Sunday, 4 May 2008

Iron Man FTW!!!

This morning, prior to seeing Iron Man, we caught a Sky Movies preview show that featured Robert Downey Jr. (who we love) commenting on how bloggers can wreck a $165m movie if they disapprove of how comic characters are portrayed. Well, luckily for Marvel Studios, this is merely one of many blogs that adored Iron Man, not only for its fealty to the subject matter, either introducing elements straight from the comics or cleverly redefining them, as with Jarvis (wonderfully voiced by Paul Bettany) or the Ten Rings of The Mandarin, and not only because the cast was uniformly wonderful, and yes, not only because it was an absolute hard-rocking blast of an action movie, perfectly mixing humour and drama, but also for making something both light and dark, entertaining and serious, and all of it based around the main character arc and laced with real-world relevance.

I was impressed that the film is set in a world where the War On Terror has occurred but the conflict is something that informs the overarching story, is an element that is a fact of life and not a metaphorical touchstone in place of a story (which is something that has threatened to overwhelm a lot of recent fiction). We've finally moved on from pointing out that we are in a new century with a new kind of war and then patting ourselves on the back for it, and are now telling stories that are set in that world without making a big deal about it. It's a lot easier to swallow and, even though this film touches on serious issues, is a lot more fun as well.

Though it might seem like these newly unpretentious storytellers have become blasé about the war, I see it as artists now attempting to figure out ways to live in this world instead of trying to figure out what went wrong and who we should blame, which gets us nowhere. Iron Man concerns one man willing to take responsibility for the way the world is, and tries to right that wrong. It's fair to say Ayn Rand would be disgusted with it.

All of this would mean nothing if the film was trying to address these issues metaphorically, so we're lucky that Jon Favreau and his team of writers are willing to do that old school trick of making the surface story and character arc reinforce each other, which all stories should do, but often don't nowadays, and yes I realise that makes me sound like David Thompson or Leslie Halliwell or something. Sorry.

The core of the story is something universal: coming to a realisation of what it is to be heroic, and then flying in the face of universal disapproval in order to be a hero when all around you are threatened by your idealism. In the face of values so distorted that expansion of territory, exploitation of resources, and dominance of worldview can be spun until they appear to be heroic endeavours, Iron Man dares to say that's bullshit. It can be something as simple as saving people from murderous bullies, especially when they are empowered by the byproducts of our society, and if we don't even do that, then we really are lost.

As I've said before, in superhero movies there is not enough heroics, with heroes fighting supervillains because of some disagreement between them instead of being super-citizens improving our world. In Iron Man Stark sets out to improve the whole world, to right a wrong that he had never noticed before, and for which he felt a responsibility. It's a character story brilliantly realised on a global scale, a fight to save a soul that, as the opposite of collateral damage, might save the world.

I loved one small scene in the middle of the film, with Stark flying to Afghanistan to save the village of his own saviour, Yinsen (played by Shaun Toub, given much better material here than in that most mealy-mouthed of worthy movies, Paul Haggis' Crash). His interest is in destroying his own weaponry, which has fallen into the hands of the Ten Rings terrorists, but while doing that he saves the villagers from forcible relocation and murder and repays his debt to his murdered ally. In one of the few moments that might be seen as being a message related to the War on Terror, Stark disarms one of the Ten Rings lieutenants, and instead of dealing with him himself, leaves him to the villagers and flies away.

Certainly that could be seen as a comment on the Iraq situation, but it's also a moment that originates in who Stark is. He won't kill an unarmed man, and the outcome of that stance is that he will leave the situation to be dealt with by those who should deal with it. Perhaps once the playing field is levelled by taking away the weaponry made by the powerful who have a vested interest in maintaining conflict, then we might be able to truly step back from these international conflicts instead of making them worse. That said, I really don't think the Ten Rings terrorist was easily forgiven for his sins and then let go. Which sucks, but apparently freedom is messy! (And yes, hopefully that's the last time I'll ever quote Donald Rumsfeld.)

