MOVIE TALK: Iron Man

Before I begin this post, I need to warn you: spoiler alert!  If you haven’t seen Iron Man, and you want to, be warned: I am about to give away parts of the movie.  So proceed at your own risk…

Saw Iron Man last night.  And all in all, it’s a fun way to spend two hours.  Robert Downey Jr. is terrific—charming, funny, loveable—and there’s plenty of cool blowin’-stuff-up.

But it’s also a flawed movie, and while its flaws don’t necessarily detract from the overall experience, I think they illuminate some interesting thoughts about how comic book heroes are written… and screenplays in general.

To me, there are two main weaknesses to Iron Man:

WEAKNESS #1:  He’s not an underdog.  For those of you who don’t know the story of Iron Man, here’s the Cliff Notes version:  Iron Man’s true identity is Tony Stark, a technology genius/fun-loving playboy who’s made his money as a multi-billion-dollar arms manufacturer.  (Imagine if Bill Gates ran Lockheed Martin… but was also a hard-partying ladies man.)  When Tony is captured and tortured by terrorists, he realizes the damage he has been inflicting and has a change of heart, deciding to stop making weapons and instead create machines of peace.  (How this plays out in the movie is a bit different than in the comics, but same idea.)  So he makes a giant suit—complete with guns, missiles, jets, you name it—to defeat evil and protect innocents around the world.

Sounds good, right?  Well, in real life, it would be.  In a comic: not so much.  (And by the way: as I say all this, know that I am NOT an avid comics reader.  I know Iron Man is beloved by fans everywhere.  I know the movie will make thousands of dollars and win the weekend.  I even think it deserves to.  I liked it.  A lot.  Still, I think there’s a major flaw in the concept of Iron Man, and here’s why…)

Iron Man is not an underdog
.  He’s rich, good-looking, funny, charming, irresistible… and just decides to become a super-hero.  Because he’s a good guy.

But the best superheroes are those who are “forced” into it, or those for whom being super-powered is a burden, a curse that prevents them from being whom they truly want to be.  Batman is haunted by his past and his own psychosis… the bat suit is his only escape (or his cross to bear, depending on how you look at it).  Peter Parker is an anti-social geek who’s suddenly given powers… that no one can know about.  Even Superman must wear a disguise to fit in to normal society.

But Tony Stark becomes Iron Man because he wants to.  It’s just another of his outstanding attributes.  And while you could argue that becoming Iron Man is his redemption for being a war-monger in his “previous life,” we certainly never get the sense he’s tortured by his past.  Even if the story suggested this, he’s so damn loveable WE never feel he needs to be redeemed.

Having said this, we still—for the most part—root for Tony/Iron Man.  But Iron Man doesn’t hold the same sense of wonder and fascination and magic as Spiderman or Superman or the X-Men.  I always think one of the coolest things about those classic superhero stories is that they tap into how we all feel; they’re stories of people who don’t fit in, but the reason they don’t fit in is they each hold extraordinary gifts and abilities… and if other people could just see those special gifts, and realize how awesome they are, they’d be accepted.  (This never works out, of course—as soon as their gifts are revealed, they’re ostracized… which is why they must keep their true identity secret.  It’s a catch 22: the one thing that should be recognized and celebrated is the one thing they can never share.)  And the genius of these superhero stories is: we’ve all felt like this.  We all know the pain and frustration of feeling like we’re special, unique, valuable people… if only others could recognize this.

But Iron Man never lets us feel like this.  It’s the story of a rich, successful, handsome, dashing, powerful guy who becomes… well… better.

And nowhere is this more evident than in the fact that Iron Man lacks some of the key scenes/sequences/moments that make superhero movies so much fun: the moments where the superhero uses his powers in ordinary, everyday situations.  The moment where Peter Parker uses his spider skills to catch his falling lunch tray or humiliate a school bully.  Or when Wolverine kicks ass in a bar fight.  Or Clark Kent takes Lois or Lana on an extraordinary date.  The moments that make us go: “Yeah!  That’s exactly what I’d do if I had superpowers.”

