Monday, April 30, 2012

Countdown to The Avengers, Part 1: Iron Man

    Part 1 of our Countdown to the release of The Avengers, in which we find the true hero hidden within the billionaire playboy in us all with Iron Man...

THE FILM ITSELF: There was lot riding on the release of the first Iron Man. There was director Jon Favreau’s career, successful on smaller comedies such as Made and Elf, but unproven in the realm of big-budget, summer blockbusters. There was the career of Robert Downey, Jr., freshly-sobered and on the Hollywood comeback train, but still widely known to the public as that actor who seemed to get arrested every other week. There was the reputation of Marvel Studios - the comic company’s fledging movie unit whose first film centered on a character who was B-list at best, and known to the public primarily as a Black Sabbath song. And, in a way, there was the superhero movie itself, which had cycled through the most popular characters and was in need of a shot in the arm to take them to the next stage. And although Iron Man is not much different from those other films on the surface, it reinvigorated the superhero genre and insured its dominance for at least the next half-decade. It was the opening shot fired in a series of interrelated films, all occupying the same universe, and which we’ll be taking a look at this week in anticipation of the release of The Avengers.

    It’s been said that if you cast a film correctly, then 85% of your job is already done for you. And the first Iron Man is a good example of that theory being mostly true (we’ll get to why it’s “mostly” instead of “definitely” when we get to later films in the cycle). First of all, finding the perfect Tony Stark in Robert Downey, Jr. The role skyrocketed Downey to a bonafide superstar, and watching the film, it’s easy to see why. The actor’s charisma and charm comes through beautifully, and he fills it with just enough pathos to keep the audience emotionally invested. It’s the same old story of the narcissist who learns humility, but Downey’s portrayal feels as if he it invented whole-cloth, internalizing the character so deeply he’s able to bring it out in a fresh, exciting way. He’s arrogant without being a prick, flawed without being grim, and although he proves himself a hero through and through, a character who still knows how to have fun. After all, he’s a billionaire playboy smart enough to invent his own flying suit of armor - why wouldn’t he be having the time of his life?

    With a performance like Downey’s, it’s easy to overshadow a cast who is in any way less capable, but fortunately the rest of the ensemble is filled out with actors more than able to hold their own. As Stark’s assistant and overall aide-de-camp, Gwyneth Paltrow has possibly the most difficult role, playing straight man to Downey’s antics. Their banter surely could match the best of any classic Hollywood couple, none more evident than the “Operation”-style arc reactor switching scene, a master-class showcase of tension and humor. Iron Man is proof-positive that there is possibly no greater delight in this giant, tent pole release than two likable characters bouncing witty barbs back-and-forth like a tennis ball - all the more precious and valued now in this age of transforming tractor-trailers and farting chipmunks.

    Paltrow has her hands full keeping up with Downey, but Jeff Bridges must do so while also keeping a subtle undertone of menace as the heavy, Obadiah Stane (the film overcomes creator Stan Lee’s a little-too-eccentric-for-their-own-good names by calling him “Obie”). Bridges is almost unrecognizable, with his shaved head and appropriately villain-shaped beard, but like the banter-filled scenes with Paltrow, every moment he shares with Downey are the highlights of the film. It says a lot about a movie filled with fisticuffs and explosions when the greatest fight is over a box of pizza in Tony Stark’s home, Downey and Bridges chewing the scenery and playing off each other with relish. The greatest aspect of Bridges’ performance is how understated his menace is throughout; it’s not immediately apparent that he’ll be the film’s main villain, and his scenes with Downey remain playful until the moment they turn deadly, Bridges chomping down on each scene with the ease of one of the many cigars he smokes throughout.

    The rest of the cast holds up ably as well, most notably Terrence Howard as Stark’s best friend, Jim “Rhodey” Rhodes. Howard doesn’t have a whole lot to do, but he has good chemistry with Downey, giving off the sense that these characters have known each other and been friends for a long time. Shaun Toub gives off a quiet dignity as Dr. Yinsen, Stark’s fellow captive at the film’s beginning who helps assemble the first Iron Man armor. His character doesn‘t get much screen-time, but the sheer integrity in his portrayal hangs over the rest of the movie - fitting, as he is the catalyst for Tony Stark’s change of heart. Lastly, Paul Bettany provides his voice for the digital butler JARVIS, imbuing a computer program with enough humor to hold his own against Downey’s Stark.

