Short Nerd Chief

Iron Man: What a Superhero Movie Should Be

Posted by Fred on May 7, 2008

I saw Iron Man over the weekend along with a lot of other people. This is not a really a review of the film – those are easy to come by, and have generally been positive, driving the initial weekend take above $100 million. It’s clear that Iron Man works; at a 94% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s by that criterion the best reviewed superhero movie of all time (unless you count The Incredibles, which I don’t). What’s more interesting to me is why it works. Why were Spiderman 2, X2, Batman Begins and Iron Man so good and the Fantastic Four movies, Daredevil/Elektra and the later Batman movies so bad? What will 2008’s Hulk film have to do to make it more like Jon Favreau’s Iron Man and less like Ang Lee’s Hulk?

It’s not just the character – Tony Stark is cool and all, but he’s not that cool. And it’s not just the casting – Robert Downey, Jr. was inspired casting for the lead role, but putting a good actor in spandex (or a gold alloy suit) is not enough, else val Kilmer’s Batman would have been a lot better. It seems to me that Iron Man establishes (or follows) a few rules that future movies in its franchise or other franchise-wanna bes should follow.

1. Embrace and Extend Genre, Don’t Transcend It

A few of the glowing reviews of Iron Man claim that it transcends the superhero genre. It doesn’t. Attempts to transcend the genre, to turn the spandex-clad superhero comic into High Art are doomed to failure. Ang Lee tried to do it with The Hulk and we got a jumbled mess of allegory and brooding antihero. Tim Burton sort of did it in 1989’s Batman, which was less a superhero movie by Tim Burton than a Tim Burton movie that happened to be about Batman, but his efforts doomed the rest of the franchise. The key to rising above the genre is to recognize what you can and cannot do. You can use genre conventions in the service of social commentary, such as in Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta and Watchmen. You can re-imagine characters in different eras, such as in Neil Gaiman’s Marvel 1602 or Darwyn Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier, or my personal favorite, Brain Augustyn and Mike Mignola’s Gotham by Gaslight. These works don’t transcend the genre; they use it, they embrace and extend genre conventions.

That’s what Iron Man does. This isn’t high art, it’s a story about a brilliant weapons designer who creates a suit of impossibly strong but light armor powered by an impossibly small generator implanted in his chest. There are only a handful of types of superhero, each with its own genre conventions. Tony Stark is the Brilliant But Flawed Genius Driven By Tragedy, the superhero without superpowers (Iron Man, Batman). This genre has different conventions than the Alien From A Planet With Different Physics (Superman, J’onn J’onnz, Silver Age Hawkman), which is different than the Natural Mutants (X-Men), the Accidental Mutants (Flash, Spiderman), the Artificial but Intentional Mutants (Captain America), the Magical Device-Wielders (Captain Marvel, Green Lantern) or the Ancient Gods (Wonder Woman, Golden Age Hawkman, Thor). So Iron Man needed a flawed genius, an act of horror/tragedy and some toys.

Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark is certainly flawed – he’s a brilliant weapons designer who parties as hard as he works. He makes destructive missiles and gadgets but gives more thought to his one-night stands than the practical consequences of the military hardware he makes or the company he leads. The act of tragedy is updated from Vietnam to Afghanistan, and Stark’s fellow prisoner/savior Ho Yinsen changes from a Chinese physicist to a Muslim doctor (dropping the Ho). The toys remain largely the same as in Stan Lee’s original creation – Stark and Yinsen create crude armor so Stark can escape (and Yinsen can sacrifice himself to save him), Stark improves it a couple of times, and then fights bad guys. The back story is straight out of the comics, updated with modern villains – instead of Communists, you get Afghan warlords.

The supporting characters are straight out of the genre, too, from Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts (the devoted assistant that we all know Stark should fall in love with but won’t) to Terrance Howard’s Jim Rhodes (the military liaison who intervenes on the hero’s behalf when the Air Force gets too uppity) to Clark Gregg’s S.H.I.E.L.D. agent (shadowy government agent who is suspicious of Our Hero but later proves of much use). All of these genre conventions are given a modern tweak, however. The government agent is a homeland security guy, and S.H.I.E.L.D., which was once the Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division, is now the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division.

