danand82 - wrote on 09/07/08
Iron Man is the first feature to be made entirely by Marvel – a significant gamble which has paid off to the tune of over $350 million worldwide after just two weekends. For a non-sequel from a fledgling company that is very impressive. It also bodes well for Marvel's second project, the reboot of The Incredible Hulk – due in cinemas in June. Comic book films are big money spinners now but the success of a new series is predicated on the entertainment value of the central character – and in this way Hulk and Tony Stark have similar problems. They just aren't super enough...
Iron Man starts with an unnecessary flashback structure, presumably to ensure some loud action in the first minute or two. Tony Stark (played with now-familiar post-rehab gusto by Robert Downey Jnr.) is the embodiment of the capitalistic, jingoistic American ideal. He has become absurdly rich designing weapons and, more significantly, has no moral qualms whatsoever about the negative effects of his work. Stark is not a nice man. Except he is. This potentially realistic and complex dualistic behaviour is lost in the film's failure to choose sides. This leads us to the first of many problems; what are we, the audience, supposed to think of Tony Stark? He is presented as bright and brilliant; a charming man of the people but also as a womaniser and something of a warlord. This initial confusion is nothing compared to what happens later on. After a brush with death and a subsequent escape (which is accomplished in an ultraviolent fashion) he holds a hippie press conference and vows to stop making weapons for good.
This turnaround is simply too fast and, as presented by Downey Jnr. with his usual twinkly-eyed glazed look, has none of the power or angst we have come to expect from comic book origin stories. His parents are not murdered before his eyes, nor is his home world destroyed. He does not belong to a mutant race of outcasts nor does he inadvertently cause the death of a loved one. He simply comes across as a petulant child who is bored with his old toys. Instead of using his money to work for peace or help starving children he creates a powered battle suit and flies around the world blowing things up. Exactly how this is 'protecting the people he put in harm's way' is slightly beyond me. And the hypocrisy of the double standard is appalling – it is only when Stark realises that (Shock! Horror!) his weapons might be used against American troops that he begins to examine his conscience.
Don't get the wrong idea, there is nothing particularly obnoxious about Iron Man. The performances are light and breezy and the script is a cut about the blockbuster norm; littered as it is with a particularly dry sense of humour. The central performance from Robert Downey Jnr. is the film's saving grace but also its' Achilles heel. His presence is enjoyable on the one hand but, in my opinion, also detracts from the credibility of the whole endeavour. You keep expecting him to wink to camera and finally admit it is some kind of extravagant Saturday Night Live parody. That Jeff Bridges is really being played by Will Ferrell and Terrence Howard is actually just a cardboard cutout. I still don't get Terrance Howard. I've yet to see him raise a palpable, or even guessable, emotion in his roles – his face seems oddly expressionless and his voice almost unbearable. He gets some good lines in this film but sounds like he's reading them from an auto cue. But I digress. As once off summer entertainment this kind of self aware film-making is bearable but I simply can't see the film becoming a much loved classic in the future.
So, what does the film have going for it? The special effects are extremely impressive, with the integration of cg and live action especially so. The set pieces, when they come, run the gamut from almost boring to genuinely thrilling. Stark's armoured escape from captivity is suprisingly dull while some of the later aerial combat sequences are really good fun. Once again though, the use of sfx has positive and negative effects, particularly in relation to the ending. The final confrontation has become a serious problem for the superhero film. In days of yore, special effects were difficult, so typically the best the film had to offer was saved for the ending. Now, every scene is liberally slathered with computer generated gunk. The result is explosive fatigue, a run of overpowering sequences which forgo actual affect for special effect. A dozen astonishingly well-rendered high octane scenes does not create a cumulative effect. There is a new cinematic law of diminishing returns. If the same level of frankly awe-inspiring cg work is applied to the hero designing and dressing in his suit then what is left for the audience to look forward to. What makes a special effect special these days? The ending of Iron Man is another clunky computer-aided brawl, where narrative is suspended for minutes at a time while increasingly unrealistic pieces of metal and flesh beat on each other. This moment is reminiscent of a dozen other recent movie resolutions: from Hellboy to The Matrix Revolutions, all equally unengaging. Without vicarious involvement – a sense that a character we can identify with is in danger – it just amounts to so many polygons.
Perhaps I've been a little harsh on Iron Man. I can't honestly say I was bored by the experience but I do feel its' major mis-steps are a symptom of a greater malaise at the heart of contemporary blockbuster cinema. If, however, your cynicism has not quite reached the pathological degree mine has you could well have some fun with Iron Man. Robert Downey Jnr., Jeff Bridges and Gwyneth Paltrow are amiable enough company (even if the latter seems as though an errant puff of wind would shatter her into a million pieces) and the director, Jon Favreau, keeps things moving at a reasonable pace. Stark's character arc is minimal (more of a character stroll really) but his near trademarked delivery of PG-13 witticisms should be enough to hold your attention. Just.