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Iron Man , 2008. Directed by Jon Favreau. Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, Shaun Taub, Clark Gregg, Leslie Bibb, Faran Tahir, Jon Favreau.

Synopsis: Arms manufacturer and genius inventor Tony Stark lives the good life. The billionaire owner of Stark Industries--America's foremost weapons forge--he can have any woman he wants, any toy he wants. What he can't buy, he can build. After demonstrating his newest weapons system for the military in the field in Afghanistan, Stark's convoy is ambushed by a terrorist group called "The Ten Rings." Stark is critically injured in the fracas after a piece of shrapnel lodges close to his heart, but is kept alive by the terrorists in order to build them a new weapon. In this, he is aided by Yensin, his fellow captive--and savior, as it turns out, because it was his fellow captor who installed the electromagnet that keeps the last piece of shrapnel from piercing Stark's heart. Together, they choose to defy their captors, as Stark turns his genius to creating a beweaponed suit of armor to effect his escape. And escape, he does, though he is a changed man afterwards. During his captivity, Stark has witnessed what his company and his life's work has wrought in the world. He vows to redirect his company away from munitions, though his board of directors resists and his second in command actively subverts his efforts. Meanwhile, Stark secretly builds an upgraded suit of armor in order to undo some of the damage his company has done. Unfortunately, his enemies view his new technology with covetous eyes...

Heavy Metal: Marvel Comics got a leg up on its competition in the 1960s with their origin stories. The stable of superheroes over at DC/National had origin stories that were ridiculous for the most part, when they existed at all (their two exceptions, Batman and Superman, were also their most popular characters). Marvel, on the other hand, went to baroque lengths to detail the origins of their characters, with some of those stories entering into pop culture in unexpected places (Dr. Doom's origin story, for instance, finds itself reinacted in Star Wars). Even the fairly minor characters often have killer back stories. Iron Man is arguably a minor character, but his origin story is terrific. Not only is it terrific, it's terrifically flexible, too, so its transplantation from Vietnam in the 1960s to the Afghanistan of the 2000s is practically seamless. More than seamless, actually, because it finds fascinating subtexts suggested by the character's long history that didn't exist when the original origin was created.

Tony Stark is an interestingly complicated character, whose story often eclipsed that of his armored alter-ego. Where most comic book characters have a Moriarty, Iron Man does not. Stark's most persistent enemy is himself, whether driven by alcoholism, or by guilt over the human cost of his business. Surprisingly, all of this is in the movie.

So. The movie. This is the first production that Marvel has financed themselves, and it's a good investment because it's spectacular enough to drum up a huge opening weekend (wildly exceeded expectations) and it's smart enough to have "legs," as they say. It's smart enough to know how to entertain both an audience of nit-picking fanboys and an audience who never even heard of Iron Man before. It gets the details of the character right without succumbing to the temptation to change it based on a movie executive's notes. This is recognizable as the character one finds on the printed page. In fact, it's a better version than the one finds on the printed page even though it doesn't change anything substantial. As a movie, Iron Man slyly constructs a large part of its running time as a romantic comedy. This is a funny movie, which is entirely unexpected. There's no angsty soap-opera a la Marvel's other big movie properties. This is a witty examination of adults mixing it up (sometimes as superheroes). It's not a kids' movie, or even a teenagers' movie, or a movie for boys only. Part of the genius of this movie is that it has something to appeal to just about any audience without pandering to any specific audience.

Part of that's the casting. Just as any given Cary Grant movie would not work with someone other than Cary Grant in the Cary Grant role, this movie would not work without Robert Downey. Stark has, essentially, the same life experience as Downey, and while it's a mistake to think that Downey is playing himself, another actor would not bring the set of experiences to the character that Downey brings. And it shows on film. The filmmakers are wise to put the camera inside Iron Man's helmet to view Downey's face in many of the action sequences, because without that, the action sequences would be just another set of spectacular computer images. The supporting cast is equally good. Downey's opposite number in the romantic comedy part of the movie is Gwyneth Paltrow, who in her more recent film roles has shown an appetite for fun that hasn't been part of her screen persona before, and she's good at it, too. Jeff Bridges brings to bear considerable charm in his role as the wonderfully named Obediah Stane, Stark's principal enemy in this film, and watching that charm change to menace is a sight to see. Director Jon Favreau is an actor's director, which might seem like an odd choice for a superhero movie, but in this case it works to the film's advantage. There's a rapport between characters that defines their relationships better than any given plot device. His work on the action sequences is terrific, too. He's resisted the urge to hide everything (or "intensify" everything) by fast-cutting, which results in an unfussy, clean-looking movie. An audience that pays for the spectacle gets their money's worth. He's also constructed a plausible day after tomorrow sci-fi setting. Iron Man himself could seem ridiculous in the wrong setting, but he fits in perfectly here. This comes from some of the comics, and it has obviously been a point of design by the production staff, and Favreau is wise to keep it all.

