Friday, January 16, 2009

Iron Man: Celebrating Boys and Their Servo-Powered Toys

The high point in Iron Man comes when Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark, testing out his racing-striped, servo-powered second-generation Iron Suit for the first time after turning his hand boosters from innocent propulsion mechanisms into a destructive weapon, takes flight like a jet and swoops into town to blow up a tank with casual insouciance. You see, a bunch of innocent villagers in some remote Afghan village are being massacred with his own company's weapons, and it's driving him bonkers. So bonkers, in fact, that his quest to give up making weapons in order to give mankind the wondrous, peaceful Iron Suit has to be momentarily abandoned so that he can turn the damned thing into a weapon and go wuppass on the bad guys who are terrorizing the innocent women and children of the village.

The movie goes out of its way to make the murder-to-pleasure ratio of this scene pretty high. The baddies are massacring villagers with gleeful remorselessness and Tony's suit hums, whirs, and shoots missiles like a chrome-plated, wi-fi enabled Lamborghini as he pummels them effortlessly and takes out hostage takers with surgical strikes. This is the wet dream of military techno-geeks: high impact killing of evildoers with zero collateral damage. And anyone who has second thoughts about the political fantasies of such cool killing has to be just a little bit discomfited by the enjoyment that this scene engenders.

Which is to say, this is a movie that wants to have it both ways: that wants to make a big deal about being more righteous than the war mongers, while getting its ya yas enjoying the righteousness of high-impact killing machines.

But that may be the only thing wrong with this otherwise fine excercise in enjoying the full impact of your high-def, big-screen TV. Iron Man is in fact the first time that Marvel creator Stan Lee has taken over the filming of his Avenger series of action heroes (The Hulk, also out this past summer, was Lee's second such film). Lee plans to release more superhero films under the Marvel studios label: in fact, he's on a project to create the entire Avengers series (which is what the mysterious five minute appearance of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury is all about). If you aren't a comic book geek, what this basically means is that we will see more Marvel comic character movies (purportedly including an Ant Man movie starring comic Scotsman Simon Pegg, and culminating in a full Avengers movie led by Captain America). Iron Man is just the beginning of an entire popcorn series.

As such, it's a good start and demonstrates Lee's more intimate understanding of comic book narrative and emotional arch than many of those who have tinkered with Marvel characters before. Unlike other attempts at elevating comic book fare into some kind of filmic art (one thinks of Ang Lee's botched version of The Hulk - which more likely than not drove Lee over the edge to create his own film studio to do this stuff himself), Iron Man seeks to be nothing more than witty good comic-style fun, with straightforward direction and little stylistic pretension. What's important here is that we (the geekish public) understand Tony Stark's inner geek and get to feel why having a flying metal supersuit and the interest of Gwyneth Paltrow is so damn hot. And generally we do: thanks to A-list acting by Downey Jr and directing and dialogue that blessedly avoids the usual action clunkers to deliver some nice ironies (such as Stark getting blown up by his own missile, or a sad, dog-like animated arm that finally proves its usefulness). And since the final confrontation destroys the appropriate number of automobiles and buildings, we get the usual satisfying superhero denouement. Generally, in this formulaic comic movie, all goes according to plan.

And so I must confess, as a geek myself, the movie delivers a satisfying action experience, despite its repulsive simplistic politics and glorification of violence (and despite a bit less than unique villian to do battle with at the end). I suppose in a way Lee seems to be taking standing up for the necessity of violence - as if to say that it's an essential aspect of the comic narrative. Like his aversion to high-brow tinkering with his comic characters, this movie may be a bit of the backlash against the Bush-era/low-brow backlash. And though I'm not completely convinced that all this isn't just as damaging to young impressionable minds as any of the non-self-aware, non-ironic movie violence routinely found in lesser movies, I'll still be eagerly awaiting the next installment of the Avenger's new matinee series.

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