In the wake of such grim comic book adaptations as Sin City (2006) and The Dark Knight (2008), it’d be easy to dismiss Iron Man for its lighthearted approach, but the film’s understated charm is a spectacular achievement in its own right. To quote the late Donald Wolfit, “dying is easy; comedy is hard.” Consider all the recent super-hero movies that seem to confuse humour with inanity: Ghost Rider (2007), Fantastic Four (2005), Batman and Robin (1997), etc. Okay, that last one wasn’t exactly recent, but it bears mentioning. My point is Iron Man is both playful and intelligent, which is a rarity.
The movie stars Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark, a playboy industrialist who moonlights as an international champion of justice, battling terrorists and super-villains in his high-tech armour. He’s sort of like Batman without the weird fetishes and scarring emotional issues. The man drinks, quips, and turns every occasion into a party, including a flight with his military contact (Terrence Howard), yet there’s a hint of loneliness in his every gesture. This, of course, is an ideal role for Downey, whose effortless wit would make you think the whole film was improvised if it weren’t so thoughtfully crafted.
The character has one of my favourite super-hero origins. A reckless and conceited weapons designer, Tony has a literal change of heart when kidnappers armed with his creations try to coerce him into building a missile. No, I didn’t misuse the word “literal”. You see, the war criminals, who are Viet Cong in the 1963 Marvel comics and Middle-Eastern terrorists in this version, injured their target during the assault, forcing him to install in his chest a nuclear reactor, which doubles as an energy source for a makeshift suit of armour. Tony uses the latter to escape his captors and, after a few upgrades, keep the world safe from his past inventions.
The protagonist’s new heart, which powers his heroic endeavours, symbolizes a conscious decision to become a better person. Unlike Batman or Spider-Man, he’s motivated by mature realization, not trauma or crippling guilt. This makes Iron Man far more accessible to adult viewers, which is not to say I fault the other characters for embodying specific teenage impulses. After all, their target audience is between thirteen and seventeen years old. Still, as a comic book reader long past his angst-filled high school years, I find it somewhat of a relief to finally have a super-hero movie that isn’t mired in melodramatic self-importance.
Consider Tony’s relationship with his personal assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). The romantic tension between them is expressed through playful banter instead of longing stares and childish jealousies. There are no misunderstandings, competing suitors, or ultimatums. Rather, it’s insight that’s keeping these characters apart: she understands him too well to respond to his advances, and he respects her too much to insist. None of this seems particularly upsetting to either Pepper or Tony, presumably because they’re accomplished grown-ups with more than sex on their minds. As an aside, Paltrow’s usual glamour is considerably muted in this film, but she’s never looked more attractive.
Though he’s a bit scruffy by comparison, Jeff Bridges brings similar warmth to the role of Obadiah Stane, Tony’s awkwardly named mentor and long-time business associate. In most Hollywood blockbusters, corporate executives are portrayed as stuffy egomaniacs devoid of any sense of humour unless it involves drowning kittens, but this guy has a certain joie de vivre about him. Like Tony, he enjoys the finer things in life such as cigars and New York pizzas (actually flown from the Big Apple). His disapproval of Stark Enterprises’ new humanitarian direction is merely the reaction of a man who’s been on top of the food chain far too long.
Therein lies the story’s central conflict. The true villain, only revealed in the final act, isn’t a madman bent on world domination but a desperate individual trying to maintain a status quo in which a privileged few exploit the rest of the world and profit from its conflicts. Some would argue this level of corruption is inherent to the American way of life, but Tony would disagree. He’s dedicated to repairing the damage caused by his ignorance and forging new international policies for his company, but he’s still a proud American who likes fast cars and cheeseburgers. You see, comfort and responsibility aren’t mutually exclusive.
In spite of its complex themes, I suspect many will think Iron Man shallow simply because it presents heroism as a happy endeavour. More and more people today seem to confuse discontent with social awareness. The movie may not have the emo poetry of The Dark Night, but it sends a timely message to the angry conservatives complaining on every radio station that their voice isn’t in the media, to the whiny liberals ranting about the environment while driving their hummers, and to everyone in between unable to spot Iraq on a map but outraged at the latest Miley Cyrus photographs: lighten up.