Bam, bam, ba-ba-baaam…
+: most aspects, really.
-: one of the highest ratios of otherwise-good-film to final act in superhero cinema.
In Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, one of the many things he relates utterly is how, whilst Marvel has fluctuated wildly on a creative level, on a corporate level it was, for the first 70 years of its existence, consistent in being a rickety, smoking jalopy. Joe Quesada’s act of stepping down from the Editor-in-Chief position in 2011 was remarkable in that, at least within the company, he’d overseen a decade of relative peace. Sure enough, under Axel Alonso there appears to be increasing tension again, because Marvel’s gonna Marvel.
All of which is a lengthy way of pointing out how starting with Iron Man was both a bizarre and a logical choice when Marvel started its own studio. In fact, Marvel split the difference, angling for a soft launch with Tony Stark before ramping up to the best-known character they had the rights to. And yet, somehow it all went happily sideways.
In the end, that’s because Iron Man is almost indisputably the better film. One of the biggest curses of modern filmmaking is Joseph Campbell’s monomyth and its modern variants, and, in particular, the Refusal of the Call. For decades, Hollywood executives, armed with their copies of Save the Cat! or monomyth diagrams, have clung to the baffling idea that what audiences really want to see are heroes choosing not to be heroic, and getting torn up about it.
But Iron Man breaks this open, utterly. One of the themes, kicked off here, and continuing down each and every film with Stark in it, is something that, in its own subtle way, is arguably far more deconstructive than anything in Watchmen (film or comic). The difficulty with superheroes is not that they might abuse their power — those people, Alan Moore et al, are in any event called “supervillains” — it’s that a superhero might mean well, and yet miss the mark of being a moral paragon anyway.
It’s not enough for Stark, once he returns from Afghanistan (new origin location, updated from Vietnam and Iraq, and subsequently worked into the comics — wait another 8–10 years for the origin story from Syria), to shut down the weapons division. Indeed, after Stark’s return, the landscape initially changes little — he’s still surrounded by the same opulence, the same parties, and the same pretence of charity (the firefighters the party is for are notably missing). It’s notable that the final showdown involves moving away from all of that and onto the streets.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t quite land. The ending was apparently a last-minute addition, and it shows; the Stark in these scenes is a different, strangely taciturn guy compared to the entire rest of the film (even in the cave), and the entire thing leans the tiniest bit Transformers.
But this is a minor imperfection. Everything else — plotting, characters, acting — is bang on, including the appealingly practical effects. Iron Man was made around four years, maximum, from the point where it was possible to convincingly (or at least semi-convincingly) CGI the most pointless shit, and a result many scenes double as advertising for engineering degrees.
In any event, Marvel started with a great film, even if they hadn’t quite built it in a cave, with a box of scraps. Iron Man would return in a couple of years, upgraded with new technology. Marvel, for its part, would upgrade even sooner.
High Points: Iron Man’s debut in Gulmira, which is basically a short explanation of the appeal of vengeance.
Low Points: “I’m really liking the suit”. I can’t tell if that’s meant to be a gag, or a piece of placeholder dialogue, or something else; it just flails around as a line that exists in this film.
Curios: the word “problematic” arrives in this film, in the engineering sense of the term, a good half-decade before Tumblr would drive it into the ground.
Flagrant Product Placement: Audi, who are relatively low-key in this film, and Burger King, who are not. For what it’s worth, this reviewer doesn’t mind BK — but it’s unclear in-story why Tony Stark’s people wouldn’t just go with McDonald’s, or something more upscale and befitting a billionaire.
Connections to Elsewhere: SHIELD, for the most part.
Stan Lee cameo: Stan gets mistaken for Hugh Hefner. Brief but unremarkable. (5/10)
End Credits: just one, written by Brian Michael Bendis (and edited down from three pages of dialogue, as is Bendis’ wont), and featuring Samuel L. Jackson completely selling the idea that a man can be born with the name “Nicholas J. Fury”. He also informs Stark that there are other superheroes in existence, even at this early stage, thus covering Marvel for any future flashbacks, prequels and other anachronic shenanigans. Smart worldbuilding, that. (10/10)
Next: The Incredible Hulk (2008)