By Nathanael Griffis
It was the summer of 2008, an eerily similar summer to this one. The behemoths of film were being released. Indiana Jones returned. It was last time Will Smith was in a blockbuster. We had two of the greatest animated films ever (WALL-E and Kung Fu Panda). There were comic book sequels: Hellboy II, The Incredible Hulk, and of course, The Dark Knight. Even the Wachowskis were offering us a movie. Prince Caspian brought high hopes. Tropic Thunder looked like a match made in heaven. While some films left the bitter lingering taste of disappointment and have since become despised, several became some of my favorite films of all time. I’ve still never had a better time in the theater than the midnight showing for WALL-E. It’s strange to think this year again starts us off with a Marvel comic movie, that Will Smith is back for essentially the first time since Hancock. Twilight, which was also released that year, is ending (may God be praised). The Wachowskis are releasing their first film since 2008. And, of course, we have The Dark Knight Rises on the horizon, as well as The Amazing Spider-Man. It’s shaping up to be an even better comic book movie year than 2008. Well, perhaps, the jury’s still out and, strangely enough, the tipping point may be Iron Man.
Now what did that mountain ever do to him?
I didn’t see Iron Man opening weekend, which is unusual for me. I could have even seen it for free, but I’m ashamed to say I wasn’t excited. I barely follow comics. I like Batman, Superman, X-Men, and Spider Man, and that’s it. Iron Man as a character was off my radar. I didn’t care for a man in an iron suit. Wasn’t that just a rip-off of Batman, minus the menace and terrifying villains? It took a friend dragging me on a Tuesday 12:20 p.m. showing, which I only agreed to because it was free and I had nothing better to do, to get me to go. I saw the film three more times that week, more than any other film that summer. For comparison, I never saw The Dark Knight or WALL-E, two of my Top 20 films of all time, more than once in the theater.
Yeah, it's gross in there.
It’s a nearly impossible thing to take a subject as fantastic as the superhero and turn it into a socially relevant topic. Iron Man, though, accomplishes this. During the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, we were presented with a charming, brash arms dealer. As a viewer, I was surprised how appealing this war profiteer was. Robert Downey Jr.’s acting and the script by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway deserve a lot of the credit here. Downey brings a tragic narcissism to the role that deftly reflects some of his own personal demons. The script plays off this and balances humor in such a way as to make you laugh and consider the implications of the joke at the same time. It takes a threat to Stark’s own life to awaken him to the horrors his company allows and profits from. He questions his own complacency and compliance in the deaths of thousands. This is brilliant writing, because it’s consistent with a narcissistic character and yet allows Tony Stark to change in a believable, sympathetic way. It also not-so-vaguely challenges the exceptionalist spirit of Americans to consider our own responsibility for military action.
Have I mentioned explosions, yet? Because... cough cough... explosions.
What’s equally challenging, but nessecary to a comic book movie, is Stark’s solution. He builds a weapon. Stark builds a nuclear deterrent, a suit of armor so powerful it’s nearly indestructible. Violence as a solution now becomes a primary argument, but we don’t go to comic book movies for philosphical musings (sorry, Ang Lee). I want to see things explode. Iron Man satisfies this amazingly well. I get enormous flamethrowers, tanks being destroyed by a single projectile, aerial combat, and a duel between two iron suits. Through all this blood and destruction, director Jon Favreau asserts that it’s not the weapon but the wielder that is the issue. It’s an age old debate: is war spurred on by the gun makers or the gun slingers? Do we make laws about weapons to protect the people, or to allow for more freedom of firearms to provide the freedom to protect oneself? There is, wisely, never a judgment made about the current overseas conflicts. Instead the film asks us to weigh our choices as to how to wield our power. The film supports our military, skirts a political subject without being polarizing, and entertains through depth and humor.
Iron Man turns the superhero into a weapon himself. It starts to beg the question, are superheroes weapons to be controlled? This theme, which albeit is a fanciful one that depends on the existence of superheroes, is further explored in Iron Man 2 and The Avengers. Iron Man is human, and we see this as his greatest flaw. His narcissism is his arch enemy. He’s blinded by pride and can’t see that his own company, let alone his mentor, played by Jeff Bridges, doesn’t want peace. In those several viewings of Iron Man, the character became, for me, as fascinating as the haunting morality of Batman, the humanized strength of Spider-Man, and the heroic symbolism of Superman.
Dude just wanted his rug, man.
I love the depth of the film, and with each watching it holds up and grows all the more engrossing. There’s the now-trademark Marvel balance of humor, action, story, and theme. Coming out of The Avengers I was riding a high, but as I started to think, which is always dangerous, I began to pull back. Iron Man takes a tricky issue, a modern issue, and uses the superhero story to discuss a relevant topic. It’s the modern day myth. I didn’t see that in The Avengers. There’s something to be said for the genius of the film’s sheer fun and balance of complex story lines and character arcs. Don’t get me wrong, I love The Avengers and reserve the right to change my mind on everything I say, but it lacks the socially relevant depth of films like The Dark Knight and Iron Man.
If you haven’t seen Iron Man in a while, watch it again and challenge yourself to consider the issues it’s addressing. While the world has changed in four years, it’s stunning to think how much these issues still matter.
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