    With such an eclectic cast, the movie is always in danger of running away from Favreau, but the director holds it all together. A feat doubly impressive considering the script was tossed out for many of the film’s scenes, instead improvised on the spot by Favreau and his actors. Instead of making the movie feel like a mess, the chaotic nature instead lends a loose, free-flowing feel, much like jazz. Favreau’s other greatest strength is his sense of comic timing, wonderfully evident in the trial-and-error scenes where Tony teaches himself to fly.

    So what doesn’t work? Favreau is new to the superhero game, and it shows most in the film’s action scenes. The first big set-piece, Stark’s escape from the terrorist camp, is rather clunky, which mostly works as Stark stumbles around in the original, bulky armor. But that clunkiness remains throughout, with subsequent fights and chases staged with all the excitement of a SyFy Original Movie. A shame, since the effects throughout are excellent, but all the special effects in the world can’t help if the action isn't staged properly. 

    The third act is also a bit of a mess, the stakes never really ratcheting up too high, ending on a whimper instead of a bang (a problem persistent throughout most of the Marvel movies). Also, as perfectly as Bridges plays him, Obadiah Stane never really feels like a strong antagonist, stepping into the Iron Monger armor at the end not out of any real character motivation other than the movie needing someone for Iron Man to fight. Had Stane’s connection to Tony Stark been more fatherly, his betrayal would have hit Strak on a personal level, raising the ending into more than just a lackluster smack down between a guy in a suit of armor and another guy in a bigger suit of armor.

    Still, two of the most important aspects of filmmaking remain story and character, facets which Iron Man more than exceeds.

OTHER THOUGHTS: Iron Man accomplishes the feat of being a rather political movie, without actually being a political movie (wait… what?). But it’s true - the success of Iron Man, and really all the super-hero movies of the 21st century, read as a direct reflection of post-9/11 anxiety. It’s no coincidence that Spider-Man was such a huge hit that came merely seven months after the Twin Towers fell, and we as a culture have been devouring other comic book heroes ever since. And being that the world since then only grows ever darker and more complicated, our hunger for simplified, colorful saviors only keeps growing. What’s interesting about Iron Man is that he’s the first superhero on screen to fight actual terrorists.

    The Iron Man comics had similar sociopolitical undercurrents, as all the Marvel characters did in their original appearances in the 60’s and 70’s. The X-Men were all about racial disharmony,  Spider-Man the growing need for social justice among the nation’s youth - Iron Man was all about the Cold War. Indeed, the character’s original origin took place in Vietnam, instead of Afghanistan (and how’s that for history repeating itself?). He was often depicted fighting Communist super-villains (of the Russian and Asian variety) so it’s not much of a surprise that the film has him taking the fight directly to the terrorists.

    And it’s there the film comes dangerously close to that old trope of the western world: the great, white savior arriving just in time to save all the poor, little brown people. Ultimately, though, I feel the movie is just using modern archetypes to depict the classic superhero scenarios. Heroes help out those who need it, and they stop bad people from doing bad things. It’s easy to see those scenarios going very, very wrong in the real world, but the world of Iron Man isn’t the real world. It’s an idealized world, simplified for our entertainment and enlightenment. Still, the underlying political currents are interesting to note.   

Being the first out of the gate, much of the larger continuity is kept to the background. Clark Gregg makes his first appearance as SHIELD Agent Phil Coulson, a role he revisits in nearly all the Marvel films. He and a bunch of SHIELD agents help out in the final battle, but they don’t offer much other than fodder for Stane in the Iron Monger suit.

    It’s not until the after-credits scene that we really get the sense of a larger world at play, when Tony stumbles upon Colonel Nick Fury, played by Sam Jackson himself, who tells Stark about the Avenger Initiative before a smash-cut to black. And with that, the Marvel universe’s floodgates are opened, spilling out onto celluloid in a way never before seen or attempted.

STAN THE MAN?: At a party, Tony Stark mistakes him for Hugh Hefner.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Even after all the subsequent releases, the first Iron Man remains not only the best of the Marvel Studios releases, but one of the best superhero movies ever made, all through virtue of the characters and the actors portraying them.

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