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May 05, 2008

Iron Man Review

Three stars. Maybe three and a half, but it's hard to give such a silly bit of fluff three and a half stars -- though it should be said as far as silly fluff goes, this is pretty damn good silly fluff. Nah-- definitely three stars. The piss-poor final confrontation, which could have been Superman II level, is instead Superman Returns level, and just doesn't deliver.

Tony Stark, either "the DaVinci of our time" or "The Merchant of Death" or both, is a brilliant billionaire engineer and weapons magnate, irresponsible, unserious, selfish, and callow. He's an adult with the immaturity of a teenager but the vices of a dissipated playboy (namely, alcohol, womanizing, driving too fast, and a general disregard for other's needs or time spent waiting for him).

On a visit to Afghanistan to demonstrate his new wonder-weapon, the Jericho, the first weapon using his patented "repulsor technology" (though it should be noted the weapon doesn't seem terribly advanced in terms of actual effectiveness-- it's just basically a missile loaded with independently-targeted submunition warheads), his convoy is attacked by Taliban terrorists multiethnic but decidedly swarthy thugs whose chief political agenda seems to be blowing up villages and taking frightened farmers hostage for no particularly good reason. Maybe they demand ransom and tribute in the form of dirt and squalor.

And the convoy is attacked with Stark's own weapons, which have fallen into The Wrong Hands.

Badly wounded with steely shrapnel threatening to enter his aortic chamber and kill him, a fellow prisoner sticks an electromagnet into his chest to keep the shrapnel at bay. His Al Qaeda "Ten Rings" warlord captor forces him to build a Jericho weapons system for him (not really sure why a guy with so many more conventional weapons needs a high-tech missile to beat up on unarmed villagers). Instead of building the Jericho, Tony, along with the fellow captive who performed life-saving surgery on him (conveniently apparently a Muslim, just in case you got the idea that All Muslims Are Bad), Tony builds a crude and lumbering but definitely impressive suit of powered armor, powered by a miracle power source called the "arc reactor," which about the the size of an ashtray but can power the immensely heavy powered armor for fifteen minutes (including, yes, short-burst flight rockets built into the boots). And yeah, he just knocks together his magic battery using the tools of a seventeenth century blacksmith. Though he does have access to palladium (The Wonder Element, apparently).

Having escaped his captors, Tony Stark returns to his Malibu mansion a changed man... sort of. He's still as irresponsible, glib, thoughtless, and selfish as ever, but now he's on a mission... a mission to end Stark Industry's weapons program completely, and furthermore track down and destroy all the glittery high-tech weapons that his company has sold to Swarthy Foreigners of Indeterminate Ethnopolitical Orientation. Still a Boy-Man, to be sure, but now a Boy-Man on a Crusade.

To that end, he enlists the aid of his ultracompetent and devoted aid, the lovely Miss Pepper Potts (ahem), his college buddy and Air Force liaison James Rhodes, and his artificially intelligent computer butler/engineering chief "Jarvis" (think KITT as a house instead of as a car) and his robot helpers, who have all the loyalty, affection and enthusiasm as puppies, but also unfortunately the judgment and technical skills of puppies as well. He creates a "Mark 2" version of his flying armor, and then (though this isn't said) a Mark 3 version, and it's in that gold and "hot rod red" suit of badass armor he takes to the skies and then to Afghanistan to rough up The Taliban "The Ten Rings" gang.

And soon after he must confront the villain in his company who's been dealing arms to terrorists kaffiyah-wearing thugs... but that villain has reconstructed and improved upon his original heavy, crude armor design, and so Tony Stark faces his dark doppleganger, conveniently representing all his past sins (notably a lack of conscience or sense of moral responsibility, and a general carelessness for what happens to "the little people" as such a godlike colossus tramples and lumbers around).


That's the synopsis. I've been a bit snarky about some elements of the plot, but overall the movie is lively, laugh-out-loud funny, and delivers on all the Iron Man repulsor-raying piston-punching action you could want... except, nearly disastrously, in the very disappointing final confrontation with "Iron Monger," which almost seems to intentionally not pay off on the implicit promise of two super-powerful mechs going armored toe to armored toe. I'll get to that in a bit.

