Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Iron Man: Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?

As a celluloid showcase for blowing shit up, Iron Man probably represents the pinnacle of human achievement. But as an affecting cinematic experience, it falls flat on its face, the latest turd in the bottomless toilet bowl of big-budget superhero movies. Morally bankrupt, Iron Man sates its audience’s basest retributive bloodlust without once elevating the dynamics of personal responsibility, illuminating instead nothing more than American cinema’s cultural morass.

Superficially, there’s nothing at all wrong with Iron Man. It’s visually bombastic in the best sense of the phrase, and Robert Downey Jr. plays billionaire playboy and weapons manufacturer Tony Stark with a kind of bracing aplomb. Even the plot, though sieve-like, moves briskly enough to mitigate the inevitable groan factor of its holes.

But Iron Man suffers from being a superhero film that is too afraid to pit its hero against anything more complex than some second-rate Bond lackeys. The bad guys Stark encounters in Afghanistan are just a discrete group of rogue thugs, carving up random spheres of influence and thirsting for power simply for its own sake. They’re not religious warriors, they’re not disaffected peasants mutilated by Stark’s weapons, and in a film that takes some rather awkward pains to establish its hero’s patriotic credentials, they’re never even connected to the War on Terror. Stark’s conflict with them is backed by a kind of juvenile morality that might play well on Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, but can’t help but be pandering in a wide-release.

Tony Stark rebels against his past by embracing it, fighting against the horrors of the weapons industry by building the most powerful one ever devised (to its credit, someone in the film points out the absurdity in this), gravely endangering the world he so recently swore to protect in the process. To the extent that we can judge any decision, it should be evaluated on its range of likely outcomes. In that light, Stark’s decisions are unpardonable sins: he brings the world to the brink and triumphs only by dint of outrageous fortune.

Stark finds it easier to use his vast resources to build a machine to satisfy his own personal vendettas (his own, and his too-heroic Afghan friend’s) instead of using them to change the global political structure he’s always profited from. In reality, he’s a charlatan, buoyed by the charm of a snake oil salesman, but we’re told he’s a laudable hero just because he has a winning smile and a cute pet robot. It’s the ultimate triumph of style over substance, and given where we are as society, that’s an all-too-common dynamic that desperately needs to end.

One other thing. Lots of praise has been spilled over the relationship between Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow, and it’s mystifying. We’re supposed to sympathize for a woman who can love a philandering (indirect) mass murderer, but can’t possibly countenance him endangering himself trying to right his wrongs (once again to its credit, Downey points out this absurdity in the film, but he never follows up on it). This is good romance? Buh? Either Paltrow’s character is pure evil, or she’s suffering from Stockholm syndrome.

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