The commentariat seems to be having a hard time interpreting “Iron Man.” The eponymous hero’s alter ego, billionaire industrialist Tony Stark, is a capitalist, in fact an arms merchant at the beginning of the movie. After an ill-starred trip to Afghanistan, however, he decides to get out of the munitions business — but later returns to the country suited up to dispense some heavy-metal justice to evil warlords.
Peter Bradshaw, writing in the Guardian, calls “Iron Man’s” opening scene, “an exhilarating, even brilliant wish-fulfilment fantasy dramatising America’s yearning for a virile exit strategy.” Slate’s Dana Stevens thinks “Iron Man” “may be the first movie about the conflict in the Middle East and Afghanistan to become a box-office blockbuster. But if it does, it won’t be because of its Afghan bad guys or somewhat incoherent musings on the immorality of the military-industrial complex.” We’ll have to wait for the inevitable sequels to see just how incoherent. At the end of the film, Stark is on good terms with a government agency, SHIELD, which furnishes him with a secret identity (though there’s a twist to that in the movie’s last line). At one point a SHIELD agent almost literally says, “We’re from the government and we’re here to help.” We’ll see whether or not that’s really the case.
The movie is remarkably faithful to the comic books I read by the long-box full in the 1980s. The geekgasm moment of the flick for me was recognizing Stark’s cliff-side Malibu mansion — they’ve actually used for the film the same design that appeared in the comics twenty years ago. This is obscure stuff: Stark’s California mansion is not exactly as iconic as the Batcave or the Fortress of Solitude. But it was a pretty cool design all the same, so I’m happy to see the film make use of it. (I was similarly impressed that the Ian Curtis biopic that came out last year, “Control,” got Curtis’s bookshelf in the opening scene of that movie exactly right. Curtis cultists know what the man read — though I did notice a copy of Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song amidst the Ballard and Burroughs. I hadn’t known Curtis was a Mailer reader.) A recurring theme from the comics back in the 1980s was the government trying to gets its hands on Stark’s Iron Man technology and Stark doing whatever he had to do to keep them from having it — including sinking all his spare suits of armor to the bottom of the ocean, then detonating them when even that didn’t stop SHIELD from going after them. Though I hear the Stark of the comic books has a cozier relationship with the agency these days.
The film has been getting generally positive reviews from critics embarrassed to admit how much they liked a comic-book movie. To salvage their integrity, they mostly praise leading man Robert Downey Jr. (who indeed is good) and disparage the special effects. The latter are actually rather impressive as well, or so I thought: grittier and more textural than expected, perhaps because they’re not primarily CGI. Gwyneth Paltrow’s as Stark’s secretary Pepper Potts — I wish they’d used her less comic-book-y proper name, Virginia, rather than “Pepper” — and Jeff Bridges as a halfway-between-avuncular-and-psychotic Obadiah Stane (the film’s villain) are well-suited to their roles. Terrence Howard didn’t seem tough enough as Stark’s military liaison James Rhodes (Stark’s pilot, and substitute Iron Man, in the comics), but he’s set up to have more presence in a sequel.
I liked the movie quite a bit — the smartest but also the most faithful comic-book adaptation that I’ve seen. And that it happens to be an adaptation of the super-hero who made me a Marvel Zombie back in the day is all the better. I might write more about it later.
Addendum: The Weekly Standard likes the movie too, but don’t let that put you off. “Few scenes in recent memory give off the visceral glee of Stark, as Iron Man, ripping through the terrorist forces like tissue paper,” Standard assistant editor Sonny Bunch enthuses. Well, it is a rousing scene — but then, it represents the comic-book ideal of heroic individual combat with absolutely no civilian casualties. Anyway, Bunch has a good take on the film’s ideological ambiguity:
This is not a “conservative” movie, per se, but it is the film equivalent of a Rorschach test. If you go into Iron Man seeking right-wing imagery, you’ll find it: Tony Stark is a patriot, pro-military, and likes unilateral intervention. If you go into Iron Man looking for left-wing imagery, you’ll find that, too: The true villain here is Stane, representing an out-of-control military-industrial complex. Still, it’s refreshing to go to the multiplex and find a universe where terrorists are despicable and Americans are heroic.
“Director Jon Favreau goes to great lengths to portray [the terrorists IM fights in Afghanistan] as an odd international band,” Bunch writes, “one of the terrorists speaks Hungarian, for example–but they’re a clear stand-in for al Qaeda and the Taliban.” Yes and no: they’re stand-ins for the Vietnamese Communists who capture Stark in the comic-book origin, which is well adapted in the film, right down to the fat Afghan warlord substituting for Wong-Chu. But their multinational character seems to refer to something else: the terrorists are fleeting named as “The Ten Rings,” which alludes to Iron Man’s comic-book archenemy, the Mandarin. I wouldn’t be surprised to find in future installments of the film franchise that there’s a non-Arab enemy behind the group.
(Googling around a bit, I see that Faran Tahir, the actor who plays Raza, the leader of the multinational terrorists, addresses this: “The way this is set up is that Raza is the only connection to the Mandarin that you have in the movie. Hopefully there will be more Iron Man movies and this film will be the groundwork for those. In this Iron Man movie, Mandarin is a faceless identity, we don’t know who he is or where he is. Raza is his right hand man. Is he the conduit for Iron Man to find Mandarin and have a show down? Does Raza become the Mandarin? We don’t know. They needed an element to tie everything to a larger story of Iron Man versus the Mandarin, yet they didn’t want to give it all up in the first movie and have a massive showdown right now. They needed to stretch this into a trilogy — hopefully.”)