erik lundegaard

Iron Man

Iron Man (2008)


In “Iron Man,” we learn that one man can make a difference.

No, not Iron Man. I’m talking Robert Downey, Jr., who turns one of the most boring Marvel superheroes into one of its most engaging. That frenetic, super-intelligent quality Downey had way back in 1987’s “The Pick-Up Artist”—mouth unable to keep up with mind—has, by this film, been disciplined and tempered. He’s less wild-eyed. There’s a stillness to him as he talks to and over people. His lines are free of bullshit and niceties. They’re lean and clever. “Give me a scotch,” he tells a bartender, “I’m starving.”

Here he is in Afghanistan before the shit goes down:

Soldier: Is it cool if I take a picture with you?
Stark: Yes, it's very cool.
[Soldier poses with a peace sign]
Stark: I don't want to see this on your MySpace page. Please no gang signs.
[Soldier lowers hand]
Stark: No, throw it up. I'm kidding. Yeah, peace. I love peace. I'd be out of a job for peace.

The soldier says the first line, Stark the next three. It’s monologue as dialogue. Iron Man flies rings around people but it’s not nearly as fun as watching Tony Stark talk rings around people. “Iron Man” is a superhero movie, and thus wish fulfillment, but, for me, the wish fulfillment is less the power of Iron Man than the quick wit of Tony Stark. What I wouldn’t give.

Is he too engaging? He makes a great change in this movie—from weapons manufacturer to weapon; from worry-free, playboy billionaire to worried, playboy billionaire—and we like him on either side of this chasm. Worry-free, he tells a Vanity Fair reporter, “Peace means having a bigger stick than the other guy,” and it makes sense. There’s something horribly cynical in Stark Industry’s “Freedom Line” of missiles but it barely registers against Downey’s great line readings:

Stark: That's how Dad did it. That's how America does it. And it's worked out pretty well so far.

Until it doesn’t.

His most indelible partner

In Afghanistan, Stark’s humvee caravan is attacked and he’s taken hostage. The scenes are chilling and familiar: the captured, helpless westerner; the gun held to his head; the shouted demands.

Stark loses consciousness clutching at his chest, against which a pool of blood is slowly spreading, and he wakes up in a cave with wires coming out of his chest and hooked up to a car battery. Nearby, a tall, thin Afghani calmly washes his hands. “What have you done to me?” Stark demands in a kind of “Kings Row” moment. Saved you, it turns out. The shrapnel is inching toward Stark’s heart. The battery keeps the shrapnel in place and Stark alive.

Throughout the movie, Downey plays well with others—Rhodey (Terrence Howard), his military buddy, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his gal Friday, and even Jarvis (voice of Paul Bettany), his household-wide computer system—but his most indelible partner is really this tall, thin Afghani. Yinsen (Shaun Toeb), another captive, not only saves him physically but spiritually. The lines he says to him are lean and existential.

First, he gets him going again:

Stark: Why should I do anything? They're going to kill me, you, either way. And if they don't, I'll probably be dead in a week.
Yinsen: Well then, this is a very important week for you, isn't it?

Then, as they work on what’s supposed to be the new “Jericho Missile” for the terrorists, but is really the Iron Man suit to combat the terrorists, Yinsen makes him realize the emptiness of his life:

Stark: You got a family?
Yinsen: Yes. And I will see them when I leave here. And you, Stark?
Stark: [quiet] No.
Yinsen: So you're a man who has everything, and nothing.

Finally, Yinsen sacrifices himself so that Stark, and Iron Man, may live. Stark creates a powerful arc reactor for his chest, which keeps his heart going and powers the Iron Man suit. But the bad guys are closing in, the progress bar is taking its own sweet time (as progress bars in movies do), so Yinsen creates a diversion that lets Tony suit up. Of course Yinsen’s shot. Of course he dies. Dying words in movies are usually lame, but Yinsen’s are poignant:

Stark: Come on, you're going to go see your family. Get up.
Yinsen: My family is dead, Stark... and I'm going to see them now.

Then he gives Tony his raison d’etre: “Don’t waste it.” Afer that, Iron Man, in that clunky original outfit, goes out and wastes him some terrorists.

The incredibly shrinking brain of Pepper Potts

A Yinsenian question: Does the movie waste its stellar beginning? “Iron Man” is one of the great superhero movies as of this writing (Spring 2012), but it’s not without its problems. And its two biggest problems are both from the second half.

Here’s the first: Pepper Potts gets stupid.

What happens? She’s so smart initially. “Taking out the trash.” “I hate job hunting.” Then, in the last half hour, she begins to act all flustered and female and running-around-on-high-heels dumb.

