[5 October 2008]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
Stan Lee makes his intentions clear from the get-go: you are supposed to hate Iron Man.
On “The Incredible Iron Man”—a remarkably thorough mini-documentary detailing the comic book origins of Tony Stark/Iron Man—Lee notes how he created this character during the height of Cold War anxiety in the United States, a time when people had very little faith or feeling for the U.S. military industrial complex, much less the millionaires in corporations that helped run them. Lee took keen note of what the public opinion was at the time, and decided to make a character that embodied all of those things and, improbably, made people like him. Tony Stark was a millionaire, a womanizer, a drunkard, and a weapons manufacturer that worked closely with the military. By all means, we should hate him. Instead, we find him charming, charismatic, courageous, and funny. What’s more, Lee states how he cannot get over the fact that Iron Man has received more female fan mail than any other Marvel superhero in history.
When Jon Favreau’s Iron Man kick-started the 2008 summer blockbuster season, there were many lingering doubts in the heads of Marvel Studios execs; after all, this was their first self-financed picture, it was about one of Marvel’s lesser-known characters, and it starred Robert Downey Jr., one of the most notoriously erratic Hollywood actors of the past two decades. Leading up to its premiere, the story behind the making of Iron Man was garnering as much press as the movie itself, with Downey famously submitting to a screen test in order to snag the role of Stark—something this Oscar-nominated actor had not had to do for the better part of the last 12 years. Yet amidst the many explosions, incredible CG graphics, and giddy action sequences, the reason why Iron Man works is because of the single greatest special effect of all: Downey Jr. hurtling back into the public consciousness in one of the most entertaining performances of not only his career, but, arguably, of any popcorn blockbuster in recent memory.
No, Downey does not plumb deep psychological depths in the way that Heath Ledger did as the Joker in that other big superhero flick this year, but he doesn’t need to: Stark is supposed to be living in the lap of luxury, and—from the movie’s first 20 minutes—he’s doing just that: he owns dozens of classic cars and a jet with an automatic stripper-pole system installed inside; he buys high-end Pollack paintings just because he can; and he manages to talk just about any woman into bed with him (when a U.S. soldier asks Stark if it’s true that he slept with every Maxim cover girl for the past year, he dryly replies, “Yes and no: March and I had a scheduling conflict but fortunately the Christmas cover was twins”). Yet never once do we look at Stark as a rich snob: a video montage at the Apogee Awards reveals how Stark learned everything from scratch, is single-handedly responsible for most if not all of the Stark Industries products out on the market today, and—responding to biting questions from a ravenous Vanity Fair reporter (Leslie Bibb)—notes how many of the progresses that Stark Industries have made for agriculture and humanitarian projects are all possible through military funding. His lifestyle is possible because of his sheer genius, but never once does he flaunt it—it’s just a part of him. Stark is rich, intelligent, and witty: how could you not want to either be him or at least be with him? Stark thinks he’s living the ideal life…until he’s kidnapped, of course.
After his U.S. military convoy in Afghanistan is ambushed following the demonstration of his new mega-missile (the Jericho), Stark is imprisoned in a cave with Yinsen (Shaun Toub), a smart local who has defied the overwhelming terrorist inclinations of a group called the Ten Rings, who now order that Stark build them their own Jericho or face death. Now seeing his own weapons being sold to violent organizations like this, Stark comes to the subtle and painful realization that his riches, fame, and fortune have all been because of the deaths of hundreds if not thousands of innocent people. If he hadn’t been thought of as heartless before, there’s no escaping the analogy now: the convoy attack left his upper-body damaged by shrapnel, and Yinsen installs a car battery-powered electromagnet in his chest that prevents the shrapnel from entering his heart. There’s literally a hole in Stark’s chest, and a miniature arc reactor that Stark builds himself soon powers it. He’s using his industrious gifts to literally and metaphorically build himself back up into a respectable being. It doesn’t take long for Stark to realize that the Ten Rings will kill him even if he does deliver the missile…so he builds a robotic suit instead.
Unlike other superheroes who have powers inadvertently passed onto them (à la Peter Parker’s lucky brush with a radioactive spider), Stark—like DC’s own Bruce Wayne—is a self-made one: a man of tremendous power and influence who cannot sit idly by as injustices are carried out via his own products/corporation. Stark, ultimately, is trying to redeem himself from himself. When he announces during a post-captivity press conference that he’s shutting down all of Stark Industries’ weapons manufacturing, the response from his long-time business partner Obadiah Stain (Jeff Bridges) and his military liaison/best friend Rhodey (Terrance Howard) is timid at best, both questioning his sanity as signs of their loyalty begin to visibly wane.
Yet Stark isn’t horribly worried about the responses from his friends: when asked by his assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, baring her acting chops in what feels like the first time in years) what there is to look forward to, Stark bluntly replies “the next mission”. When the Vanity Fair reporter approaches him again at a party, she shows Stark photos of a third-world country that is littered with Stark Industries weapons. Racked with guilt, Stark makes this his first mission as Iron Man, saving the innocent villagers while destroying all the Stark Industries products he can find—literally destroying the man that he used to be.
Though all of this self-imposed redemption may seem a little heady for a summer blockbuster, not once does Iron Man forget its role as an out-and-out popcorn flick: Stark winds up tangling with military jet airplanes, his own romantic feelings towards Pepper, and even a now-defected Obadiah, donning his own mechanized suit of mass destruction. Yet the film’s best scenes are not its action sequences: Downey radiates charm and charisma throughout the whole movie, casually tossing off one-liners so quickly that you almost forget that they’re scripted. Stark is instantly likeable, and were it not for our connection with him, the movie would have collapsed like a rusted swing-set. Every explosion and punch-line lives and dies by Downey’s performance, but he proves more than up to the task, making the ride all the more enjoyable.
Iron Man was an unabashed labor of love by the hundreds of people who worked on it, which is perhaps why the DVD extras here are so generous. We received the aforementioned “The Incredible Iron Man” featurette, the feature-length “I Am Iron Man” making-of documentary, a lengthy portrait of how the special effects sequences were made (different parts were licensed out to three different CG houses, all of whom put an incredible amount of detail into their respective sequences), Downey Jr.‘s original screen test, a good smattering of deleted/extended scenes, a glimpse of a rehearsal of the “red carpet” scene between Downey and Bridges, and—most surprisingly of all—an Onion News Network clip of the “controversial” decision by Paramount Studios to do a full-length movie adaptation of the wildly-popular Iron Man trailer.
Though there is no feature commentary to be had, most of what you’d garner from one is included in the far-more entertaining “I Am Iron Man” documentary, as it shows Favreau gradually losing weight over the course of the film, donning a motion-capture suit for the effects rendering of the Mach I suit, taking a bit part in the form of Stark’s loyal assistant “Happy” Harry, and—in a rather fly-on-the-wall glimpse of the post-production facets of movie-making—getting into detail with one of the effects houses on how important it is to delay the “reveal” of the Mach I suit, as it needs to be one of the film’s most lasting/iconic visuals. It’s all quite thorough, which makes it all the more entertaining: all these features actually give you insight into the film, its intentions, and its production, which, really, is what any good set of DVD extras should do.
At the end of the day, though, Iron Man is just flat-out fun, a rollicking blockbuster of a movie that is as fun as it is thrilling. Really, it’s hard to ask for much more from a popcorn flick…except, perhaps, a sequel.