May 2, 2008

Iron Man (2008): B+

Solid and funk-free, Iron Man lovingly tosses the American ego about like a cat with string, mixing things up just enough to remind us that, when we get down to what's really important, there isn't that much separating traditional red state muscle from blue state radicalism (among other factors, least of which are the deceivers and thieves among us). All within the space of a traditional nuts-and-bolts studio summer picture, that is - the area in which Jon Favreau's very-capable Marvel adaptation succeeds most broadly, its barely-hidden subtext deliberately de-politicized in favor of more a more universally guided moral compass.

As pop entertainment, Iron Man has equal parts brain, brawn, and balls, but what it doesn't want you to know is that it has an equally bleeding heart. Titular superhero creator and billionaire weapons manufacturer Tony Stark (not so much played as executed by a bullwhip-like Robert Downey, Jr.) finds himself held captive by nomadic troops in Afghanistan, intent on using him as their latest tool in the War on Terror. If you've seen the preview, you know he breaks out of this prison, suited up and armed to the teeth like a prehistoric Frankenstein monster. What could have easily been just another dumb exercise in "nuke 'em all" idiocy becomes complex, then, when an escaped Stark declares his weapons factory closed in favor of more effective weapons of peace. Nearly blown to bits by his own shrapnel, he recognizes the dubious nature of war, its morals, and its victims: when the weapon system of his futuristic superhero suit distinguishes, with ease, between a group of terrorists and the Afghan women and children they're holding hostage, he may well be the most kick-ass Boy Scout ever to grace the silver screen.

Fitting, then, that the titular superhero character was first created in the early 60's as an all-around good guy patriot defending the world (first against communists, then more widely against evil) while furthering the advances of technology. He is U.S. industrialism's mechanical heart, one well satisfied with his role as king but one first and foremost intent on equality and order. If the final scene is any indication, Iron Man acknowledges this without hesitation, in a way serving to correct the knee-jerk boot in your ass superiority that evoked so many anti-American feelings post-9/11. With a virtually neverending supply of quips at his disposal, Downey almost brilliantly conveys this humbled elitism with equal levels charm, ego, and admission, his incredible downplaying scoring most of the laughs and his many stumbles reminding us that even our biggest of heroes had their days off. There's always room for improvement.

So then, temporarily switching out of cultural commentator mode, how does Iron Man stack up in the "entertainment" department? If I say it's entertaining and attention-grabbing, that's enough to convince many people that, yes, it's what I'm expecting from the previews and I feel confident having already decided to pay $8-$11 for it this weekend; I humbly state, then, that I require more from a film than it merely passing the time without my noticing. Nevertheless, props are due for the how the accomplished CG gets its due time in the spotlight without cramping more cardinal elements from moving forward (unlike the horrendous would-be spectacle of X-Men: The Last Stand), and in many such ways does the film exhibit learned craft and intuition in acknowledging what is most important, and when. Iron Man is fine entertainment indeed, an almost perfectly structured machine only sporadically and minimally undone by adherence to dramatic form (Stark's relationship with Gwyneth Paltrow's assistant Miss Potts, though bubbling with romance, is a weak link), which it executes with precise - if a bit roughly-hewn - skill.

Even speaking in just those terms, it's one impressive in its exhibited respect for the audience; it doesn't attempt pontification, but nor was I inclined to feel like a toddler as I do during just about any Marc Forster film. Yet whether we view things through specific "political" terms (a habit I'm glad to be mostly out of) or a more broadly social lens (i.e. how does this relate to real people now/always?), it can be stated that all good films are genuinely about something - not just plot points of who stole what money when or will they guy get the girl back this time, but themes and ideas greater than their isolated instances. This has always been the buried life support of genre films, those that knew how to inject an at-first-glance simple story with loaded emotional signifiers and passively explicit morality tales. Personality extends, then, to the film's hardware, from the all-but-fetishized Iron Man suit to Stark's penchant for an active (in more ways than one) lifestyle, equal parts wish fulfillment and emotional illuminator.

It is here that Iron Man nestles comfortably, far from the lofty reaches of Assault on Precinct 13 (one of the greatest action films ever made) but similarly empowering in its self-reflection, re-articulating American angst as altruism gone astray. As with Die Hard's faux-terrorists, Iron Man wages not against the politically oppressed (thus avoiding ideological quagmires likely beyond the reach of its genre tropes) but the purely treacherous and selfish, a milkshake-drinking legion well dispersed throughout the lands, including our own. By acknowledging that fact, Iron Man hardly makes the troops look bad (to use a term made odious in its excessive and inappropriate usage) - it ditches the bad apples and gets things accomplished without fronting its vices in the process.


  1. Anonymous10:15 PM

    A fun Friday opening night in my town with the Iron Man. The music doesn't hurt the fine acting so often missing from this genre.

  2. Anonymous5:08 PM

    This review was very difficult to read. The reviewer tried far too hard to show off his own supposedly vast knowledge of film history and supposedly deep understanding of the current worldwide political winds and from time to time seemed to forget his job: to review a film.