But Iron Man never has these scenes.  We never see Tony use his abilities as a normal person.  Not only because his abilities are confined to a giant robotic suit, but also because—ultimately—he’s not a normal person.  He’s not like any of us.  He’s a superhero even before he becomes a superhero.

WEAKNESS #2Iron Man isn’t about relatioships.  (By the way, before you read further: I am about to give away the entire ending of the movie.)  Sure, there are “relationships” within in the movie, but in the final battle of the movie, it suddenly dawned on me: Iron Man, the movie, isn’t about anything except itself.  It’s about nothing more than a man who suddenly decides to become an anti-war superhero.  Here’s why…

The final battle is a massive fight between Tony Stark, in his Iron Man suit, and Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), an old friend of Tony’s late father, and Tony’s partner at Stark Enterprises.  Stane builds his own Iron Man suit (called Iron Monger), which is bigger and more powerful than Tony’s original suit, and these two duke it out in the movies final climax.  Here’s the problem…

Screenwriters Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Art Marcum & Matt Holloway never flesh out the Tony/Obadiah relationship… so the final battle means almost nothing to us.  Sure, we see Tony and Obadian together, and we know there’s a history there, but this relationship should be the heart of the entire movie… so by the time the two guys are punching it out in the end, we feel like this is a relationship being ripped apart at the seams.

Yet we’re never sure what these two men mean to each other: is there relationship father/son?  Two brothers?  Teacher/student?  Best friends?  We don’t know… so there’s almost nothing at stake when they finally come to blows.  (Sure, you could say Tony’s life is at stake… but since we know he’s not going to die, there needs to be more.)  This was the beauty of the Spiderman movies: when Spiderman fought Green Goblin, it wasn’t just Spidey fighting a villain—he was fighting a friend, someone he’d loved and trusted.  So the final fight was the culmination of all the bumps, betrayals, twists, and turns that comprised that relationship.

But Iron Man fails to g
ive us this.  We never feel the love, friendship, trust, or adoration between Obadiah and Tony.  So we don’t feel the pain of either of them, especially our hero, in the movie’s climax.

This, together with the lack of Tony’s “underdog status,” combine to make a movie that’s a terrific and visually pleasing thrill ride… but has about as much heart as the metal used to make Iron Man’s suit.

Anyway, I “like” these two weaknesses because—for all Iron Man’s strengths—I think they illustrate the two elements most important to brilliant screenwriting and storytelling:

•  RELATABILITY – the ability to see reflections of our own lives in a story and its characters

•  RELATIONSHIPS – connections and relationships between characters that makes us care about, root, and hurt for them

Of course, Iron Man may also prove the most important rule of screenwriting: if you have an awesome star and plenty of explosions, none of the other stuff matters.

IRON MAN TRAILER

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4 thoughts on “MOVIE TALK: Iron Man

  1. Mark

    Nice post Tim. Respectfully disagree with both of the author’s two weeknesses.

    I would add to what Tim said by noting that Stark WAS forced into his new journey. "Forced" in a very literal way. i.e. There was a force pushing him in a new direction, regarless of its ethical polarity; a force that Stark was unfamiliar with; a force that made him a stranger in a world that the "old" Stark had created.

    So I think the assessment that Stark had a relationship with himself could arguably be taken its the logical extreme. Stark post-kidnapping was a new person. The rules of the post kidnapping world hadn’t shifted for the world but the re-born Stark certainly saw them from a differnt perspective.

    A bold, innovative and IMO successful use of the hero entering a new/strange world. So, is he not an underdog??? One man versus the all powerful industrial-military-political complex that he helped create? I respectfully but whole-heartedly disagree.

    As far as the relationships, I thought they were used to great effect and they drove the kernel of the story. The beats were definately there! They were just employed sparingly. Instead of spending 20 mintues developing a realtionship they were nailed beautifully in minute or two and the next 18 minutes were used to developed the mythos of the super-hero…

    IMO note perfect! It is a super hero movie after all.