First of all, the much-discussed politics of the movie. This Pajamas Media review raps the film thus:

“Peace,” says Tony Stark, the weapons manufacturer hero of Iron Man, “means having a bigger stick than the other guy.” Could it be that we’re in for a superhero action movie that blasts away at the senses with cynically funny escapism and an unapologetic celebration of American swagger? “Ensuring freedom and protecting American interests” are Tony’s stated goals, especially if he can make a lot of money in the process, and what’s more American than that?

So it’s a letdown when the movie spends the second half being very apologetic indeed. You come to Iron Man to see a bullet-proof one-man flying tank, not hear a Ralph Nader lecture on how American industry is responsible for all the wars in the world. Does even Ralph Nader attend a superhero movie hoping to swallow a guilt trip along with his Jujubes?

Other reviewers -- notably someone and Liberrocky, writing here -- declare the film to be wonderfully "free of moonbattery."

The truth of the matter lies somewhere in the middle. Jon Favreau has (wisely, I think, and probably best for his career) obfuscated on the basic message of the movie, and the actual sin Tony is trying to redeem. Liberal and conservative audiences are given a bit of a muddled message and muddled motivation for Stark, and can fairly read into it their message and motive of choice.

Stark's conversion and epiphany seems to be that weapons and war are bad (mmm-kay?) and that he'll no longer make them, even for the troops he declares it's his mission to protect and defend. On the other hand, the dialogue and plot also suggest that it's not weapons and war that's bad per se; the problem is much more restricted -- Tony Stark's own company, due to some villains in its higher echelons, sold his precious troop-saving technology to the bad guys, so Stark is against building weapons only to insure this doesn't happen again. In other words, guns don't kill people, people kill people and particularly some high-ranking officers of Stark Industries.

It's a bit convenient that Stark is able (by some readings) to avoid the larger question of the morality of war and weapons manufacture by focusing laser-like simply on his own company's bad behavior. Still, this is a big-budget wide-release blockbuster picture, and it's crafty (and forgivable) that Favreau sought to not give offense to either the liberals or conservatives, the doves or the hawks. Given the fact that most filmmakers don't give a shit how badly they piss off conservatives, I think Pajamas Media's Kyle Smith is churlish on this point -- no, Favreau does not endorse the War on Terror nor wind up justifying weapons manufacture, at least not cleanly. But he does take pains to avoid explicitly endorsing the liberal view of war and weapons, too.

And whatever sort of muddied moral he might be attempting to suggest (or avoid suggesting, more likely), he presents the US military itself as a positive force for good, entirely composed of professional, patriotic, and very human folks just trying to do what's best for America -- and the world, too.

And even if he's trying to smuggle in a liberal agenda about pacifism -- well, there's just no getting around the basic requirements of the plot. Tony Stark doesn't return to Afghanistan to hold six-party diplomatic talks with the Ten Rings organization. He goes there to unilaterally apply excessive force to the evil-doers, incapacitate or kill as many of them as necessary, and even leaves a Big Bad to the tender mercies of the people he terrorized. "Do with him what you want," Tony says as he flies away, or words to that effect, and Stark doesn't anticipate their being a trial or merciful period of confinement in a prison.

Like any action movie that might attempt to push pacifism as an ideal, it can't avoid the crushing contradiction forced upon it by the action genre: Force works, and some people just can't be dealt with any other way.

So overall -- some light moonbattery, some muted pacifist/anti-war notes here and there to "shut the hippies up" (as Jeff Bridges as Obediah Slane says of Stark's arc reactor alternative-energy initiative), but such is easily ignored by anyone who wishes to ignore it, as the movie's "message," if it has one at all, is calculatedly vague and intentionally inoffensive to the broadest possible number of movie-goers. The Simpsons has often been called conservative, not because it was truly conservative but because it at least usually didn't take an expressly pro-liberal line as almost all Hollywood entertainment does but is a bit more even-handed in taking its shots. Iron Man is sort of similar in that regard, but instead of taking shots at both sides, it takes no shots at anyone.

It really only takes a political position on Evil Thugs Who Brutalize Peaceful Villagers and Evil Corporate Masterminds Who Sell Arms to Terrorists. It's political position on both? They're not good and they need to be Repulsor Rayed ASAP.

[More coming... just want to prove I'm not sitting here watching Blossom.]

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posted by Ace at 12:58 PM

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