I rented Iron Man (2008, Jon Favreau) on Blu-ray this week. Now, there is no way that I'm in the target audience for a film like this. I suffer from an extreme case of superhero fatigue - tales of men with secret identities who dress in gadget laden outfits to fight crime and take vengeance don't interest me at all. Sometimes an individual film in the genre will take my fancy, but as a whole, superheroes just don't do it for me. I think Spiderman 2 (2004, Sam Raimi) is the contemporary high water mark for the form, much as Richard Donner's 1978 Superman was at the time.
Iron Man is a much loved and hugely successful film. Of course, so are Christopher Nolan's Batman films - Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008) - and they both left me cold. So let's just say superhero films generally face an uphill battle when it comes to me liking them. It's a battle Iron Man struggled with for the first forty or so minutes, before I grudgingly came around to admitting that I was finding it quite enjoyable.
One of the things that was so great about Iron Man, I was breathlessly assured in blogs and conversations with aficionados of the genre, was how the main character, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is an arrogant prick who discovers compassion along the way. All very well and good, and the choice of Downey - a man who has been to hell and back with his own demons and never been boring onscreen - was promising. However, the film is not brave enough to challenge the audience to like the man - yes, he's never far from a whiskey on the rocks, even when being driven through a war zone in the Middle East, he treats his staff like dirt, and ignores the affections of the ever loyal Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), but he's really a likeable rogue, the kind of lovable bad boy that the film really just wants us to adore from the outset. He'd take a private jet to get milk and seduce the stewardess on the way, and every teenage male in the audience wants to be him.
I know, of all the things to complain about, I choose to complain about a character being likeable. For me, watching Iron Man was akin to sitting down to what is expected to be a spicy dish and instead being served vanilla ice-cream. The terrific cast acquit themselves well, and Jon Favreau proves himself a competent and workman-like director, certainly no visionary, but not a hack, either. The film improves as it goes along, with composer Ramin Djawadi dropping the annoying "hey kids, isn't this bit cool?" guitars when the film has to settle down to dramatic business in the climax - the score improves to the point of not being noticeable. How's that for damning with faint praise?
The film schizophrenically creates a character arc around Tony Stark's realisation that weapons manufacture may not be the best use for his talents, while celebrating and fetishising his increasingly sophisticated suit and fire power. A particularly troubling moment has Stark jetting into a Middle Eastern hotbed of terrorism and kicking butt, until he's faced with a multiple hostage situation - the hostages being a group of women and children (of course). He pauses for a moment, and we wonder how the situation will be resolved. Cut to the interior heads up display in Stark's helmet, a bunch of CGI target trackers isolating the bad guys, who are then all taken out by an array of weapons which appear from the shoulders of the suit, leaving the bewildered hostages standing while their aggressors drop dead around them. Within the space of one minute, the film has raised the notion of how complicated these real world situations can be and then solved it with a piece of simplistic wish fulfillment. Am I reading too much into this? I thought we might have left this stuff behind when James Cameron combined Islamic terrorism and comedy relief in his 1994 film True Lies, but apparently not.
Finally, I was pretty surprised by the number of gags the film lifts wholesale from older films, especially RoboCop (1987, Paul Verhoeven) and Rocketeer (1991, Joe Johnston). At least Favreau shows good taste in the films he steals from.