Friday, May 9, 2008

Iron Man

By Elise Nakhnikian

I once read a comparison of Jeff Bridges’ movies that said you could predict how well they’d do by the length of his character’s hair. If the hair was long, the picture would tank; if the hair was short, it’d do good business.

If short is good, bald must be better. And sure enough, judging by Iron Man’s $100-million-plus opening weekend, Bridges blows the doors off the box office when he gets rid of the hair altogether.

Of course, it’s really Robert Downey Jr.’s mojo in the title role that makes this movie work. A billionaire playboy and inventor based partly on Howard Hughes, Tony Stark lives way large, but he has no superpowers – just super-cool inventions. Iron Man tells the story of how and why he created his ultimate boy toy, a full metal body suit that gives the former war profiteer a new name and a new role as a crusader for justice, as he rockets halfway around the world to blow up his own warheads and rescue some of the people whose lives his weapons have torn apart.

Downey's not the first guy you’d think of to portray a comic book hero, but his emotional complexity, congenital cool, and smartest-kid-in-the-room vibe make him just the sad-eyed charmer to play this haunted genius.

Stark’s suit is like a wearable F16. When Stark puts it on, he can mow people down, do loop-de-loops at 15,000 feet, and deflect bullets better than Wonder Woman’s bracelet. It even has a built-in flamethrower. That's all pretty typical comic-geek wish fulfillment, but the surprise of Iron Man is how well it works even for liberal-humanist, non-fanboy types like me.

Director Jon Favreau developed the script with two sets of writers (first Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, then Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby, who adapted Children of Men for the screen). Their briskly paced, intelligently told story and Downey’s finely calibrated acting, tell you everything you need to know about the character without bogging down in backstory or boring exposition.

They also came up with clever ways of updating the story, which was created by Marvel’s Stan Lee in the ‘60s, mainly by switching the initial setting from Vietnam to Afghanistan. Taken prisoner by a group of insurgents and charged with building a super-weapon, Stark hammers out the prototype for his Iron Man suit instead and uses it to bust out of the cave where he’s being held.

Another smart change was the autonomy upgrade given to Stark’s right-hand woman, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). In the comic, Favreau says, Potts “fawns over him a bit.” In the movie, the briskly competent Pepper clearly adores her boss, but the adoration is mutual – and so is the façade of tart detachment that both wear to protect themselves. Their awkward tenderness and well written dialogue gives their scenes warmth and wit, and Paltrow sparkles and shines, sparkles and shines.

The always excellent Bridges is rock solid as Obadiah Stane, the long-time ally who helps Stark run his company. Bridges even looks bigger than usual, his bald pate exposing a surprisingly thick neck and broad shoulders.

Not everything works. The Afghan insurgents come off a little like extras from The Mummy, and the action scenes are hard to follow. When Stark defeats his nemesis, you can see more or less what he’s doing, but I had no idea why – though it’s probably best not to look too hard for logic once things like “arc reactors” start being invoked.

Early on, when Stark is nearly killed by his own weapons, Iron Man looks like it’s dangerously close to becoming Irony Man. Then it skates past that sinkhole, leaving us free to enjoy the vicarious thrill of watching cool people operate cool gadgets – and the comforting dream of a quick, clean exit from the morass we’ve waded into in Afghanistan.

We see Stark’s sexy-sleek metal suit from all angles: as it assembles itself smoothly around him, as his robot assistants help him take it off, as he spirals through space or touches down to wage battle. When the camera closes in on Stark’s face inside the helmet, he looks like one of America’s last cowboys, the astronauts who explored outer space around the time Iron Man was born.

It’s a resonant image, calling to mind those cockier and more innocent days and reminding us of how things have changed. So it feels right that Iron Man’s mission is to undo damage he has done, not to explore new territory. And it feels sadly inevitable that his own inventions – even his iron man suit, which his arch nemesis sees as the ultimate weapon – should be used against him. Because if our recent past has taught us anything, it’s that technology and Tec-9s create more problems than they solve.

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