Saturday, April 2, 2016

Revisiting Marvel: Iron Man

Season One of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is, all in all, probably my least favorite season. The budget is chintzy; some of the storylines are ridiculous; many of the performers haven't yet found their voice. But when I rewatch the series, as I do every few years, I find I can't skip it. There's something about watching the story in its embryonic stages — the flinty humor, the warmth of the relationships — that is pleasing.

It's the same with Iron Man, the movie that jump-started the Marvel Universe that's dominated popular movies over the last decade.

When fans rank their favorite Marvel movies, Iron Man usually isn't at the top of the list. It's usually overpowered by films with bigger action, like The Avengers; flashier villains, like Thor; or more shaded plots, such as Captain America: Winter Solider.

But rewatching Iron Man, it's remarkable how many of these films expanded on the blueprint it drew up.

The glowing heart (heh) of it is, of course, Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark. I've often praised Marvel's decision-making, and it all began with the choice of Downey, who at the time was thought of as a risky gamble. His wit and fierce, obvious intelligence are such a fit for the character it's impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. This, I think, is one of the areas where Marvel has had wild success: casting actors who suit the qualities of its main characters perfectly. Whether it's Chris Evans as stubborn, virtuous Steve Rodgers; Chris Hemsworth as cocky, powerful Thor; or Scarlett Johansson as guarded, conflicted Natasha Romanov, the company's approach to casting has been top-notch.

The other area where Marvel has excelled, especially when put side-to-side with rival DC, is in establishing real relationships among its characters. That again is a trend that started here. Every time I watch, I'm surprised at how much Iron Man is a movie about the relationship between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts as much as it is about Tony Stark becoming Iron Man. In fact, Tony-as-Iron-Man is only onscreen for a limited amount of screen time; almost as much is devoted to the relationship-exploring banter between the two. (And note that Pepper is given at least a cursory amount to do, as compared to Lois Lane in Batman v Superman.)

One more note: I think it's an oversight that Jeff Bridges is not often listed among Marvel's great villains. Sure, his ambitions aren't grand — which is actually a relief in comparison to the tiresome destroy-the-planet plots of seemingly every other film — but he injects a real, simmering rage below the surface. Watch how he explodes as soon as he discovers Pepper's deception, or the way he slings the line, "Tony Stark built one of these IN A CAVE!" at an underling.


Finally, I think a lot of credit must go to Jon Favreau. It looks easier in retrospect now that Marvel has fine-tuned the formula, but he was able to craft a fun, witty action movie that has brisk action, great banter and real heart. That's rare, with a blueprint or without.

Extra Notes

1) It's amazing how unhurried this film feels. Rather than racing from one universe-building set piece to the next, it actually takes time to let characters talk to each other. How refreshing.

2) Bridges' bit of business bringing Tony a pizza is great. That kind of care makes it all the more menacing when he turns villainous later. ("Oh, Tony, this is your Ninth Symphony" Bridges purrs with real admiration as he pulls Stark's arc reactor out of his chest. Really, guys, Bridges is great.)

3) "I was doing a piece for Vanity Fair" is probably the smuttiest line outside Guardians of the Galaxy. I love it, of course.

4) Shout-out to the effects work, which give the Iron Man armor a texture and weight that makes it feel like a genuine presence in the world they've created.

5) Love the robot in Tony's lab. Love it.