Iron Man 1
One of the most interesting phenomena’s of the last decade has been the truly astounding success of the Iron Man franchise. The movies have been incredibly successful earning in excess of two billion dollars.1 Also to a surprising extent the films work as movies even though they are basically popcorn action flicks.
Now the franchise totals 3 films with the creative (snark) titles of Iron Man 1, (2008), Iron Man 2, (2010), Iron Man 3, (2013). The character Tony Stark, (Iron Man), also appeared in The Incredible Hulk, (2008), in a cameo, and The Avengers, (2012) in a supporting role.
Now the character Iron Man is from Marvel Comics and belongs to the logical but utterly bat shit insane universe that is the “Marvel Universe”. Iron Man is not one of the pantheon of great Marvel heroes like Thor, or Captain America but belongs to the “second rung” of heroes in that universe. He is a billionaire, genius playboy named Tony Stark who runs around in a space age battle suit, righting wrongs and getting into trouble regularly. Oh and he is a bit of a douche.
In the Marvel Universe Tony Stark as Iron Man was originally an anti-Communist figure. He was captured by Viet-Cong in order to be forced in collaboration with a Vietnamese scientist to create weapons of mass destruction. (This was in 1963.) Instead Tony Stark perfected the scientist’s battle suit and destroyed his captors. Much of Iron Man’s initial adventures fit into the cold war ethos of the time, (Early to mid-60’s.), and today that really dates them. Later the character’s enemies changed and so did his motivations.
One thing never changed Tony Stark’s penchant for dry sarcasm and his monumental self-regard to the point of Narcissism. Tony Stark was in the comics always a jerk to some extent, however he was generally a charming if sometime exasperating jerk. He was also one of the few Marvel heroes who have no superpowers. In fact aside from being highly intelligent there is nothing super about Tony Stark. He is Iron Man because of advanced, space age technology. As such he is like the DC’s Universe’s Batman, who relies on his brains and technology to beat his rivals and enemies, many of whom do indeed have super powers.
Thus in the Marvel Universe Tony Stark’s penchant for dry but pointed witticisms has gotten him into fights with his exasperated but formidable friends. Interestingly Tony Stark’s compulsive womanizing was more hinted about in the early Marvel Comics than actually shown. Later that sort of restriction was more or less lifted. However at the time there was a hideous thing called The Comics Code, that censored and frankly kidified comics. The result was that American comics were subject to a creative straitjacket for more than a generation.2 Marvel comics tried various ways to get around those limits under the direction of Stan Lee.
The genius of Stan Lee was not so much creating interesting superheroes but in giving them personality quirks that made them feel a bit more real rather than just card board cut out good guys. Thus we get Spiderman, perhaps Stan Lee’s greatest creation, who when he started out was made interesting by being given typical teen age problems to deal with. An example of how clever Stan Lee could be was when he had Spiderman appear on the Ed Sullivan show. Now being a super hero Spiderman has a secret identity, so he is paid by a check written out to “Spiderman”. Well there is a problem “Spiderman” doesn’t have a bank account and can’t get one. So the check is worthless!
Tony Stark is a similar creation in that he is not perfect, has personal problems and some of the time behaves like a jerk. He is in other words complicated, which is not something you can really say of Superman for example.
Iron Man 2
To get to the films themselves. The main selling point of the movies is of course Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Tony Stark. This is so because frankly aside from that the movies are pretty standard big budget Hollywood Superhero movies.
The action scenes are bluntly pretty formulaic and the CGI while impressive is not mind blowing. The bottom line is that the funniest and best scenes in the movies are Robert Downey Jr. being the amiable, charming douche-bag that is Tony Stark. When Tony is in his armor suit flying around and beating people up he is nowhere near as fun as he is when he is Tony Stark, lovable, charming asshole.
Robert Downey Jr. seemed to realize that what sells the movies and his character is not the superhero stuff, which is pretty generic, but the everyday jerk wad but amiable Tony Stark. Frankly the scenes in which Tony is Tony are much more interesting and memorable than when he is Iron Man.
Robert Downey Jr. portrays Tony Stark as the ultimate spoiled “Rich Kid” afflicted, (Yes that is the right word.), with entitlement syndrome. Tony Stark would be insufferable were it not for the fact that the character is charming and very, very smart. This is the guy who thinks that he is the smartest guy in the room and he, the great majority of the time, is.
If the charm of Robert Downey Jr’s performance as Tony Stark is what makes a character who could all too easily be insufferable; it is also the main reason to watch these movies. The fact that Robert Downey Jr. enlivened his performance with ad-libs of very dry sarcastic wit only adds to the charm of his performance. In the movies I generally during the scenes when he is flying around and fighting in the armor, want him to get rid of all that and see him as Tony Stark. Frankly the Iron Man scenes are simply place holdings in the movie between the meaty Tony Stark scenes.
Given that Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark so thoroughly dominates the movies it is a bit of let down to realize how everything sort of pales in comparison. As mentioned above the action scenes are OK but not really memorable and in fact generic. The other actors in the movies are rather over shadowed.
Jeff Bridges as the villain in the first Iron Man movie is for example largely wasted. His performance while not bad is entirely overshadowed by Robert Downey Jr.’s. And Frankly Pepper Potts as played by Gwyneth Paltrow is occasionally charming as Tony Stark’s knowing personal assistant and then love interest, but is still overshadowed by Robert Downey Jr. Although the character gets a lot more interesting and more screen time in Iron Man 3. The character also gets the best line in the movie, when she says to him after a particularly inane episode of Tony Stark being douchy says “Your such a jerk”. Also it was nice to see at the end her saving Tony’s ass. The other actors and characters are not terribly memorable and Don Cheadle is basically wasted in a role that seems phoned in.
As mentioned above Robert Downey Jr. did a brief cameo in The Incredible Hulk, but he had a far more substantial role as a supporting player in The Avengers. There the most enjoyable scenes are not the long and frankly fairly typical action sequences but the ones with Tony Stark interacting with Bruce Banner, the Hulk un-transformed. In those scenes the two ultra-geek geniuses interact and it is pretty entertaining. Past Hulk films tended to forget that Bruce Banner, the Hulk’s alter ego is a scientist and a geek genius, so having him interact as super geek to super geek with Tony Stark is great fun.
As mentioned above the fun of the Iron Man movies is quite literally Tony Stark. The action scenes, the cinematography etc., even the plot is decidedly secondary to the utter fun of Tony Stark. In fact without that the general cheesiness of the whole superhero movie would come through and the movies would be quite forgettable.
I sort of wonder if they can possibly work without Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark. I have my doubts.
Iron Man 3
1. Iron Man in Film, Wikipedia Here.
2. Comics Code Authority, Wikipedia Here.