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The Cool Nerd's Guide to Iron Man

In most ways a comic book movie is like any other movie: If you have a good story with good acting and good direction, then the film will be good. But let's say your story is about Superman crusading for nuclear disarmament (in the '80s no less), or you've cast Ben Affleck in the lead, or, God forbid, Brett Ratner sits at the helm of it with his giant diamond encrusted megaphone...not good.

The essential part of making a good movie that is based on a comic book is, simply put, to get it right. Getting it right means you nail the hero, the costume and the story so well even Jeff Albertson can't complain. For the studio that means a movie supported by both the mainstream cool kids and comic book schlubs like me -- the multitude of multiple ticket-buying nerds who feed the hype machine and then clamor for more.

So I thought since there are so many new comic book movies on the horizon, and I have such a unique perspective being part nerd and part mainstream cool kid, I would bridge this demographic gap by judging new comic book movies according to my four touchstones of authenticity. Consider me the Obama-figure of unimportant difference, straddling the divide like the Colossus of Rhodes.

Iron Man

Admittedly, this guy's Q rating isn't up there with Batman, so allow for this very brief rundown on the character: He's sort of like Batman. What? You need more? Okay, Batman but drunk. In the comics, Tony Stark is a rich science-genius (like they all are) who builds weaponized armor to aid his escape from Communist imprisonment and also keep his heart from being pierced by shrapnel. It's very much "The John McCain Story" as written by Joseph Lieberman. What makes Tony compelling, most of all, are his flaws. He's a playboy who is willfully headstrong, sometimes to his own detriment. And did I mention he's a drunk? In fact, the most famous Iron Man storyline was "Demon in a Bottle", available in premium hardcover, about Tony's struggle with alcoholism. In it, he hits absolute rock bottom for a millionaire: his butler Jarvis quits. Now do you think Alfred would ever pull a stunt like that on Batman? Even Arthur managed to hold on to his chauffeur.

But that's plenty enough about the print Iron Man. It's time to put Iron Man the movie through its paces.

1. By All Means Be a Hero

Best-case scenario: Christopher Reeves as Superman

Worst-case scenario: Brandon Routh as Christopher Reeves as Superman

Casting the hero is always step one. It's the most important step. Just ask Vincent Chase. In the case of Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. could hand in one of the best superhero performances in Hollywood history. It's hard to imagine an actor having an affinity for a character that dresses in flying metal, but Downey just might. It's taken lightly that he shares a substance-abuse problem with his lead character but in such a fantastical movie as this, that's exactly that kind of humanity Downey brings to the role to balance out all of those cool special effects. Did someone say special effects?

2. Special Effects!

Best case scenario: The Silver Surfer in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Worst-case scenario: Spider-Man. Not good when the hero in action looks like a Wii game

Iron Man chose the right hero but even an actor of Downey's range can't be expected to "act" like he's playing chicken with fighter jets in mid-air. Fundamental to all good superhero flicks is this question: Can CGI make the hero believable when he or she is being heroic? In this case, yes. The special effects look thrilling and Iron Man in action look like straight from the pages of Steve Ditko's workbook. Iron Man also has the added advantage of technical believability. In essence, Tony Stark's heroics are those of a well-built machine. When Iron Man flies, it's not in defiance of gravitational law, it's through a feat of engineering.

3. The Black Hat

Best-case scenario: Jack Nicholson as The Joker
Worst-case scenario: Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze. "Allow me to break the ice."

All great superheroes need strong villains: Superman and Lex Luthor; the X-Men and Magneto; Marjane Satrapi and the Iranian revolution. And this is Iron Man's problem. In the comics he's never really had an engaging villain with whom to do battle. Perhaps his most famous archenemy is the severely outdated Chinese communist the Mandarin, who may as well have been played by Mickey Rooney if they decided to use him in this movie. Instead they went with Obadiah Stane. Basically he's "bad Iron Man." He's a genius and a businessman, too, and he also has a suit of armor. When he dons it Stane becomes the Iron Monger. The motivation is simple enough: capitalist greed. Fine for the movie Wall Street, but will it work for a supervillain? At least we have Jeff Bridges portraying him to help us find out.

4. Cred

Best case scenario: The suit, the car and everything they used to explain those superhero gadgets in Batman Begins
Worst-case scenario: Cyclops, de facto leader of the X-Men, dies ten minutes into X-Men 3. For shame!

The most important thing to know here is that Iron Man is comic book publishing company Marvel's first studio picture. Unlike past movie properties like Fantastic Four or The Punisher, Iron Man is solely under the control of Marvel Studios. It's their baby, so you better believe they want to get this right. For that reason, many fanboys have confidence in the directorial choice of Jon Favreau even though he's had no big-budget cinema experience (unless you count Zarthura; I don't). That might work in his favor because the choices he's elected to make, such as using three different versions of the Iron Man armor throughout the movie, are the definition of "cred" in the comic book community. It's as far from a Joel Schumacher choice as you can get. In fact, the biggest roar at the 2007 San Diego Comic-Con was during an exclusive first-look trailer of the movie when the original box-shaped grey 1960's era armor of Iron Man appeared on screen.

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