Monday, May 6, 2013

Virality


(WARNING: SPOILERS, GEEKINESS, NERDING OUT, blah blah blah)

The key to the Iron Man movies has always been the face of Robert Downey, Jr., alternately playful and haunted, but constantly signifying and suggesting layers to the character that the screenplay or the action sequences can't convey. Casting Downey was a masterstroke, not only because his own blend of genius and addiction mirrors that of the title character, but because few contemporary actors (and certainly no superstars) convey thought as well as he does: dancing around his basement laboratories, squinting at holographic equations or literally mapping out a universe, Downey's darting eyes, furrowed forehead and ADD eyebrows are the superhero trilogy's most thrilling special effects.  Watching the electronic guidance systems of his helmet bounce off his cheekbones humanizes a character that might otherwise seem like an impenetrable, out-of-control, weaponized metal shell-- and I don't mean the suit of armor. Iron Man 3, the latest armored epic (and a film so confident of its own power that it don't need no stinkin' subtitle), takes the dramatic possibilities of this face to their logical endpoints by tossing aside the helmet and giving Stark's human visage as much screen time as possible. The result is to make the character at once more open and more gloriously inscrutable than ever.


Longtime readers of the blog know I have a bit of an obsession with this guy, in both comic book and movie form. For decades, despite occasional surges in popularity (and some really quality writer/artist runs on his title), Iron Man was a second-tier Marvel hero, better known for his tenure as an Avenger (or for ancillary versions of the character, like the mid-90s cartoon) than for the stories in his own book. Certainly, his mainstream name recognition paled compared to that of Spider-Man, The X-Men or Batman. Watching the character's popularity and media ubiquity explode following the 2008 feature film thrilled my geeky little heart, even as the noisy pedant who lives inside that heart kept making checklists of how well or poorly various characters, plot points and visual elements were translated to the screen (those checklists could have been titled "Hurray!" and "...Hmmm...").




The first Iron Man film was a sleek blockbuster, almost a platonic ideal of a summer movie in how well it juggled character, action and spectacle within a pop framework. Drawing equally on Iron Man's original, 1963 origin story as well as the Warren Ellis/Adi Granov reboot of that origin in 2005 (which shifted the action from Vietnam to Afghanistan and introduced an eerie new technological upgrade to the armor called "Extremis"), the movie also integrated characters and plot elements from nearly every major era of the book, most impressively Jeff Bridges' villainous industrialist Obadiah Stane. That the Stane of the movie is quite different from his comic book version hardly matters (especially since Bridges took such delight in the role, finding the wit and shading in the role without condescending to it, as if The Dude really had become The Big Lebowski).  For a longtime fan like me, the fact the director Jon Favreau had reached far enough into the mythology to find and highlight such a fantastic-but-not-well-known nemesis was one of those insidery nods that acted as comfort: the legacy was in good hands.


For many fans of the first film, Iron Man 2 (2010) took that legacy and blew it up like one of the Avenger's aerial targets, but I don't agree: watching it again on Saturday, I was struck anew by what a strange, remarkable movie it is, precisely because of its willingness to be "plotless," "dark," and "rambling" (to name just some of the critiques I've heard of the movie). As Chris Eigeman's Nick says in Metropolitan, "I guess you could say it's extremely vulgar. I like it a lot." The key to Favreau's first Iron Man film lay partly in his affection for the long history of the character, but even more in his actorly bond to Downey and the rest of the cast: there were many moments in Iron Man where plot and action were willingly sacrificed for off-beat bits of character (such as the press conference announcing Stark's return to civilization, where Tony carries in a bag of Burger King, sits on the floor, and in the language of the Boomers, just raps at us for a few minutes-- much of the script was improvised on-set by the actor and his director).



Iron Man 2 takes that Burger King scene and uses it as the template for the entire film's structure, which is less a traditional blockbuster (despite some fabulously staged action) than a series of character-driven actors' exercises and comedic sketch pieces (even this has an antecedent in the comics-- David Michelinie and Bob Layton, the Iron auteurs of the late 70s and early 80s, were perfectly happy to stop their momentum short for a nice bit of character or a good joke, at one point even drawing one cop talking to the armored hero to look like Steve Martin). It's a vertical movie rather than a linear one, far less invested in getting us from point A to Z than stopping at, say, point C and asking us to really enjoy its density of character, play of light, leisurely pacing or smart song placement for just a few minutes, before leap-frogging over to point D and starting that process all over again.

