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6 May 2008

Review: Iron Man – I want to preempt some previously promised content today with something a little more timely. This past Saturday, my wife and I went to see Iron Man. I don’t really remember much about Iron Man, even though he has been around longer than I have. Truth be told, I was never really that into comic books as a kid, and I only knew of the more popular superheroes (like Batman and Superman) because I saw them during my weekly dose of Saturday morning cartoons. I must have been exposed to Iron Man at some point, though, because I did recognize him. Surprisingly enough, Hyunjin seems to be more familiar with Iron Man than I am. (Note: the following review contains some story spoilers, but most of them can be gleaned from the trailer and/or will most likely not ruin the film if you haven’t seen it already.)

“The superhero stuff was cool, and the special effects were excellent, but I think I most enjoyed Robert Downey, Jr.’s performance as Tony Stark”

But we live in an age when old superheroes are getting new life breathed into them, and I had seen the trailer for Iron Man on television and been intrigued. So we went to see it, and to our great surprise it turned out to be an excellent film. There was the spectacle of seeing Iron Man fly around and blow stuff up, of course, but the surprise is that this was not really the best part of the film. Sure, the superhero stuff was cool, and the special effects were excellent, but I think I most enjoyed Robert Downey, Jr.’s performance as Tony Stark, an alcoholic playboy driven by ambition. Although it didn’t occur to me before seeing the film, Downey is the perfect casting choice for this role, and he plays it to perfection.

The film wasn’t perfect, of course, but it was very good, and I really don’t feel like sitting here and trying to pick at its minor flaws. Far more interesting to me is a (somewhat meandering) meditation on the message of the film and on superheroes in general. Considering that the film opens with what appears to be Stark’s capture by militant radicals who then shoot a video of him that is chillingly similar to real-life videos of hostages being executed, it is hard to avoid the political aspect of the film’s message. Being that I have about as much interest in politics as I do in watching paint dry, though, I’m going to skip over this part. Let us just say that the political message is a pliable one—that is, it is open to whichever interpretation of world events you may happen to favor—and leave it at that.

There is another message, though, which is, put simply: don’t waste your life. Stark is given a second chance at life, and he is determined to right the wrongs that have been done by his company, an arms manufacturer. This isn’t a particularly new message, but I like the way it is expressed here. Stark is wounded by one of his own weapons and would have died had it not been for the efforts of fellow captive Yinsen, who builds an electromagnet and implants it in Stark’s chest to keep the shrapnel from entering his heart. This is Stark’s cross to bear, so to speak—for the rest of his life, he will be dependent on one device or another to keep himself alive.

This, for me, is the main thing that sets Iron Man apart from the superhero I can’t help thinking of in comparison: Batman. Both Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne are troubled millionaires with no superhuman powers—instead, they rely on their wealth and ingenuity to become superheroes. One obvious difference is that Tony Stark is incredibly smart and a mechanical genius, while Batman seems to be more familiar with the martial arts. But for me the most important difference is that Tony Stark is on life support. He could have given in to despair. He could have decided to feel sorry for himself and live the rest of his life as an invalid. Instead, he builds a miniaturized arc reactor (the most outlandish part of the whole story, but sufficient for suspension of disbelief), providing him with enough power to not only keep himself alive but also to build and power something fantastic—something super.

At the same time, though, he is still the same flawed individual that he was before he had his big realization. This is what keeps things interesting—internal conflict is the cornerstone of modern fiction, and most mature readers will quickly become bored with a character who has no conflict and undergoes no development. The superhero who immediately leaps to mind as an example of how not to create a character is Superman. With no real internal weaknesses, the writers were forced to introduce an external weakness—kryptonite—but this is not nearly as effective. Superman may appeal to young children (I distinctly remember my brother and I running around the house in our underpants with towels tied around our necks), but older, more mature audiences appreciate more flawed superheroes.

So this is sort of a common message gleaned from superhero stories: power does not suddenly change who we are and make us some perfect being. It is said that power corrupts, but I think it would be more accurate to say that power merely provides the opportunity for corruption—we don’t suddenly become corrupt because we have power, instead, having power gives the corruption inherent in our nature an outlet. It is interesting to note (as Stane does toward the end of the film) that even as Stark vowed to stop manufacturing weapons, he ended up creating the most deadly weapon of all. And how does Stark combat the cycle of violence he has perpetuated all these years? With more violence. His motives may be different, but he is still the same individual he was before, and he finds it difficult to adjust to a new paradigm.

Like I said, this is a common message, and it can be seen in all the good superhero films. Add to this Stark’s unique situation and Iron Man’s message becomes slightly more complex. We are all flawed human beings, but something great can still be made of us—not in spite of of our flaws, but because of them. If Stark hadn’t been mortally wounded, he wouldn’t have been driven to create a power source to save himself, and he wouldn’t have had the opportunity of rising above the initial goal of saving himself to the more noble goal of attempting to make the world a better place. Batman Begins shows us something similar, with Bruce Wayne embracing his fear of bats and ultimately overcoming it as he strikes fear in the hearts of his enemies, but Stark’s problem is not a mere phobia—if the power source is removed from his chest for an extended period of time, he dies. So it’s not about trying to overcome our flaws, it’s about embracing those flaws and finding the opportunity within them to rise above the pettiness with which we might otherwise be consumed.

Now that I’ve gone and written this, it seems slightly ridiculous. After all, Iron Man is not a film that demands reflection. Batman Begins is brooding and pensive, but Iron Man is flashy and fun (for the most part). It’s not really the sort of film that leads to deep introspection. But the more I thought about it, the more I started to see this “message.” It probably has something to do with the fact that we actually saw the film twice—once on Saturday, and then once again last night on an IMAX screen. It was just as enjoyable the second time around, but seeing it two times in three days got me thinking about some of the deeper implications of the Iron Man character. (Incidentally, this is only the third time, I think, that I have seen a film in the cinema more than once: I saw the first Pirates of the Caribbean film twice and the last Lord of the Rings film four—yes, four—times. In every instance, including this latest instance, it has been well worth it.)

Well, there you have it. I’m not sure how well this functions as a review, but Iron Man just doesn’t strike me as the type of film that requires criticism. It probably doesn’t require reflection either, but regular readers will have come to expect this sort of thing from me. Since this is ostensibly a review, though, I suppose I should finish this up with a recommendation. Bottom line: Iron Man is an excellent film and a lot of fun, and if you haven’t seen it already, get moving—you’ll want to see this one on the big screen. Oh, and if you’re a fan of comics, you’ll probably want to stay until after the credits (if you’re not a fan of comics, feel free to leave when the credits roll, because the little scene at the end will mean nothing to you).

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