Iron Man—What I Expected, and Why

So last night I finally saw the movie Iron Man. That’s what we like to say, isn’t it, when weeks have gone by before we’ve seen a hit movie of the summer season? The statement often means, “Of course I was going to see it, and probably would have seen it on opening weekend, but somehow other things crowded out my fundamental priorities, and, gee, I’m sorry, people, but I did eventually do what I would have done sooner, if only . . .”

Yea, right. Here’s the truth. When the movie was fresh out in theaters, I called a friend thinking maybe he’d like to see it with me. We see a lot of films together, and pretty much on the spur of the moment—mostly films that are guaranteed to be of little interest to our respective wives. For example, D and J don’t go in much for violence, even of the comic book variety, maybe especially the comic book variety. So I pitched it to him. “How ’bout we go see Iron Man tonight?”

He wasn’t interested. “Maybe there’s a better movie we could see instead?” he suggested and asked at the same time. Not to be thwarted so easily, I started listing off names of major actors in Iron Man, including Gwyneth Paltrow. I kid you not, I was only jesting. I had no idea that Paltrow was in the film; that’s how much I knew about it. And I wasn’t expecting it to be as good as any Gwyneth Paltrow movie she actually was in. Maybe I’d get my buddy to go to the movie, and apologize later for the mistake about Paltrow. No luck.

Sometime later I checked back with him to see if he’d changed his mind. He had. That is, he had already seen the movie with his two sons! So last night I called another friend. He surprised me on several counts. No, he hadn’t seen the movie. Yes, he’d like to see the movie. And yes, he’d be willing to drop everything for the showing scheduled within the next hour.

I wasn’t expecting much, but I did want to see the movie. So what was I expecting? Lots of action. Terrific graphics. Brilliant stunts. These elements do not, by themselves, make for a great movie, even at the level of mere entertainment. A mere entertainment film is a film that isn’t a film, but a “movie.” It has little “intellectual” value and does not remotely qualify as an object d’art. It just kills an evening when you don’t feel like doing much else. And, if you’re lucky, when it’s over you don’t feel like it was a total waste of time.

That was the trend of my expectations. I deliberately aimed low because I was not in the mood for being disappointed.

Iron Man would be predictable (this coming from someone who never once read an Iron Man comic). It would be filmed for kids and rated so adults would come and kids (the younger ones) wouldn’t be allowed to. It would depict the making of a super-hero. That hero would be conflicted about his former way of life and his new mandate to protect “the people.” He would blow away the competition, and bask in the glow of adulation, but with that moderation that we require in our super-heroes (though apparently not in many of our not-so-super heroes). Glib lines would be delivered glibly. . . . Oh, and the original comic book character and his circumstances would be brought up to date, or “contextualized,” maybe in light of post-9/11 trauma about terrorism.

I think the main reason why this is all I expected is that I had assumed all the really good super-heroes and their antics had already been mined bone dry for film potential. If the Iron Man series deserved filmic interpretation, it would surely have been done already and in a memorable way. For that matter, I would have known about Iron Man, the comic book hero, long before the film came out—which I didn’t. (How I could have known the other Avengers and been oblivious to Iron Man is beyond understanding.)

Now, if I had known that Gwyneth Paltrow actually was in the movie, my expectations might have been higher.

In that event, I might have been more disappointed than I was. In fact, I wasn’t disappointed at all. This is a movie I would see again—on DVD. And not because of Paltrow, but because of Robert Downey, Jr. Boy, I never thought I’d say that! But it seems the actor has found a role that’s a good fit on him, as if he kind of lives like the playboy narcissist in the “real world.” Huh.

Jeff Bridges was a surprise, and not only because of his shaved head and bushy gray beard. He was very good as a bad guy. The rest of the actors seemed like they were . . . well, out of a comic book or something. And in this respect, Paltrow was supreme. She acted more corny than her name, Pepper Potts. (Parents, don’t alliterate your children’s names using the letter “p,” especially with words that serve also as the commonest of nouns). Paltrow’s Pepper Potts made the movie seem more like a real comic book come to life. This is a good thing, brilliant, in fact. (Pepper Potts is the subject of special attention in a review at the Hathor Legacy blog. This blog focuses on “the search for good female characters” in film and other pop culture venues. That’s a pretty specialized nighe, I should think.)

Iron Man worked because it was realistic without being too realistic. It was both realistic and true to form. When it was most true to form, it was more fantastic than realistic. But you could swallow the fantastic bits because of the otherwise more-or-less realistic story line. (When realism is wedded almost seamlessly to the comic book form, something has to give, and that something is going to be realism.) It isn’t realistic that Tony Stark survives the ambush at the beginning of the film. It isn’t realistic that his friend, Rhodey, survives the attack, if he was riding in a vehicle behind Stark’s (as we’re made to believe). Stark is so far above average as an improvisational engineer and entrepeneur that the exaggeration is literally comical. And so on and so forth. What is most fantastic, however, is how Stark survives his experiments with palm-operated thrusters in his basement workshop!

That kind of exaggeration is the stuff of old-fashioned comics, though. And the movie Iron Man is the rendering of a comic book character and his story. It can’t be easy mimicking the comic book to such good effect, especially for the jaded audience of the present decade. And that’s why this movie is a film.

I say the film effectively mimicks the comic book. How do I know this if I haven’t read the comic book version? I just do.

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