Which is all very interesting, and enough by itself to make for a pretty good movie, but there's something else going on in Iron Man that bears commentary, because it's NOT something that anyone expects to see in this kind of movie, let alone expects to see done well. You'll have to bear with me for a while:

The last several years have seen the landscape of the multiplexes littered with the corpses of well-intentioned movies about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. A list of these failures would include Stop-Loss, In the Valley of Elah, Lions for Lambs, Grace is Gone, etc. No one wants to see liberal gnashing of teeth about the wars, it seems, or at least, so it seems to the people who green-light these movies (the possibility that these aren't very good movies rarely inserts itself, but be that as it may...). That doesn't explain the success of Iron Man, which while not explicitly about the wars is so laden with moral dillemas born from contemporary American foreign policy that it might just as well be. It would be all too easy to suggest that Iron Man is this era's Rambo Part II, an escapist fantasy in which America gets to re-fight a political and military catastrophe with a different ending. Certainly, there is a tremendous catharsis in watching Iron Man blow the living shit out of the terrorists. But escapist warmongering is not what the movie actually does.

In A Personal Journey Through American Film, Martin Scorsese describes the what he calls "the director as smuggler." In so far as the big studios of classic Hollywood were resistant to "message pictures," many filmmakers took their themes into the subtext, heavily coded so that the studios would take no notice. This was particularly prevalent in genre filmmaking (Scorsese cites films like Cat People, Kiss Me Deadly, and The Invasion of the Body Snatchers). I think this is exactly what Iron Man is doing with the contemporary politics of war. It's just as outraged as those "message pictures" that have failed to find an audience (in the immortal words of Sam Goldwyn: "You wanna send a message, use Western Union"), but it takes that outrage into the subtext of character motivations. Iron Man begins with Stark the warmonger. Stark the neocon, if you like. Consider his speech to the military observers:

"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."

This is, of course, the doctrine of "shock and awe," which proved to have grave limitations in real life, just as it does in the movie. Later in the movie, Stark realizes that his company (and by analogy, America) is arming both sides of the conflict, which could be seen as a veiled criticism of America's past dealings with Saddam Hussein and the Mujahadeen (who became The Taliban). The terrorists themselves name Stark as the greatest mass murderer in America, a criticism that strikes a nerve in Stark, who has heretofore been insulated from the consequences of his actions. But the real enemy, revealed as the movie progresses, isn't the terrorists in the first place (though the movie never fails to paint them as the worst kinds of villains). No. The real enemy is unfetterred, unregulated capitalism. Stark has maintained no regulatory control of his empire, and in the end, Stane's "Iron Monger," becomes a walking metaphor for the military industrial complex run completely amok. And all of this is more or less presented in code.

While I'm still on the subject of symbolism, the scene where Pepper Potts walks in on Stark as he tries to remove a damaged suit of armor and he says to her, "Let's face it, this is not the worst thing you've caught me doing," is suggestive of another kind of commentary, in which the toys boys play with--especially weapons--are equivalent to the one between their legs. It's still a pretty funny line, and come to think of it, it's not that far off Dr. Strangelove and its "precious bodily fluids."

In any event, it's a minor miracle that the movie manages to carry all of this weight as effortlessly as it does. Hell, the tone of the movie is positively breezy at times. Not only that, but it manages to do it all without seeming to deride the military, or even America, which is a high-wire act of the first order. This, I submit, is the reason that the movie is a success. It's not that the audience is callous towards the wars, its just that they don't want to bear the accusations that go with it; rather, they'd prefer to do something about cleaning it all up. Tony Stark is a stand-in for the audience who, having been deceived, seeks to make amends. This is the fantasy that Iron Man presents, and it's not a bad fantasy at that.