  2. Carlo Conda

    Where’d my comment go? I posted one earlier this morning and it’s not here. I guess it didn’t get posted (I had to save the comment twice for my first comment in order for it to post…)
    Fantastic. lol

  3. Tim Albaugh

    Chad:
    First time seeing your site…lots of good stuff. Interesting take on IRON MAN. You make some valid points. Yes, we are programmed to root for underdogs and some of the best films ever have an underdog at their core. One could argue that Stark is an underdog as he’s one person against the arms industry/military industrial establishment. Bridges’ character controls the board of the company making him one of the most powerful arms manufacturers/dealers in the world. He can influence the media’s, and therefore our, representation and perception of Stark. He even attempts to make him seem "crazy" by spreading rumors of a nervous breakdown/post traumatic stress disorder. Are those the strongest threads they could be in the film? No–They are pretty much glossed over in favor of cool "engineering montages" (never thought cool would be used in the same sentence as engineering, eh?!)–But, they are there.

    I’d argue that the movie is actually about someone BECOMING SOMETHING/SOMEONE. And it is a rich, heartfelt journey. He goes from a man who "has it all, and nothing" to a man who has a more emotional and "rootable" purpose. The movie is about a man following the sage advice of the "mentor" overseeing and helping him work as a prisoner in the first act; the man (can’t recall the character’s name) who says, as he takes his last breath…"don’t waste your life." That becomes the Central Question of the film. And, as we know, Stark decides not to waste it.

    Relationships…I think one could argue the movie is more about Stark’s relationship with himself. Sounds sick, I know!:-). But, he really is trying to figure out what his right place is in the world. How not to "waste his life." He even hints at that with his speech about never getting to say goodbye to his father before he died. Never getting to ask him if he ever felt an ethical quandry over his business dealings. I’d also say there is a pretty strong antagonistic relationship between Stark and Bridges’ character. One is for greed and power; the other for doing the right thing. Bridges’ is the old way of doing things.

    And, I’d also argue there’s a good relationship in the film tween Stark and Potts (?) Gwennie’s character. She teaches him that he does have a heart (the gift she gives him, no spoiler given); the heart that ultimately helps him save the day (and her) in the end.

    I’d argue that Stark is a relatable character. You can walk out of the film and ask yourself if you’re wasting your life. Who hasn’t at one time or another found themselves doing things they most likely shouldn’t be doing. Stuck following the norm or living safe. Having everything. But do we reallY? I’m not suggesting everyone is wasting their life/live(s), but I’d venture to guess there’s lots of folks out there who are stuck in the status quo and do things for themselves before they think of others.

    Relationships…as noted above, I think the film is more about his relationship with himself and his struggle to live the right life and do well by others. And, if one can’t root for that journey and the person who is willing to take it, then I fear for my childrens’ futures…

    I didn’t think the film was great, but I did appreciate it’s desire to focus more on the internal struggle, a man’s search for his soul, rather than the more accepted, or expected, true underdog approach to character. Pretty gutsy for a big budget actioner. Kudos to Favreau (lame insert of himself in the film, btw) and the writers for at least trying to be different. And judging by the audience’s reaction at the sold out screening I just returned from, they’ve succeeded.

    Note to readers…stay through to the end of the credits…they set up the sequel in a quick epilogue!

    Keep up the interesting discussions.

  4. Carlo Conda

    The thing is we already have spiderman, batman, and so forth character. Iron Man IS different. No need to be an underdog when there are already great underdog superheroes.

    It’s a different take on superhero, and I think it’s fine. It’s not a flaw or anything. It’s just not an underdog story, or a typical superhero’s journey.
    It’s different, and it knows that it is. It wasn’t created to show the prime example of what a superhero is and should be. Iron Man is simply one of the many superheroes in the comic book universe. He is not the end-all-be-all, though. He has a different story and lives a different life than Spidey, the Dark Knight, the Hulk, and so forth.

    That’s not a bad thing. It may not have as big of a heart as Spiderman (1 and 2) or the Hulk, but it isn’t supposed to. You see this as a bad thing since Iron Man is a superhero movie, but it isn’t a bad thing. In fact, I’d say superhero movies are slightly tainted by the whole "underdog story" theme. I mean, the heroe’s journey being that of an underdog is great — I love it — but if a couple of superheroes do things differently, then that’s great too. It’s better, in my opinion, that some superhero flicks are straying away from the whole underdog thing (Iron Man, Hancock) and just being themselves and telling a different story.

    And your post didn’t have many spoilers.

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