After captivity, Tony returns demanding a cheeseburger and a press conference, and while eating the former at the latter he tells the assembled that Stark Industries isn’t making weapons anymore. He’s got his new raison d’etre from Yinsen, he’s seen American soldiers killed with his weapons, and he wants no part of it anymore. Others, notably Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), attempt to wrest control of the company from him, but Tony, even as he creates a newer, better IM suit, stays the course. At one point, suiting up, he tells Pepper, who already knows he’s Iron Man, “I’m going to find all my weapons and destroy them.” She says, “Well, then I quit.”

Really? Does she like Stark Industries as is? Does she like making her living off of weapons that kill millions of people?

But that’s not her rationale. She says, with a loud, tremulous voice, “You’re going to kill yourself, Tony. I’m not going to be a part of it!”

She cares. About him. The millions who die because of his weapons? Whatever.

Don’t even get me started on the push-the-damn-button-already finale:

Iron Man: [under fire] Time to hit the button!
Pepper: You told me not to...
Iron Man: JUST DO IT!
Pepper: YOU'LL DIE!
Iron Man: PUSH IT!

Seriously, you think with his money he could get better help.

The sudden omnipresence of Obadiah Stane

That’s the first big problem of the second-half of the movie. Here’s the second: the sudden omnipresence of Obadiah Stane.

He’s a background figure for most of “Iron Man” ... until it’s revealed that he’s its main villain. The attack on Tony by the terrorists? He orchestrated it. He wanted Tony gone. He didn’t like being in the shadow of this 40-year-old wunderkind who created all the weapons that made him rich and famous. He tries to kill his golden goose. We’ll leave that one alone.

But not this one. Suddenly he’s everywhere. Here’s what he does:

  1. He goes to Afghanistan, stuns the Ten Rings terrorist leader, and orders him and his men killed and their camp destroyed.
  2. Then he shows up in LA, where Pepper is downloading his secret “ghost” computer files that reveal all. (Cue progress bar again.) By the time he goes after her, she’s already hooked onto Agent Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Clark Gregg, in a great, recurring role), and that’s that.
  3. Instead he goes to the lab and berates his scientists for not coming up with the necessary components to make his own iron suit. A great line-reading here from Bridges: “Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave! With a box of scraps!”
  4. At which point we cut to Tony Stark’s place, where someone is coming up behind him. We assume it’s Pepper with a warning. But it’s Obadiah with the paralyzing doohickey. After which he takes the arc reactor from his chest, taunts him a bit, and leaves him to die.

You’re free to ask, as I did, where the hell Pepper Potts and Agent Coulson are during all of this. Writing reports? In a debriefing? I assumed when they left Obadiah’s that they were going to secure Tony’s place. Instead, they’re driving around town, on what errand, and send Rhodey to meet up with Tony. Rhodey shows up late. Tony, heartless, saves himself.

Basically Pepper and Coulson leave the Stark Industries building only to return to the Stark Industries building, by which point Obadiah has managed to, 1) berate his scientists, 2) get the arc reactor from Tony’s chest, and 3) make the Iron Monger suit operational. Basically Pepper and Coulson do what adults do when racing children: they take baby steps. Otherwise the story wouldn’t have its slam-bang finale.

The CGI battle between Iron Man and Iron Monger goes on too long for me, but I know I’m in the minority. I would’ve ended the fight with “How’d you solve the icing problem?” It’s Tony winning through smarts. Instead he wins with luck.

But the movie ends on a high note: “I am Iron Man.” Can’t get much better than that.

Homage to Stan and Jack and Don and Jerry and Joe and...

Overall, “Iron Man” works as well as it does because it’s got something for everyone. It’s got explosions and CGI fights for those folks, and it’s got wit and energy for me folks. It’s got three gigajoules worth of energy.

But let’s talk smart for a moment. One of my favorite lines is during the scene when Obadiah paralyzes Tony and takes his arc reactor and leaves him to die. Here’s what he says as Tony lies paralyzed:

Obadiah: You think just because you have an idea it belongs to you?

It’s my assumption that one of the screenwriters, Mark Fergus or Hawk Ostby or Art Marcum or Matt Holloway, and/or director Jon Favreau, meant this as an homage to Don Heck, who helped create Iron Man back in 1963, and to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who created almost every decent superhero in the Marvel universe in the early 1960s, and to Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, who started the whole thing with Superman in the 1930s, all of whom never owned their own characters. They had ideas that never belonged to them. The line is a sly, winking homage to all of those salaried, ink-stained writers and artists, wretches all, who did the work and created the heroes and then saw the companies they worked for make millions and billions off of these ideas while their creations were taken away from them; while they were given take-it-or-leave-it offers; while they were pushed aside.

“You think just because you have an idea it belongs to you?” If intentional, that’s one of the great smuggling jobs in movies; if not, it’s still wonderfully resonant. The villain says it to the hero as he’s taking life from the hero, but he’s just restating the bottom line of corporations like Marvel Comics and DC Comics and Paramount Pictures, all of those logos you see before the movie starts. In this context, these entities are the villains. We know who the heroes are.

—April 10, 2012

© 2012 Erik Lundegaard