Jon Favreau and Mark Fergus don’t try to transcend the genre into high art, and they don’t just make a genre blockbuster that takes no risks (a la Tim Story’s Fantastic Four and its sequel). They use the conventions of the genre in the service of a fully fleshed-out character and a story full of universal themes of personal growth and change.

2. Fanboys Are Easy, So Don’t Try Too Hard

Producers of movies based on pop culture icons have to walk a fine line when it comes to the fan community. Alienate the fanbase with a load of dreck and your blockbuster is fairly well doomed.  Just ask George Lucas. The converse is equally risky, however.  Problems arise in one of two areas.  Some productions are excessively faithful to the source material, such as certain aspects of the Harry Potter film series, which has always worked best when talented directors apply their own vision to the story. Deviating from the source is not always harmful – while some Tolkien fanboys were offended by the liberties Peter Jackson took with the Lord of the Rings, in the end all was forgiven.

A second danger is excessive pandering to the fans, which generally comes out in oblique inside references that the general public doesn’t get, supporting characters who are never fully explained, or throwaway scenes designed entirely to induce nerdgasms among the audience. The Batman series suffered from this particular malaise.  There’s no better way to get the blogs fired up than with speculation about which villain would be introduced next, so each movie in the original sequence featured a new villain. That’s all well and good, but the average moviegoer with only general awareness of the comics would much rather see the Joker or the Penguin than Scarecrow or Poison Ivy.  There are only so many major villains in the pantheon, after all.

Iron Man walks this line particularly well. There are many little nuggets for the fanboys, of course. Stan Lee makes his obligatory cameo. The government agency is finally referred to as “S.H.I.E.L.D.” at the end of the movie. There’s a scene where Col. Rhodes looks longingly at the Mark II version of the Iron Man armor and says “next time, baby,” hinting at an appearance as War Machine in 2010’s sequel. Rhodes wears an MIT ring in the movie, implying that he and Stark were classmates (rather than meeting in the war zone, as in Stan Lee’s original story).  Favreau even worked the theme song from the Iron Man animated series into the movie. And then there’s the Ultimate fanboy scene, which rolls after the credits.

Lots of little nuggets for the fans, but Favreau stops short of making the movie appeal only to them.  The main villain, Obadiah Stane, is a well-known villain from the comics, but the movie never calls him Iron Monger (although Stane does refer to himself and Stark as iron mongers). He’s just a power-crazed lunatic who uses Stark’s original prototype to create a killing machine. The director is clearly reticent to introduce Stark’s nemesis, the Mandarin, created originally as a metaphor for Communism, but dropped clear hints (the Afghan baddies being referred to as the Ten Rings, for example, an obvious reference to the ten rings the Mandarin wears).  You don’ t need to know a thing about Tony Stark to enjoy the movie, but if you do, you’ll enjoy it more.

3. Make It Fun, But Keep It Human

In the end, a superhero movie is about flying around kicking the butt of bad guys. Iron Man has its share of barely-controlled chaos, as Stark zips around in his titanium and gold suit outrunning F-22s.  But the effects don’t overwhelm, as they did at times in Spiderman 3. Iron Man and Sam Raimi’s Spiderman films actually have a lot in common – they’re both less about the cool things the heroes can do in their suits than they are about the human emotion, suffering, loss and ultimate redemption that got them in the costumes in the first place.  This summer’s Hulk faces a challenge, as it must simultaneously focus on the human side of Dr. Banner while not losing the fun of Hulk smashing stuff.

Favreau and his crew obviously did something right – the opening weekend was the second-biggest ever for a non-sequel (behind only Spiderman, which had the advantage of featuring a far more iconic character). I already know where I’ll be on 4/30/2010.

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One Response to “Iron Man: What a Superhero Movie Should Be”

  1. dabinl10 said

    wow! nice (and such a long) post!

    i have not watched the movie yet
    but this post makes me want to watch it :)
    enjoyed reading it!

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