    Yes, I read it. Yes, I could understand it. And next time I'm looking to be lectured to about politics or film history maybe I'll read another review by this writer. But probably not.

  3. Anonymous6:08 PM

    I hate the last post-- for beating me to it. Rob Humanick is the most pseudo-intellectual windbag I've seen in a while-- and I've read plenty. In reality, I've seen the movie, and don't know whether it was the writers or Robert Downey Jr. that made it too annoying to watch, with the non-stop low-grade "snarky banter and snappy patter" dialogue between fat "hip & cool" characters that you just KNOW Hollywood writers have egotisically complimented each other into applauding themselves for being such witty and brilliant legends in their own minds.
    The other element of the movie is obviously the cheap political manipulations which Humanick thinks are so "deep" that only he can articulate them, but in reality only shows his own shallowness in comparison to these vestiges of self-indulgent fiction.
    True, the original "Iron Man" made Inspector Gadget look both realistic and Amish anti-tech in comparison, but at least the original Tony Stark had a Clark-Gable thing going on that gave him a certain charm and personality-- even if he did havea suit that gave him all the powers of Superman and Captain Kirk combined, but that ironically fit in a briefcase because it had "transistors," at least he wasn't a sniggering smart-a-hole who looked and acted like Dennis Millar on crack (maybe Downey just couldn't resist a little "snort" before showtime, and I don't mean Jack Daniels).

    So if Iron Man could do that with transistors, with nanochips? The answer, is RUIN AN ICON via combinding Mr. Downey Jr's nano-personality and the Hollywood machine's nano-value system and mega-condescending hamfisted cheap messages that insult the intelligence of anyone who has any-- we're talking global thermonuclear meltdown of ego and self-absorbed phoned-in performances hitting critial mass.
    Oh yeah-- Mr. Humanick, the term "angst" is SO 90's anal-gravitas; it's the 2000's, you might wanna buy a new hiptionary.

  4. Re anon 2:08:

    This job being self-assigned, I think it only fair to go about as I please. Films are many things, in my mind predominantly (a) entertainment and (b) cultural representations. I try to tackle both simultaneously, something that - given my interests - is unavoidable, and these reviews/essays will never be anything but absolute representations of my responses and viewing experiences. As for their being "difficult to read", know that I'm speaking of both grammar and ideas when I say that, yes, I'm aware that they're a bit choppy and indulgent, even after insane amounts of editing. It's like some bizarre combination of James Berardinelli's point-by-point analysis and Armond White's cultural ramblings (minus the uber-defensive nastiness, I hope), so don't think I'm not aware of their routinely unwieldy nature. Go back a ways, though, and I think you'll see major improvements on the whole. Think of this as public practice, where I'm subjected to the most scrutiny and therefore most challenged to improve. So, thank you, for your calm and thought-out response, the likes of which I always take into consideration when I next sit down at the keyboard.

    Which brings me to...

    anon 6:08:

    Your first statement, about being "beaten to it", screams ego, not exactly the best start to a comment that is apparently trying to diffuse my own (yes, I know it's there, though I don't like it). I could see the vitriol being justified if (a) I were out trying to make more of myself - more than, that is, being a suburban, white, cinemaniac heterosexual male growing up in the shadow of 9/11 while trying to define his presence in the world - or (b) if I somewhat shared your lashing-out opinion on the movie itself. To correct you, no, I don't think it's particularly deep and/or profound, just representative of specific ideas in the same way that most pop creations meant for mass consumption are, whether they realize it or not. The character was created long ago with social and political ideas in mind and I felt justified in discussing how I saw those being reworked for a 2008 audience - so sue me. If you dislike the direction being taken you could do much better than posting tangents here, and I will agree that the film is already terribly overrated and I can only imagine the irritation I'll be feeling as fanboys go on and on about how it's the greatest thing since sliced bread (my best friend has already called it one of the three best comic book movies, to the endless rolling of my eyes).

    But whatever, really. It's a movie. Don't like it, get over it. Don't like the review, click on your home page and start fresh. As for the word "angst" (is that now on Armond White's list of indicators of cinematic destruction by hipsters? - the likes of which I'd challenge anyone that actually knows me to describe me as), next time I'll just use the phrase "anal retentive fucking nationalism" and we'll call it a day. Now, "hiptionary", on the other hand, is something that should not only be phased out, but should have never been coined in the first place...

  5. Apparently, I'm not the only one who is shallow "in comparison to these vestiges of self-indulgent fiction" (quite a mouthful there for someone railing against supposed intellectualism). And Matt, mind you, has gotten one heluva going-away party from the community since he declared his retirement last week.

    (3rd comment down)

  6. reading the comments is much better than watching the film. thank you to rob + the anons . . . you've l made my day.

  7. solamism: I think you mean your statements well, but, seeing as this site is entirely about personal interpretations so as it is, I'm going to read that as being complimentary. ^.^ Plus, I know that people freaking out over a movie review is funny to me...

  8. And again (i.e. fuck you). Though I don't agree with many of Walter Chaw's actual opinions in this case, the approach is the same, and I can only hope to achieve a similar control of language, in time.

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