John Favreau's Iron Man is a rich film. It is also not a particularly daring one.
It's competent in a way that is enriching and entertaining, pandering and politically safe, an antiseptic big budget movie and a film with some respect for letting art grow. It is a craftsman's film and also one that doesn't suck.
The plot is a well worn one that you could probably guess before ever setting foot in the theater. Tony Stark is playboy that don't give a fuck bout nobody. Something terrible happens. BAD ARABS enter the scene. Innocent people hurt in front of Tony. He becomes super man. Mentor figure is actually behind BAD ARABS. Face off at the end. Subplot involving complicated love affair that-just-can't-quite-happen between Tony and Secretary. Safe plot that makes money and doesn't take any risk at making any more or less money and puts the burden of making the film fun and entertaining entirely on the mise en scene.
There are little pushes beyond the ordinary. Tony and Pepper Pots do have a somewhat interesting relationship. Things are complicated in a believable and exciting way (Gwyneth Paltrow really sells the whole "RD Jr. I wanna hump you" vibe) and modern (in at least an idealised male fantasy kind of way (it's totally cool with her that Tony is just fucking chicks and leaving them for her to throw out in the morning, she stills loves him without reservation)). And there some little steps beyond the expected in the action scenes.
The story structure is also superb and well paced, but superb in the sense of good story telling rather than, again, being at all inventive.
The mise en scene is not, on the face of it, very adventurous either. The camera work is pretty conventional. A fairly pedestrian dutch angle in the film that would have been totally lost in a movie like Crank provides a potent emotional punch in Iron Man. The sets, costumes, etc are all very pleasingly designed. The lighting is also nice. But while these elements do shine like spectacle should there's also nothing to set them apart from the pack, an approach one could contrast with Christopher Nolan and Sam Raimi's in their superhero films.
The only really arty thing I could find in the whole film was how Favreau seemed to treat his actors. There are many scenes that Robert Downey Jr. seems to have been allowed to almost direct himself. The "love-in" press conference in particular seems so much more apart of Downey's rhythm than the film's, not to say that the rhythm's don't integrate. Jeff Bridges seems to have also been given a free hand. I imagine the segway and cigar idea (to take just one idea from a performance with some pretty good ones) being totally his own. It belongs to his character and it seems like the character belongs to Bridges. Even the BAD ARAB characters seem to have been given respect as actors, making them more human than they might have been under another director. But beyond the weirdness of a free Bridges and Downey Jr. still the movie doesn't break any new ground.
So why did I feel like I liked this film without reservation? Why do I not remember forgiving the filmmakers once for the sake of a fun night at the movies? Why do I not wish this was Alfonso Cuaron directed this movie?
It's for two reasons:
1. This is simply a well made movie. There is nothing new about it. It's a collection of elements that no one looked very hard to find and appropriate. It doesn't really on the stylistic tricks invented by some anonymous Estonian 8mm animator from 1938 to make for pleasant images. The story tellers just knew what they were doing. They simply did their jobs well.
2. Many of us would like to say we are interested in art because we want progress. Because we want to do something different, that we want to break down walls, that want to conquer a new frontier. But really, how many walls can you break down before you don't have house? How far can you travel before you start going in circles? What will you do when space is the final frontier? Have you ever been to space? It sucks out there. At some point we need to say enough. At some point we need to say "thanks Picasso, Ornette, Godard: we're free. Now what?"
Iron Man doesn't answer this question by itself, it is not great cinema, it is not our savior, but it helps build the case. This a "now what?" generation and movies like Iron Man point more to our survival rather than films like Speed Racer that seem to point to our destruction.
One reservation though: Iron Man almost had a great place to step apart from the pack. There was a plot element that really should not have been trample over and translated into a conventional movie plot. And that was: what an un-super hero Tony Stark is. He's not Superman, born with super powers. He's not Spiderman given them as the result of an accident. He's not even Batman who's super power is being a rich guy with lots of free time, what changes Tony Stark is not becoming more superior than the average man. It's that he becomes more vulnerable.
The narrative is that of a disabled person's fantasy. What is the most pathetic looking device that keeps people alive? An oxygen tank. You can argue that this is immoral to say, but the image is what it is and people who wear these tanks know it. There's a look on their faces like they expect the other wolves to take out the weaker member of their pack any moment. We understand our selves in relationship to images of normalcy, virility, goodness, etc.. How we measure up is how we understand ourselves in terms of value. Moral TV and Movie creators have tried to readjust the images of the disabled, and thus their value. But a moral image is fundamentally dishonest as well as unnecessarily unpleasant.
But, what image does Iron Man offer us of a disabled man? Virile, normal, attractive, rich, confident Tony Stark with not an oxygen mask attached to his face but a fucking car battery running his heart!* And then this man returns to life as a sexy international playboy and superhero that can fly and kick ass and solve the international conflicts he observes on CNN. All while having an ostentatious glowing pace maker sticking out of his chest. All while powering his suit from the same source that keeps him living. That's a narrative for the disabled. It's "kind" but it's not "good". It's more Shaft than Crash, but then again it's no Killer of Sheep**. It had the chance to shift the image in a way a paraplegic on special episode of Desperate Housewives couldn't.
To some extent it is there throughout the film, but in another sense it felt swept under the rug. Lost in the pace of this conventional action film. Maybe that's fair enough, to have Tony Stark say: well I guess my heart don't work good, I'll make another, ok I'm gonna go bed ladies and kill people now and move on with my life, but really I wish that was one place they didn't play it safe, that maybe they stuck their necks out a little and made that a part of the character's humanity.
Also I would be remiss if I didn't mention Terrence Howard. I really liked him in Hustle & Flow but here he didn't really wow me at any point. I know he's supposed to get a bigger role if they make another film and I hope that's his time to step out, but here he was playing one note, and not Joel McCarae's. I do like his and Robert's on-screen friendship, but I'm hoping for something different in the sequel (which they set up excellently in the best "if you stay for all the credits we'll give you a treat" sequence I've ever seen.
*I know the car battery does not actually run his heart, but that point kind of gets changed as the movie progesses by the filmmakers themselves. It's symboliclly and eventually literally his heart, you fucking pedantic fanboy fucks who don't even read this blog I bet.
**To just speak in kind dishonest hyperbole.