I saw Iron Man on Friday, judging by box office reports so did everyone else. Whilst the film itself is worthy of discussion I’m also interested in what Iron Man’s surprise financial success means for future superhero films from the newly emancipated Marvel Enterprises. You see Iron Man represents the first film Marvel comics have funded, produced and distributed without another major business partner. Later this year we will be treated to yet more films produced solely by Marvel. So this is going to be split roughly between my musings on Iron Man and my musings on Marvel Enterprises.
Okay here is a disclaimer before I go into this review properly; I’m not a big comic book guy. I’ve read maybe half a dozen Graphic Novels in my entire life and I don’t think I’ve ever actually owned a regular comic book. However being born in 1985 would allow me to appreciate the raft of Marvel superhero cartoons that would air in the mid 90s. So despite not reading Marvel comics the cartoon versions of Iron Man, Spiderman and X-Men gave me a working knowledge of Marvel’s mythos.
It is a testament to the vitality of the Marvel universe that even exposure to the simplified mythos of the cartoon shows would become almost iconic. Due to the cartoons I knew about key elements of the Marvel franchise without having read any Marvel comic books. So I knew that Venom was a piece of alien slime, I knew that Iron Man battled a green skinned Chinese guy with alien technology embedded in his rings and I knew about Jean Grey’s eventual turn into the all powerful Phoenix. As such comic book adaptations would become exercises in nostalgia for me, a chance to see real adaptations of the stuff that had entertained me when I as nine and ten years old.
Iron Man is an origin story, the unwritten rule of all superhero films is that the first film is always setup, and as such it shows us why ludicrously wealthy weapons magnate Tony Stark would chose to don a suit of armour and fight the forces of evil. Following an attack on his armoured escort in Afghanistan Tony Stark is captured by a militant group known as the Ten Rings and instructed to build a multiple payload missile of the type he has just sold to the US military. Instead of doing this he builds himself a suit of battle armour and sets about planning an escape.
To be honest I was little worried about Iron Man to begin with, an early music choice making me fear the worst. The film starts and immediately Back in Black by AC/DC kicks in. I sink into my seat a little, slightly dejected, as my fears over the potential tone of the film are realised. You see as soon as I saw a trailer use Black Sabbath’s Iron Man as scoring I realised I would probably be at odds with the film, I was just hoping for a little time to get settled in before the Heavy Metal kicks in. To be honest by the time the film had finished I was practically craving Sabbath, just so that the film would at least have some vaguely stirring music. If Iron Man has one fault it is its ridiculously anaemic soundtrack which occasionally tries to evoke Black Sabbath but mostly just whimpers along in the background.
If Iron Man has another fault it is director Jon Favreau who displays a knack for character based work but is far too impassive and mundane to give life to the action scenes. Thankfully Favreau seems to understand that he is an actor’s director and sticks with his strengths by leaving a lot of the heavy lifting to an absolutely magnificent cast. Favreau is also aided by the nature of the story which negates the need for overt superhero theatrics. Telling the origin story of Iron Man allows Favreau to keep the focus purely character based and as such the action scenes are thankfully few and far between.
You will probably have heard this many times by now, but Robert Downey Jr. is utterly fantastic as Tony Stark. He takes a character that could easily have been a soulless and hollow vessel and imbibes it with humanity and warmth. There is a natural charm to Downey Jr’s performance and whenever he is on screen the rest of the cast seems to up their game immensely. So magnetic is his performance that Downey Jr. is able to make sequences in which he is acting against mechanical claws enthralling.
Backing up Robert Downey Jr. is a trio of co-stars that seem utterly energised by the spirited central performance. Terence Howard’s character Jim Rhodes feels like he is in the film purely as setup for future plot elements but even in his minimal screentime he has a sense of camaraderie with Stark which makes you accept their friendship. Gwyneth Paltrow is actually all kinds of fantastic as Pepper Potts turning a character that could be flat and cliché (doting secretary in love with playboy boss) into a viable element of the film. As well as having fantastic chemistry with Downey Jr. she is shown as being both resourceful and competent. In a lot of ways Pepper Potts works in a similar way to Batman’s Alfred providing moral support and acting as a confidant for our beleaguered heroes.
Jeff Bridges does a fantastic job with an exceptionally compromised character. Obadiah Stane is a pretty rote and hopelessly one note character, a scheming business partner to Stark who descends into outright vaudevillian villainy by the end of the film. Stane’s character arc is highlighted at the beginning of the film where a montage of magazine covers shows his position in Stark Industry slowly becoming minimised. The problem is that Bridges makes Stane a little too charming and his interactions with Stark make his sudden about turn into outright villainy seem out of the blue. It is easy to figure out that he is going to be the main threat in the film, but his scenes with Stark are so well played that you almost start to believe he is a good guy.
