MOVIE TALK: Iron Man

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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 #2: Iron 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