This makes it of a piece with the first film, but also a weird, funny deconstruction of all the heroic tropes that film spent two-plus hours building, and of the tropes of the superhero film more generally; one smart comics blog aptly described it as "Robocop 2 as directed by Robert Altman," which was also my response to the movie's overlapping dialogue, strange tangents and constant sense that its cast was telling one long inside joke to the audience, while still providing all kinds of texture to keep us engaged (there's one gorgeous moment towards the end, where Tony floats and spins within a holographic model of the electronic riddle his late father has left for him, that stops the movie's joking cold and just suspends us in its floating, beautiful quiet for a second, and it pulls the whole movie together). A superhero movie whose emotional climax centers on the cooking and presentation of an omelet isn't going to be for everyone, but I'm glad that the success of the previous film let Favreau and his very cheeky screenwriter Justin Theroux get away with it, even if the relatively smaller box office (six million less dollars-- six whole million!-- than the previous Iron adventure) meant that Favreau, who also plays chauffeur Happy Hogan, was asked back for the third film as an actor only.



Between Iron Man 2 and 3 came The Avengers (2012), the Joss Whedon funhouse ride that was the most enjoyable experience I had in a theater last year. While nominally a movie about several established-in-their-franchises heroes (and a few new ones), its narrative heart was Iron Man's cybernetic one, and the new film is so intertwined and indebted to it (far more than to Iron Man 2) that the new movie might as well have been titled Iron Man 4. Whether he was offering a drink to Loki, bonding with the Hulk, diving from a skyscraper into an unfolding armored suit, or referring to a Norse god as "Shakespeare In The Park," the Tony Stark of Whedon's film functioned as a greatest hits montage of the kinds of action, humor and sexiness that had drawn audiences to the character four years earlier. Creatively, it harkened back to how well the character functioned in the 60s and 70s in the Avengers comic book: getting bits of Tony interspersed with other heroes who could share the melodramatic load--thus leaving room for some lovely one-liners--might very well be the commercial ideal for the character (or at the very least, could spike shawarma sales).

But it's The Avengers' introduction and climax for the character that most links it to Iron Man 3. Flying back to his penthouse after some bit of superheroics, Tony gets out of the suit and flirts quietly with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), the one-time assistant who now runs his corporation. The dialogue is almost mumbled, the actors very playful, and the camera picks up on them like it's eavesdropping. The scene only lasts a minute or two and is interrupted by a SHIELD agent who gets things back on narrative course, but its casual nature is a nice nod to the improvisatory spirit of the first two films, and it might be my favorite bit of the whole movie. It also sets up the heroism of the movie's climax, when Tony's only thought as he flies into the cosmos to detonate a massive explosive device is that he wants to talk to Pepper one more time (and can't get cell reception). It's that moment of revelation and emotional uncertainty that will become Iron Man 3's narrative motor.


By this point, Tony Stark and his universe are as well-established as the Bond films that served, in part, as one of the character's inspirations: all that's needed is a cheeky musical cue (in this case, Eiffel 65's "Blue"), a glimpse of Downey's face and a pull-back to his labs, and we're thrust back into the adventure. The film takes full advantage of that familiarity, tweaking things just enough tonally to make the known look new. Co-writer/director Shane Black is best-known as the creator of the Lethal Weapon films (which Iron Man 3 occasionally echoes, particularly in its dockside climax), but most of the movie and comics nerds I know who were excited about his Iron Man 3 takeover from Jon Favreau cited his previous collaboration with Downey, Jr., Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) as the model for what might follow. The tale of a very incompetent petty thief (Downey) who stumbles into pretending to be an actor, witnesses a murder, and must solve the crime in partnership with a gay cop (Val Kilmer), the movie is a very funny spin on buddy flicks, film noir, and Downey and Kilmer's own public images as talented, hot-headed fuck-ups.


Black has a lot of fun sending up the very action cliches his Weapon movies helped reify,  and if the movie drags a bit towards the end, it's still easy to see how the metatextual play (and the strong relationship with his lead) could potentially make Iron Man 3 very interesting.

I'll admit that there were times that I missed the more leisurely, actor-centric pacing and tone of the previous Iron Man movies: Iron Man 3 is much more action-driven, as if trying to splice the quirkiness of 2 back into more linear form of the first.  There are so many gifted actors in the new movie-- not only our returning cast, but new additions like Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall, Miguel Ferrer, and Ben Kingsley, all terrific--that I longed to let them breathe a little more. Still, this new action pose has the advantage of liberating Don Cheadle, the upgrade from Terrence Howard who took over the part of Col. Rhodes in the second film, and who is glorious throughout as a kick-ass hero. And there's still enough strangeness to remind us that Tony Stark is the most human of semi-cyborg, politically ambiguous billionaire superheroes.