Of course the problem the film runs into is that its major action scenes are CGI reliant and as such become fully incumbent on Favreau’s talents as a director. Whilst the action in Iron Man isn’t bad it isn’t particularly interesting either, coming across as a perfunctory afterthought rather than a vibrant part of the film. Favreau is far more intent on the building and testing of the two suits and the few moments of genuine spectacle come not from fight scenes but from testing scenes. Stark’s initial flight in the Mark II suit is a truly great moment in the film because it perfectly captures the sense of awe and wonder prevalent in the series.
Still an unexpected benefit of Favreau’s lack of action experience was the liberal borrowing of ideas from Robocop. Iron Man punching through a wall, targeting individual terrorists, and his final battle with Iron Monger all seemed to be at the very least inspired by the Robocop films and it at the very least amused me. It is an odd paradigm really as I think a more proficient director would perhaps have given the action sequences a lot more of a kick but would not have been able to provide the focus on actors which allowed the film to truly shine.
Ever since I ventured back into a cinema screening room to retrieve a jacket after a viewing of Street Fighter: The Movie and was greeted by a slither of movie magic after the end credits I’ve always been fastidious about checking if there is anything after all the best boys had been listed. Generally speaking if there is something it is usually kind of dull ‘oh that’s cute, the dog with the keys is now the god of the cannibals’ so I approached the news that there was something super awesome after the credits of Iron Man with a little bit of trepidation.
The extra scene in Iron Man is something that is actually kind of important in terms of the new perspective Marvel Enterprises bring to their ventures. In the extra scene Nick Fury approaches Tony Stark and tells him about a group called the Avengers. I’ve been reliably informed that the Avengers are a team of Superheroes in the Marvel universe. As such it’s a nice little shout out for the fans. However news also reaches me that Robert Downey Jr. is due to make a cameo appearance in the new Incredible Hulk film.
With Marvel now producing and financing its own adaptations they are free to call the shots on how their properties are handled and it seems that from the off they are looking to create the same kind of interconnectivity that is abundant in the comics. All of the Marvel heroes inhabitant the same world and will often help each other out, a great example being Reed Richards helping Spider-Man defeat Venom and Matt Murdoch essentially being an on-call lawyer for every Marvel superhero around. Whilst the chances of an all star Avengers movie are slim, although an Iron Man led Avengers film would help divert attention from the characters lacklustre pool of villains, the idea that all Marvel films will at least acknowledge their existence in the same universe is kind of neat.
This year we are going to see The Incredible Hulk and The Punisher: War Zone, both sequels to films which weren’t particularly well received and both of which are helmed by risky directors. The Incredible Hulk’s Louise Leterrier is perhaps best known for his Transporter films and the surprisingly decent Danny The Dog. Whilst the Punisher’s Lexi Alexander had previously worked on Green Street Hooligans. Both choices could end up being disastrous but there are elements to both directors past work which suggests that they might be able to deliver on the spectacle and tonal core of their respective properties.
In the near future we’ll see Magneto and Wolverine’s back stories playout in the first two X-Men prequels, whilst Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man is now in its second draft. Most interestingly is Matthew Vaughn’s rumoured adaptation of Thor which is supposedly set entirely in the realm of Norse Legend. Given Vaughn’s sterling work on Stardust it is easy to see why they’d go this down route although a Thor film set entirely in Asgard would be a particularly difficult sell, especially from a director with one borderline cult film and one commercial miss. Edgar Wright may have a lesser known character to work with but his clout as a comedy director should at least make it an easy sell.
With Iron Man becoming something of a beast at the box office, taking 200 million dollars worldwide over its opening weekend, it is safe to assume that a sequel will be in the works. In fact of all the projects currently listed on IMDB as being produced by Marvel the one that seems the most in doubt is Captain America, a character who would need to be seriously retooled for modern day consumption. But with all of these properties currently in development the idea of them all leading into one interconnected movie doesn’t seem so absurd. If The Incredible Hulk does well at the box office, and that’s a big if judging by reaction to its trailer and general ill will garnered from its predecessor, it might embolden the company to make good on what was essentially a little bit of fan service and invest in an all star Avengers film.
In fact minutes after writing this Marvel announced that an Avengers movie was indeed slated for a release in 2011, a year after an Iron Man sequel and Captain America film. Captain America still seems like a risky venture to me, Iron Man made half of its bank overseas, but it seems like the film is setup for the Avengers film more than anything else.