Better than expected

I chanced to watch Iron Man on TV tonight and enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would.

I missed the film back when it was in the theatres, partly because I was overly busy with my MA degree or teaching linguistics or something (I don’t remember actually) and partly because I was badly burned out on comic book movies by that point. There were way too many of them and a lot of them, from stuff no one liked such as Fantastic Four or Superman Returns to the much highly praised Christopher Nolan Batman films*, just weren’t very good in my opinion. Besides, after 15 years of reading superhero comics (and a lot more reading European comics), I was badly burned out on superhero comics in general.

Besides, even in my comic reading days, I never particularly cared for Iron Man. I’m not sure if I even own an Iron Man comic. I might, if it was part of a crossover I’d been invested in. But Iron Man himself never interested me. The character suffered badly from a Cold War origin story that was only marginally less silly than the Hulk’s (and I did like the Hulk). Besides, the Hulk was at least interesting. Iron Man, meanwhile, was a rich guy in a metal suit. He was very much an establishment hero – like Captain America whom I didn’t like either – and I preferred the outcast heroes like Spider-Man and my beloved X-Men. That’s probably also why I never liked the Avengers. I mean: Iron Man plus that stupidly patriotic Captain America plus the Mighty Thor (whom I disliked because he was a case of badly appropriated culture) plus a couple of characters no-one ever cared about like Ant Man/Giant Man, Wasp or Captain Marvel and you have a lot of reasons not to read about them. Besides, just as Iron Man and Captain America were the establishment’s superheroes, the Avengers were the establishment’s superteam. Give me the outcast X-men any day over those sellouts.

When I heard about the film, I wondered how on Earth they were going to pull that one off, because Iron Man has probably the least acceptable backstory of all Marvel heroes. His origin is very much tied in to the Vietnam war, and not to the quagmire type late 1960s/early 1970s Vietnam war people remember today, but to the “We can win this” Vietnam war of the mid 1960s. Plus, his archenemy the Mandarin is straight from the Fu-Manchu school of villainy that is very much inacceptable today. And unlike Fu-Manchu himself or The Talons of Weng-Chiang or Ming the Merciless, who at least have some redeeming features, the Mandarin is also a terribly lame villain. So in short, Iron Man as seen in the comics was a total mess and it was hard to imagine how anyone could make it acceptable to modern audiences and turn it into a decent movie.

Surprisingly, however, Iron Man is a decent movie. Robert Downey Jr. makes a very good Tony Stark indeed, capturing both the arseholish side of the character as well as his reformation later on and still managing to keep the character likable. Even Gwyneth Paltrow, an actress I usually don’t like at all, is okay as Pepper Potts. She even makes a pretty good love interest for Tony Stark, though it didn’t work out for them in the comics as far as I know. For that matter, does Tony Stark in the comics ever have a steady girlfriend at all or is he one of those heroes who are married to their secret identity?

The problematic aspects of the Iron Man’s background are updated very well. Instead of being captured in Vietnam, Tony Stark is now captured in Afghanistan, i.e. the traumatic war of the 21st century. The Mandarin has been transformed into a terrorist group known as the “Ten Rings” (the Mandarin’s power came from his rings), who are marginally more acceptable than the Mandarin would have been. True, the Ten Rings are still racist stereotypes (your typical Middle Eastern terrorists, who still sprout some of the Mandarin’s old dialogue about Genghis Khan, rendered strangely anachronistic by the change in setting), but at least they are stereotypes that play on contemporary American fears rather than American fears of forty years ago. And unlike in the 1960s Iron Man origin story (at least as far as I know), this updated version at least questions the morality of Stark Industries and the US military’s actions. Though I would have preferred it if Iron Man had to rescue the beleaguered Afghan villagers not just from the Ten Rings but from the US military as well.

Finally, in a very good move, the main villain of the film is not the Mandarin/the Ten Rings at all, but instead the all-American greedy capitalist Obadiah Stane a.k.a. Iron Monger. And greedy capitalists are always acceptable as villains and have the big advantage of offending no one. Obadiah Stane is actually a character from the comics, but not one I’m familiar with, never having read the series. Still, he makes a much better villain than problematic stereotypes united. Jim Rhodes a.k.a. War Machine also appears, though he doesn’t yet get to wear the suit, and there is also a nod towards S.H.I.E.L.D, though no Nick Fury alas. And we all know that the nods towards obscure comics continuity are what makes geeks like myself happy.

Finally, I enjoyed the very last scene with Tony Stark simply deviating from the script during the press conference and admitting, “Okay, I am Iron Man”, simply because superheroes  hardly ever go public in comics, even though I sometimes suspect that going public would actually be the best decision. After all, the public in superhero comics, exceptions like Dai Thomas (who is a deadringer for Gene Hunt more than twenty years before Life on Mars) notwithstanding, usually thinks that superheroes are pretty damn cool.

So in short, Iron Man was a surprisingly enjoyable superhero film. It’s not the best superhero film ever made (I suspect that honour goes to the second X-Men film), but it was a fun ninety minutes.

*I don’t care for Nolan’s work in general, all the way back to the grossly overhyped Memento. In fact, I was surprised that Batman Begins was at least watchable, though I thought The Dark Knight was utterly dreadful, probably the worst superhero film I’ve ever seen.

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