Keeping a slightly askew perspective on our hero is crucial here, not only because the movie does, but because the movie itself is rather breathtakingly brazen in how it appropriates and spins all manner of contemporary political issues, from war and terrorism (which have been built into Iron Man's DNA since his comic book debut, including a morally conflicted perspective on what it means to engage with either), to media images of the politically connected (like the previous films, Iron Man 3 is rife with screens within screens within screens, and the constant sense that "Tony Stark" is an image the man performs as much as his armored persona is), to PTSD (which it's suggested Tony suffers from), to the way in which the Mandarin stands in for the U.S.'s financial support of the mujahideen and Osama Bin Laden in the late 70s and 80s (the visual correspondences between the fictional and the real terrorist are surely no accident). The Mandarin has always been such a bizarre character, one of those key "arch-villains" that I kind of cringed at: the initial portrayal in the 1960s was invested in all kinds of racial stereotypes, and while those disappeared bit by bit in the ensuing decades, he still struck me as kind of dull, more an interesting theoretical concept (science v. magic!) than a fleshed-out character. I wouldn't dream of spoiling how the film handles his character, but I have to admit it's very, very clever-- I know some fans hate it, but I thought it was a deft way to address that racist history while avoiding getting marred in it, and it also opens up any number of narrative possibilities the film has fun exploring.  


All of this material is played with like a jazz solo-- addressed, danced around, bounced off, elided, taken straight on. It's a jumble of the pop and the political that could make Glenn Greenwald's head spin (and probably will, knowing him), but it's all of a piece with the character's longer history, both within the comics and the movies, and of Marvel's longtime investment in the culture of its given moment.

At this point, that comics history--and all of the post-Iron Man Marvel movie history--  is as intertwined in the DNA of the new film as the "extremis" virus (a biotechno breakthrough that promises both utopia and dystopia) that is the movie's major MacGuffin. In Iron Man 2, the chest-piece that kept Tony alive was also was slowly poisoning him, creating dark virus lines all over his neck; it was a nice little irony that stood in for how each individual film was more and more part of a broader commercial/aesthetic tapestry, a grand plan which had the potential to unravel and destroy the very thing it was simultaneously creating. Iron Man 3 tackles this paradox with far more sangfroid, casually weaving in references to Iron Man writers and artists, various stories and characters from the comics, and references to the earlier films with breathtaking ease (especially this one). It doesn't even pretend that Iron Man can (or should) exist outside the Avengers (either as a team or a movie franchise): its references to "what happened in New York" are tossed off conversationally and rarely explained, and presume the viewer is familiar with Whedon's movie (one almost expects a text box to pop up in the corner, containing one of Stan Lee's patented asides: "It happened in The Avengers (2012), remember, True Believer?").  It all makes this supposed "Phase Two" of Marvel movies (as the company rather portentously calls it) the closest cinematic approximation to the intertwined "Marvel Universe" of Lee and Jack Kirby's dreams as we're likely to see (the closing credits have great fun with this interweaving, cutting together scenes from all three Iron Man films and making the whole thing look like the titles of a swinging spy film from the 60s).

Good thing the whole thing is centered on that expressive face, then. Tony is the bachelor stripped bare in this film (as another hero was once told, "No friends...No hope. Take all that away... and what's left?"), and it's great fun watching Downey, Jr., balance the movie's jumble of pop, politics, action and intertextuality on that lived-in mug, each piece of it hovering around his body and attaching itself to him as easily as the pieces of armor Tony calls by remote control.  The extended period outside the armor that Iron Man 3 allows our titular hero is not only an aesthetic pleasure or an extended riff on the character's long and tortured history, but a reminder that metaphorically, "superheroes" function best as a reminder of the grace, wit and fortitude that lies in each of us. "I am Iron Man," Tony reminds viewers at the end. And, the movie almost literally winks at us, aren't we all?

2 comments:

Michael Philip Wells said...

Nice to hear someone else, and someone knowledgeable and fully committed to this "universe," sing the praises of the sadly picked-upon "Iron Man 2." Until "The Avengers," it was my favorite of the Marvel planetbusters (blockbuster doesn't seem an adequate word for the elephantine hugeness of the films themselves and of their space in the popular culture).

Full disclosure: this isn't necessarily saying a whole lot, as I'm only a comic book geek in the most minor way, and could take or leave most of these movies. They generally strike me as only competent and dutiful (above all "Captain America," which doesn't have a surprising or inspired second in it apart from the wonderful USO-style stage numbers). So I liked Tony Stark's second outing for about exactly the same reasons you did, and expressed so eloquently. I can see where the sort of fan who found "Captain America" the ideal comic-book movie would be irritated by, say, Sam Rockwell's extended riff on his weapons line, but this improvisational, shaggy-dog goofiness counteracted the self-important bombast inherent in the form, and had me grinning through most of the movie.

Whedon managed the feat of folding that quality into a tighter, more focused construction by virtue of his trademark rat-a-tat dialogue and his fine hand with comic actors. He was the reason I bothered with most of the films in the first place - once I heard he was heading up "Avengers," I caught up with the others on blu-ray.

Brian Doan said...

Hi Michael,
Thank you for your very thoughful comments! I like Captain America, but think the Iron Man films have a special loopiness and rhythm that really keys off Downey's expressions and line readings. And even though there are some hard-core fans on certain Iron Man sites that bristle at that, I think there's a long and interesting history in the books between pathos and comedy.