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Why Iron Man Isn't Your Usual Superhero

Monday, May 05, 2008
Ross Douthat thinks that the success of the Iron Man movie is a disaster for film. He argues that because even a second-tier character like Iron Man can, with good script, actors, and directors, be hugely successful, then we can anticipate to be suffocated by nothing but potentially great actors wasting their careers in silly costumes for the next dozen years.

Now on one level this argument is silly. Any movie, from any genre, with good writing, acting, and directing is likely to do well, as long as its subject matter is not positively dreary. And any such movie will inevitably spawn imitations. I mean, how long have we been living with the consequences of Scream? Or the Godfather?

Beyond that, I think that Douthat's argument misses something crucial - Iron Man is different. First, the Iron Man storyline was drawn almost entirely from the great period of writing stretching from 1978 to 1989 - the comic's "golden age." That period dealt with some heavy themes, like the first time in comics that a major character struggled with alcoholism and total personal failure lasting for years. During that period the suit was incidental to the man, giving the stories far more power than is conventional in superhero fare. Iron Man was never a gigantic seller like the X-Men, but that doesn't mean it didn't have some really great stuff in it. So the "second-rate" jab really doesn't cut it with me.

Second, how many other super hero characters are like Iron Man? The point has already been made in the reviews: this is a superhero without any powers. He isn't a mutant or an alien or a god or exposed to radiation. He's just really, really smart. And the Iron Man adventures were never about him just punching people. He was frequently beaten up, but he always managed to out-smart his enemies. Frankly I can't think of many mainstream costumed types who are like that.

Finally, the Iron Man character is uniquely suited to contemporary culture. He's techy (where most heroes are mystical or just weird). He's deeply flawed, yet still basically a "good guy." He's compromised by his personal weaknesses and always struggling with the compromises of his life (part of the military & corporations but still determined to do good). I think that the Iron Man character, properly portrayed, is uniquely suited to reflect our own very ambiguous identity as a country. He's not an anti-hero, but he's not a goody-goody either - he's a very believable person.

In short, I think that Iron Man (whether we're referring to the Tony Stark or James Rhodes incarnation) is a perfect fit for today. I've thought so for years actually. I'm just thrilled they pulled it off.

So Ross: Stop worrying. Just sit back and enjoy.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 8:12 PM
  • This is a very good post. Douthat's piece is instantly dismissable, for certainly the point about IRON MAN is that it's a GOOD superhero movie, not a good SUPERHERO movie. If you follow. While it's success will certainly encourage other projects, that'll last as long as the first couple of bombs.

    But there will always be nervous nellies biting their lips, extrapolating dire futures from what they see. Off the top of my head, I've lived through: Slasher flicks will kill horror, Spielberg is killing the movies, Tarantino is killing the movies, Cameron is killing the movies, Hong Kong Action is ruining the traditional action flick, J Horror is making horror flicks toothless, and torture porn.

    This too will pass.

    But I mainly just wanted to concur with you that Iron Man is a fascinating character for our age, in many many ways. I've thought a lot about this myself. I agree that one interesting aspect is the pure dichotomy of the suit and the man in it. Another thing that's occurred to me is IRON MAN as a metaphor for our current troubled relationship with technology, which both empowers and imprisons us. Some of the shots of Downey in the movie, from within the suit, almost make him look trapped by it.

    Anyway, a good post.


    By Blogger Doug Bassett, at 9:49 PM  
  • How can good writing, acting and directing ever be a bad thing?

    By Blogger Crawlspace, at 10:10 PM  
  • Doug: Thanks! And I think the uneasiness with technology is a very good point. I noticed the "trapped in the armor" thing too.

    Crawlspace: As always, you're pithier than me!

    By Blogger Arbitrista, at 6:18 AM  
  • Iron Man was a practically flawless hero flick; its makers drop some pretty obvious sequel hints too... i'm thinking the next one should be equally great

    By Blogger Patrick Roberts, at 6:04 PM  
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