Not only does he save the villagers, but he also saves a pilot endangered by his own clumsy mid-air antics, again taking responsibility for what he does (another great visualisation of the arc Tony moves along). I'd have liked more of that random heroism, but there's a lot to get through, and the point is made. He is a real hero trying to help everyone. Marc Guggenheim and Paul Gulacy's excellent Squadron Supreme: Hyperion vs. Nighthawk mini set in the Sudan might have been a more realistic portrayal of what happens when superheroes get involved in real world troubles (in that complex geopolitical issues cannot be resolved by people who merely have the ability to punch things very hard), but Iron Man is smart enough to avoid having our hero attempt to stop the war altogether. He can only deal with the terrifying weaponry he has built, which, as I said above, might be good enough, certainly for his own redemption. And yes, in our world that might seem idealistic and naïve, but in the world of the film, it echoes and reinforces that character arc from ignorance and arrogance to humility and responsibility, which is very satisfying.

Peter Bradshaw, in a review I think was written moments after he stubbed his toe, so needlessly dismissive is it, carps that...
Iron Man, for all its disposability, makes a cheerful and unpretentious change to the current crop of war movies. At least at first. But I am sorry to say that it is guilty of the sneaky chauvinist trick of making the ultimate villain an American: a mannerism common to many Hollywood movies that cannot quite bring themselves to accord foreigners the status of effective enmity.

But the whole point of the movie is that Stark is responsible for the warfare he grows to despise, and that is dramatised in the conflict with his other half, Obadiah Stane. Making the villain an outsider would dilute the arc to pointlessness. Besides, the scene is set for blowback in the second movie, with The Mandarin seeking revenge for his betrayal by Stane. Maybe then Bradshaw will be happy.

Of course, this is all well and good, and is merely my way of saying how pleased I was that the film feels like it was crafted from the ground up and not just cobbled together. Marvel Studios doesn't need my praise, as figures just in show that the film is an enormous hit, earning $200m worldwide since Thursday. That it didn't earn as much as the appalling Spider-Man 3 is the only bad thing about that, but then let's hope that this marks the beginning of a trend, with superhero movies made by people who understand how the genre works and funded by those same people. Or course, Iron Man's huge box office is good news for the studio, but this Financial Times interview with Marvel Studios chairman David Maisel shows that this hopefully fruitful period of nerdvana might still not last long.

Most studios in Hollywood have offset the risks of film production by raising money from private equity groups and hedge funds. Marvel has taken a different route, using the film rights to its characters as collateral for a loan without forsaking any equity in its films.

Since Marvel tends to be a “fiscally conservative company”, Mr Maisel had to work hard to come up with a financing package that did not expose the comics group to undue risk. After convincing Marvel to launch the studio in 2003, he spent two years structuring a $525m loan financing deal, which was underwritten by Merrill Lynch and secured against the theatrical rights to films that would be produced by the studio.

The financing covers Marvel’s releases until 2012 but does not give the banks any equity in the films. Instead, the banks will receive the capital plus interest and will have the right to make future films using the 12 comic-book characters included in the deal in the event of the company defaulting on its payments. The financing structure guarantees the release of Marvel’s first four films and will be followed by an evaluation period. Assuming the films have performed well, Marvel will retain the theatrical rights to the 12 characters.

The message is, even if the trailer for The Incredible Hulk looks really boring, we fans have a duty to see it at the cinema. Why? Because if you've not yet seen the film, the final pre-credits line of the film and the post-credits cameo appearance by Sam Jackson will make your head explode with pure nerd joy. At our screening, the nerds who stayed behind for that final scene burst into applause at it, even though they knew what was coming. Marvel Studios must succeed, and keep hold of those twelve characters. Our nerd dreams depend on it.

1 comment:

RC said...

i think you're absolutly right about how part of this film works in regards to the war on terror.

you're absolutly right, the story exist in that world, without trying to explain/blame/discuss the origination of that world.

nice thoughts.