Sunday, May 11, 2008

Iron Man

Iron Man, (Favreau, 2008) This was a part made for Robert Downey, Jr - or at least the Robert Downey Jr. who is in and out of rehab though by the look of him in this movie, he has been spending a lot more time in the gym than at the bar. His alter ego in this movie is Tony Stark, scion of the most successful arms manufacturer in the world, who seems to divide his time between driving his company toward producing better and smarter ways of killing more people and living the life of a rich, arrogant playboy who thinks deadlines are for other people and that the world revolves around his enormous ego. So he has the kind of flaws that most adolescent males dream of, if not exactly the kind of issues that usually plague your more run-of-the-mill superhero.

Tony Stark: My old man had a philosophy. Peace means having a bigger stick than the other guy.
Tony Stark: They say the best weapon is one you never have to fire. I respectfully disagree. I prefer the weapon you only need to fire once. That's how dad did it, that's how America does it, and it's worked out pretty well so far.
Downey does a good job with what he is given from a hackneyed script and we are treated to the kinds of crash bang special effects that seem to be required in this kind of movie. However, the problem with this movie is the sucker punch that director Jon Favreau and his writers land on the audience*. This is a movie with a moral center as empty as all the donut holes in the world combined. It is so callous that even my 10-year-old son called it: Daddy, if he can make a cool suit like that will all those cool weapons, why doesn't he just take the bad guys guns away and tie them up like Batman does?" Forget '"With great power, comes great responsibility." There is no transformation, no redemption, no moral dilemmas in this movie.

Tony Stark: I never got to say goodbye to my father. There's questions I would've asked him. I would've asked him how he felt about what his company did, if he was conflicted, if he ever had doubts. Or maybe he was every inch of man we remember from the newsreels. I saw young Americans killed by the very weapons I created to defend them and protect them. And I saw that I had become part of a system that is comfortable with zero-accountability.
Press Reporter #1: Mr. Stark, what happened over there?
Tony Stark: I had my eyes opened. I came to realize that I had more to offer this world than just making things that blow up. And that is why, effective immediately, I am shutting down the weapons manufacturing division of Stark Industries.
For a brief second, after he is captured by jihadists in Afghanistan, Stark seems to have had an epiphany about the nature of the business he is in. But rather than wrestling with his conscience, he goes back to his circuit boards. The answer to the nature of good and evil is that the white hats must just have bigger guns than the black hats. Simple. Spider-Man meet Rambo. Then they can wreak revenge on whoever they choose to. And we can get back to the tedious Transformer-ending that all the kids in the movie theater (of whatever ages) are waiting for. It is, in fact, the perfect movie for the Bush era. Both the good guys and the bad guys repeat the sickening nostrum of using their weapons to make the world a safer place.

Virginia 'Pepper' Potts: Tony, you know that I would help you with anything, but I cannot help you if you're going to start all this again.
Tony Stark: There is nothing except this. There's no art opening, no charity, nothing to sign. There's the next mission, and nothing else.
Virginia 'Pepper' Potts: Is that so? Well, then I quit.
Tony Stark: You stood by my side all these years while I reaped the benefits of destruction. Now that I'm trying to protect the people I've put in harm's way, you're going to walk out?
Virginia 'Pepper' Potts: You're going to kill yourself, Tony. I'm not going to be a part of it.
Tony Stark: I shouldn't be alive... unless it was for a reason. I'm not crazy, Pepper. I just finally know what I have to do. And I know in my heart that it's right.
Iron Man is a cheap and cheapening rental.

* The character is of course based on the eponymous Marvel Comics superhero.


John said...

Tis difficult to find a superhero that espouses pacifism. Generally they just embrace some righteous stance and bigger muscles. Some of the more interesting writing of the Hulk might be interesting to you though. I like the portrayal of the Hulk as a brooding child... happy and peaceful when left alone in the beauty of nature, but action-packed when faced with the inevitable chase of General "Thunderbolt" Ross who won't let him alone. It becomes a tragic Frankenstein story in this light. I'm hoping the new Edward Norton Hulk has more of this approach.

Jon said...

I don't expect a superhero to espouse pacifism but there is a difference between disarming your opponent and killing them, wouldn't you say? Especially as the movie opens the door.

They may have bigger muscles or greater powers but I think on the whole you don't see a lot of killing by Superman, Batman or Spider-Man so I think it is also not unreasonable to expect that justice does not always entail execution?

John said...

Ah, I better understand your position now. And this has been a major bone of contention in both printed comic books and in movie adaptations. Superman, and the heroes that were conceived in the Golden Age, definitely stood for a non-lethal kind of justice. I think this was both an ethical stance, and an imposed rating system.

Daredevil wrestled with the question profoundly during Frank Miller's first run on the title. (Miller has a tendency to let his id run loose in the Marvel and DC universes... depicting murder and lust to surprising degrees.)

To kill or not to kill? When Miller's Daredevil was fighting the psychotic assassin Bullseye, who would never stop whacking people and who had escaped prison several times, Miller took the metaplunge and asked if a hero could intentionally take a life. Since then, it seems like writers either do or don't... but I haven't seen much reflection on that transition ever since.

There have been edgier "heroes" in Stan Lee's playground... The Punisher, who shoots people, and Wolverine, who impales them, both have very lethal powers. I was actually shocked to see Wolverine kill a soldier in the X-Men movies. In the old days, those claws were only used to tear through metal doors or rip up robotic enemies.

As for my own preference... if you're going to tell a story about heroes that employ guns and knives... make them lethal. With apologies to GI Joe, there's no way to shoot 800 rounds in a crowd of people without anyone getting killed. Comics have been cheating physics for years by having everyone come out of lethal explosions with a mild concussion. I think modern writers and filmmakers have opted to go with a bit more realism... but I'm not sure they've properly considered the moral ramifications of that decision. Lets hope our children aren't part of the collateral damage.

Jon said...

Thanks for the resume. I think your point about realism is also a good one.

What strikes me in the current climate is how accepting we can be of violence as the justified answer to all our problems and that often movies like Iron Man are judged more for how good their special effects are than how well they tell a story or what kind of moral universe they reflect.

Comics may be a different genre and I have no problem with suspending my disbelief about how, for example, Tony Stark can create his iron armor in a cave in Afghanistan. But I think we do them a disservice by not treating them like other literature and expecting them to have a moral coherence and holding them to it.