Sunday, March 06, 2011

Iron Man (2008) ***

I’m probably the last person in the free world to see “Iron Man.” It was pretty much what I expected: a slightly better-than-average comic book movie that, despite competent acting, is still mostly aimed at 14-year-old boys. I’m sure you know the basic idea behind the movie and the comic it‘s based on: Billionaire inventor Tony Stark builds himself a high-tech suit of armor that allows him to fly and shoot various weapons from his limbs.

Robert Downey, Jr. plays Stark with humor and confidence, but I was actually disappointed that the film didn’t offer up more depth to this character. In the comics, Stark has a history of alcoholism. With Robert Downey, Jr’s addiction history, it would have been interesting to see him explore this territory, but the film doesn’t go there. Likewise, the all-star supporting cast (Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark’s assistant, Jeff Bridges as Stark’s business mentor, and Terrence Howard as his military liaison) lend a level of class to this action flick, but they don’t really get to develop their characters. This is par for the course for an action movie, but it isn’t just explosions that take up the time. “Iron Man” spends a LOT of time with Stark in the lab, developing his suits, and while I liked seeing this side of the story, it actually got to be a bit tedious. The movie could have easily been twenty minutes shorter if they had trimmed some of these scenes. Then there’s the ridiculous plot-line involving Stark having pieces of metal shrapnel lodged in his heart, so he has to wear an electro-magnet on his chest to hold the metal in place so he doesn’t die. It’s ludicrous.

My problem with “Iron Man” is that I went into it believing the hype about how Downey’s amazing performance made this a different kind of comic-book movie. It doesn’t. This is the same old song, just played by better musicians. There’s a lot of good material available in this story, but the filmmakers don’t bother to take advantage of it. There’s that alcoholism issue, for one. The film could have also delved more into Stark’s motivations for getting out of the weapons-design business. The movie does touch on this a little, and I like where they were going. Stark believes that there is nothing wrong with designing better weapons and selling them to the “good guys,” but when he learns that his weapons are getting into the hands of our enemies, he starts to view the enterprise as futile. If everyone is getting his weapons, then he isn’t really tilting conflicts in favor of the good guys, he is just profiting off making those conflicts deadlier. He comes to believe that if he applies his genius to peaceful pursuits, clean energy production for example, then he can make more of a positive impact on the world, and possibly make some of those conflicts unnecessary. “Iron Man” suggests all of this, but I think they should have run with it. They could also have done more to explain what drives Jeff Bridges’s character. Instead the movie sticks with pretty typical hero and villain archetypes.

Why am I quibbling about the narrative in a comic-book movie? I don’t believe we should have to settle for mediocrity in a story just because of its genre. We have always had stories about heroes and gods, beings with special powers who carry on the age-old battle between good and evil. Comics are just the modern incarnation of that tradition. Comic books and the movies made from them are targeted mostly at kids, which explains much of their shallowness, but there is nothing that says kids don’t deserve better. I think these stories deserve to be told well. “Iron Man” is better than most of the genre, but somehow it keeps the audience at a distance, and I wound up not liking it as much as, for example, the X-men movies. Like so many other action movies, and like Tony Stark himself, “Iron Man” has a problem with its heart.

3 stars

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