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Tuesday, July 24, 2018

RECENT WATCHES: Iron Man (2008)

Think back on what a risk the original “Iron Man” was. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been part of our lives for a decade and has changed, not just superhero movies, but Hollywood cinema forever. Despite the occasional cry of “superhero fatigue,” it doesn't look like it'll be slowing down any time soon. None of this was a sure shot back in 2008. It was a film based on a comic book character that was considered a B-lister, at best. It starred a leading man still better known for his legal troubles than his acting. It was a big budget action flick directed by the guy best known for “Swingers.” The idea of a wider cinematic universe was just a far-off glint in Kevin Feige's eyes. Of course, this idea proved to just crazy enough to work. “Iron Man” was a hit and popcorn movie history was made.

You know the plot of “Iron Man” already but I'll refresh your memory, just in case. Tony Stark is a genius weapons designer, playboy billionaire, and all-around smart-ass. While in Iraq to help sell his latest super-weapon to the U.S. army, his Jeep is destroyed by a roadside bomb. Shrapnel is shoved into his heart, which will kill him without the assistance of a powerful magnet. He's captured by terrorists, who demands he builds a missile for them. Instead, he builds himself a bullet-proof, flying suit of armor. He escapes, returns home, and decides Stark Industries will no longer make weapons. He also continues to perfect his latest invention, transforming himself into Iron Man.

Marvel likes to say they have everything planned out years in advance. If you actually look back at their in-house movies, it's clear they handle stuff on a more film-by-film basis. “Iron Man” shows the Marvel Cinematic Universe in its infancy. Unlike later films, which would be thoroughly set in a fictional world, the first “Iron Man” is very much rooted in our universe. This is, after all, a silly superhero movie set in the shadow of the Iraq War. By the time you get to “The Avengers,” it's hard to imagine the conflict in the Middle East existing alongside Captain America and Asgard. You can also see how this first film is inconsistent with quite a few later ones. S.H.I.E.L.D. is depicted here as a brand new organization. Later, it would be established to have a long history. And, boy, that Ten Rings business sure wouldn't pay off, would it?

But let's put aside all that talk about universes and crossovers for now. I think there's another reason audiences flocked to “Iron Man” in 2008, beyond the rising popularity of superhero movies in general and that bad-ass trailer. Like all populist, action movies, “Iron Man” is about exorcising real world demons in a fictional context. Setting the movie in Iraq wasn't just an update of Tony Stark's Vietnam War-based comic book origin. Tony is captured by middle eastern bad guys cloaked in generic terrorist get-ups. Later, after experiencing the cruelty and violence of the area first hand, he builds himself a super suit. Within one day, he flies over to a war zone and single-handedly destroys the bad people, saving the good people. This is a powerful escapist fantasy for a reason. The idea of wiping out real world evil all by yourself, untethered by the law and real life ramifications, is a powerful, incredibly satisfying concept.

Yeah, the politics of this idea are shaky, at best. A white billionaire declaring himself above the law and murdering a bunch of brown people does not seem as fun in 2018. “Iron Man” tries to craft a sensible moral. Tony Stark is a war profiteer who, upon seeing the actual effect the weapons he's made has on the world, decides to give it all up. He says he's going to redirect his whole company to providing clean energy to the world. He then makes the most awesome weapon ever, keeps it to himself, and creates way more chaos and destruction. Any point “Iron Man” is trying to make about the role weapons manufacturers play in the death and destruction of war is quickly forgotten in favor of action movie theatrics.

Putting all politics aside, “Iron Man” is also just a fantastically plotted blockbuster. The script structure is clean and concise. All the plot points roll into place smoothly. It has a perfect first act, opening with Tony's capture, flashing back to the character-establishing previous day. The build-up to the reveal of the first Iron Man suit is fantastically balanced. Seeing Tony transform from a spoiled rich bad boy to a (mostly) selfless hero is really well done. The pay-off of Obadiah Stane's betrayal is handled well. The role towards the third act, with the circumstances involving Pepper Potts becoming endangered, hits every beat correctly. There's actually only a few sequences of Tony in the Iron Man suit throughout the film. Each one, however, builds wonderfully on the one before it. “Iron Man” is just a satisfying movie to watch.

I should say, the film is fantastically plotted up until that last act. What exactly is Obadiah Stane's end game? He initially tries to kill Tony so he can take over the company, sure. When it looks like his treachery is about to be uncovered, he decides to murder Tony himself. Somewhere in there, he builds a giant version of the Iron Man suit, becoming the supervillain Iron Monger. He then... Goes on a rampage throughout Malibu? If he wants to mass-produce Tony's suit, destroying a whole city block with the prototype doesn't seem like a very smart move. If he wants to un-incriminate himself, that move makes no sense either. The truth is the movie had to end with a big showdown between superhero and supervillian. The film tries to hand-wave this chaos by saying Stane has gone crazy. Yeah, the big fight is cool and Jeffrey Bridges nicely hams it up. It just leaves me scratching my head a little, from a narrative perspective.

In 2018, Robert Downey Jr. is a huge box office star. Honestly, he's the only MCU leading man to see much success outside his superhero franchise. Ten years ago, Robert Downey Jr. was trying to rebuild a promising career that had been destroyed by bad decisions. Most assumed he was cast as Iron Man because the character's history of alcoholism mirrors Downey's own substance abuse problems. The truth is Downey was just perfect for the role. Few stars are so able to make a smarmy asshole lovable. Tony's redemption arc softens his edges a little but he's still a smart-ass rich boy. Downey's magical way with dialogue and one-liners makes all the difference. Downey has chemistry with everyone, including a one-armed robot and a body-less artificial intelligence.

The supporting cast is pretty strong too. Every time Gwyneth Paltrow opens her mouth in real life, she becomes more insufferable. As Pepper Potts, she's incredibly likable. Her mellower energy balances with Downey's sarcasm very nice. The two are genuinely charming as a couple. Their romantic scenes together have a quiet humor that I really like. Watching “Iron Man” in 2018, in light of everything that came after, is weird for another reason too. We're so used to Don Cheadle's portrayal of Rhodey that seeing Terence Howard in the part feels weird. Howard's foppish take on the character is certainly way less endearing than what would come. Jon Favreau's Happy Hogan is practically a cameo in this movie, which also feels odd.

As an action movie, “Iron Man” is pretty damn great too. The first Iron Man scene, where Tony fights his way out of an Iraqi cave in a tin man-style suit, is fucking cool. The tight corridors of the cave create some tension while each punch and explosion is executed with maximum impact. The sequence devoted to Tony learning to fly is thrilling, exciting, and freeing most of all. His attack on the terrorist camp, and the subsequent escape from the jet fighters, features so many cool shots. The special effects hold up pretty well, though some of the CGI is already starting to stick out. The Iron Man suits, the last job Stan Winston completed before his untimely death, all look super cool. Jon Favreau's direction is a little unsteady at times. He utilizes rough zooms and some shaky-cam occasionally but over all it's fine.

Now a days, the post-credit scene is such a standard feature of summer blockbusters that we're disappointed when they don't appear. In 2008, Samuel L. Jackson making an appearance as Nick Fury at the end of the credits, asking about the Avengers Initiative, was the coolest fucking surprise imaginable. Teasers for event movies like this are so common now, they're kind of boring. It was a totally unexpected and absolutely delightful event when first seen in theaters. “Iron Man” still holds up extremely well, as a mostly really well-written superhero epic with a perfectly cast leading man and some kick-ass action. [9/10]

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