Sunday, May 04, 2008

Tony Stark: Behind the Music

Saw "Iron Man" on Saturday.

It was one of the best comic adaptation movies I've ever seen. And yes, I've seen the latest Superman (via Bryan Singer) and Batman (via Christopher Nolan) movies. It was better than Superman Returns, and very close to topping Batman Begins.

Superhero movies typically take one of two paths: they work hard on the effects, to the detriment of the plot and character development, or vice versa. It's very hard to get both the effects and the characters right. This is a damn shame, because to get a great comic right, you have to get both parts balanced perfectly.

Effects are clearly important. Comics are the realm of the imaginary. It's easier to draw an adamantium claw or an invisible force field or a repulsor ray on a page than it is to create one on the big screen that looks convincing. The best movies can be killed in an instant if the effects are wrong. They can be too hokey (see the 80's Spider Man tv show) or rely on CGI to create comic-realistic effects that look slick yet inhuman (see any of the recent Spider Man movies).

When you're talking about superheroes, it matters if their powers are believable. But all of the best comic characters rely not on a great power, but a great story. I grew up on Marvel comics, so I'm talking about the guilt that Peter Parker carried, forever haunted by the death of his beloved Uncle Ben that he could have prevented. I knew about the tensions between each member of the Fantastic Four - the complicated family dynamics, the relationship drama, the jealousies that flew in every direction. I knew from Frank Miller's brilliant run on Daredevil that Matt Murdock was a lonely and haunted man, his faith in both God and humanity shaken at the core. I knew that Tony Stark was an alcoholic and a troubled man.

The best comics are about people, not effects. I saw the first Fantastic Four movie, and what I remember was Ben Grimm, the Thing, stopping a bus with his shoulder. I should have remembered the awkward tension between Reed Richards and Sue Storm, but instead I remember being blown away by the way that Mr. Fantastic's arm slipped under a door like liquid. They got the effects right, but they missed getting the characters right.

The Iron Man movie gets Tony Stark perfectly. He is a dynamo of raw energy - creative, sexual, charismatic in the extreme. He is essentially hollow, bouncing like a pinball from one affair to another, one dance club to another, with nothing to anchor him in the world. He is someone we've already met before - the millionaire playboy, rich without seeming to have earned it, famous without seeming to deserve it. He is rich because of technology that kills people across the world. His livelihood relies on the myth that military technology saves lives.

In a moment, his life changes. He channels his brilliance into fighting for good - truth! justice! the American Way! With a healthy dose of revenge (a bit stomach-churning) mixed in for good measure. He is a damaged man who tilts awkwardly toward goodness. He is not perfect. He is not heroic, yet he is a hero.

The movie shows Tony Stark in all his muddy brilliance. He is not made to be someone admirable. Often, he is unpleasant and piggish, greedy and libidinous, even after his transformation. He mistreats the people who work for him. And yet, even against all of this, he becomes a hero. "Iron Man" is a story of redemption, of triumph against the most relentless demons. "Iron Man" is a hopeful movie about humanity.

And no one could have played this part but Robert Downey Jr. He makes Tony Stark come alive - the genius and the self-destructive behavior come alive in every glance, every gesture, every line that he speaks (often muttering, as if speaking to himself throughout the movie). He is given a cast strong enough to stand up to his relentless performance - established actors like Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, and Terence Howard fill out the cast.)

And about those special effects? Brilliant. The technology kicks serious ass. As I said earlier, comics are as much about the visual effects as they are about the plot. "Iron Man" requires a man who is brilliant with technology, the kind of guy who can build a doomsday suit in the middle of a desert. The suit has to look like a technological marvel, but one we can believe. The director, Jon Favreau, pulls it off by relying on "live" effects over CGI whenever possible. Tony Stark is a billionaire, after all - he can afford the best tools available, and he uses them in brilliant and unexpected ways. Half of the fun is watching "the suit" come together - the trials, the spectacular failures, and the breathtaking successes. (Note: there is a robot that provides some of the funniest moments of the movie, without saying a word.)

So yeah - go see this movie. And stick around through the credits - there's an extra treat that you won't want to miss.

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