Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Movie Review: Iron Man

It's amazing what you can build in a cave.

Iron Man, directed by Jon Favreau. Screenplay by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway. Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Terrence Howard, and Jeff Bridges. Paramount (2008). Runtime 125 minutes. Rated PG-13. USCCB Rating is AIII--Adults.

Read other reviews here.

Considering that it's two movies crammed into one, the new Iron Man is surprisingly good, largely due to the star, Robert Downey, Jr., whose classy lines and flippant delivery keep the chuckles coming throughout what might otherwise have been a load of dull exposition. Because of Downey, competent directing, and a clever if not exactly streamlined script, this film is easily as good as Spider-Man 2, and even surpasses it in sophistication, if not in artistry. This may even be the first superhero movie that didn't make me impatient and fidgety during the backstory, and considering that almost the entire movie is backstory, with a battle stapled to the end in order to get in the requisite explosions, that's quite a feat.

The story follows playboy industrialist Tony Stark (Downey), a genius, womanizer, heavy drinker, and unscrupulous arms dealer captured in Afghanistan (originally Vietnam in the comics) by terrorists who order him to build them a new super-missile. Fortunately, the terrorists are idiots who can't figure out that he's instead building himself a heavily armed exoskeleton in order to effect his escape. The scenes with the terrorists are surprisingly gritty and frightening, but the appearance of genius scientist Yinsen (Shaun Taub), who patches up Stark's war wounds and saves his life by attaching an electromagnet to his chest to keep shrapnel from worming into his heart, reminds us that we're in comic book camp territory.

Trapped in a cave, equipped with primitive tools, and with only Yinsen as his assistant, Stark soon replaces the electromagnet in his chest with a miniature nuclear reactor that also powers his new battlesuit, which inexplicably has a glass window right over his most vulnerable spot, just so we can see how glowey his chest is. Once he makes good his escape, he returns to America with a changed attitude toward war and begins designing a sleeker, flashier version of his exoskeleton in order to hunt down terrorists who have acquired weapons manufactured by his company. Opposing him and appearing only at the movie's tale end in a tacked-on action sequence is Iron Monger, who has a big, clunky, well-armed mecha battlesuit of his own.

Stark is very much a tortured and even selfish hero. Though upon his return from captivity he stops dealing arms and gives up much of his dissolute behavior, he becomes monomaniacally obsessed with hoarding his technological discoveries, believing that if anyone else had a miniature nuclear reactor, an exoskeleton, or advanced weapons, he would inevitably use them for evil. This is in tune with the comics, in which Iron Man spends a good deal of time tracking down and defeating characters who have acquired technology based on his Iron Man suit. When Stark stops manufacturing and selling weapons, viewers may mistakenly believe he has become a pacifist, but that is not the case; as an arms dealer, Stark wanted to make sure only America had his weapons, but as Iron Man, he wants to make sure only he has his weapons. Iron Man is therefore the story of a narcissist whose narcissism is not exactly cured by his traumatic experiences in war. Although a little muddled thanks to the script's misdirected (albeit enormously entertaining) focus on the protagonist's technological inventions rather than his interior life, Stark's less-than-perfect motives as a hero form a believable continuity with his previous life as a decadent playboy, and Downey's consistently charismatic delivery ensures that Stark is likable even when he's dislikable.

Speaking of which (this is the part where the oh-so-clever Catholic sf blogger pats himself on the back for smoothly changing the topic), the Catholic Church has a teaching that for me, as a former Conservative Baptist, was hard to swallow. The Catechism summarizes it, "Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality" (par. 2264). To me, this idea of love of self sounded like empty warm fuzziness at best, narcissism at worst. The command to love others is clear in scripture, but I tended to view love of self with suspicion.

Fortunately, when I went through RCIA, I had a good priest who explained that my suspicions were based on a misunderstanding of love, which is an unselfish desire for what is best for people. Because this desire must be unselfish, it does not permit self-indulgence. Viewed this way, it can be understood that true love of self is a genuine demand of Christian morality and not a recent innovation. Love of self, therefore, is not narcissism. In Iron Man, there can be no doubt that Stark has begun treating himself and others a little better after his trying experiences: his womanizing has essentially ceased, he drinks slushy green shakes, and he is careful in battle to protect and save innocents. He still has a long way to go, of course, but that's what sequels are for, and perfect superheroes are boring anyway.

To change the topic yet again, I'll mention that I was surprised to see so many young girls, around age eight or so, in the theater. When the sex scene happened in the first nine minutes, I was embarrassed that they were there, and during some of the harsher violent sequences, I was embarrassed yet again. As usual, I defer to parents on the issue, but it's not the sort of movie I think of as being appropriate for young children.

Content Advisory: mild sexual content, some coarse language, scenes of torture and surgery, brutal action violence

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Iron Man:

Myth Level: Medium-High (hero journey and comic books and all that)

Quality: Medium-High (give that man an Oscar! Great writing, too, but could we have a smoother plot?)

Ethics/Religion: Medium-High (generally good message, bad person who has a change of heart, etc.)
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