Monday, May 5, 2008

Iron Man: welding unsubtle geo-politics to comic book logic feels pretty good

It starts with successive explosions of AC/DC and American-made firepower rocking an Afghan desert and features as its protagonist a wildly successful weapons manufacturer/war profiteer who recognizes his role in arming both first world imperialists and third world terrorists and, damnnit, develops a conscience. There’s something surprisingly comfortable in the imposition of an archipelago of overt—some might say opportunistic—political metaphor over an otherwise deeply conventional comic book super hero movie. Grafting our collective geo-political anxiety onto a story so rife with colour, intrigue and optimism goes down surprisingly easy, especially when lubricated with some rather ingenious casting.

Iron Man is utterly entertaining, and while it relies heavily on the less than plausible naiveté of its lead characters—“How did my weapons ever get in the hands of the bad guys?” our hero wonders—it’s still far more sophisticated than is strictly necessary, smartly incorporating the often cumbersome but apparently obligatory super hero origin story seamlessly into the film’s driving action. Half of the writing team was involved in Children of Men, and actor-turned-director Jon Favreau exhibits a winning playfulness and attention to nuance, but I have serious doubts if all this would have worked half as well without Robert Downey Jr. in the lead. Millionaire arms mogul Tony Stark is arrogant and appallingly oblivious to how the rest of the planet lives and dies, yet Downey imbues him with such charisma, nicely underplayed inner conflict—and, ultimately, moral conviction—that we’re more than ready to believe in his redemption.

Stark survives a near-death experience, is captured by your garden variety Middle Eastern insurgents, escapes by building the coolest suit of armour ever, then returns triumphantly to the US to eat cheeseburgers, get tender with his steady help-meet (Gwyneth Paltrow), and put his eponymous empire on hiatus, much to the displeasure of his cohort Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges, back-slapping, bald, bearded and somewhat Ben Kingsleyish), a suspiciously ingratiating guy clearly more concerned with the bottom line. The parallels with real-life figures are writ large: one character stands in for Dick Cheney, another for Colin Powell. Before you know it the entire military-industrial complex is under attack from its prodigal son (who is of course far too heroic to possess a like corollary). All in all, between the fun and fibre, the whole package fits together quite nicely. Even the self-consciously snappy finale—cue the Sabbath—would feel wrong if it weren’t for its pithy message: unlike your average politician, Tony Stark will not lie to the American public.

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