Cinematic spring has bloomed into summer, turning the annual distribution wheel toward that moment in time when Hollywood unleashes the big guns, maximum profit films bent on luring suspecting children/tweens/grown men into the multiplexes for thrill rides and extraneous dialogue. Growing up an avid action fan, I understand the allure. As a young lad, I once reveled in the well-constructed, visceral excitement of films like Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Speed, and yes, Independence Day. But I’ve also experienced the horrors of Wild Wild West, Pearl Harbor, and Swordfish, not to mention countless other plagues my once impressionable mind couldn’t shake. In retrospect, the rotten apples have far outweighed the golden eggs.
Despite the countless disasters and disappointments, the summer movie season still represents something undeniably special for the child-like spirit inside me. The nostalgic twist I feel every May has only heightened the recent failures of the past few summer seasons, where big budget extravaganza’s have seemingly hit rock bottom, savagely and consistently disappointing viewers while flogging them with high octane, anti-story experiences flushed with bigger, louder, and more inane special effects (the penultimate example being Transformers). It’s tough to find any redeeming facets amidst these mind-boggling visual fire-bombings.
Thankfully Iron Man, the entertaining and smart opening punch of summer season 08, is wonderfully different. While the film doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it’s the type of blockbuster that makes the cynic in me remember the gleeful light Hollywood can shine when combining the right elements. The film represents a strange and potentially historic industry packaging job: a famous comic book, helmed by a B performer turned A director, and anchored by a conflicted method actor playing a conflicted super hero. The exciting result, like Christopher Nolan’s superb Batman Begins, uses character development as its narrative foundation while framing a super hero origin story through the kinetic lens of strategically placed and potent visual effects.
Iron Man envisions a high tech world where weapons technology rules the roost, no matter if you’re the American Government/Big Business or Taliban-esque freedom fighters. In fact, throughout the film billionaire playboy Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) seems to be a medium between the two sides, a corporate puppeteer childishly unaware of the horrifying actions occurring just off the screen until his own life gets violently and fantastically engaged. It’s this guilt of inaction that drives Stark, and in turn Downey Jr.’s slyly comedic and nuanced performance.
And so Stark traverses (quite brilliantly in his Hot Rod Red and Yellow get-up) through a battle between conscience and power, on one side the brutal legacy of his father (epitomized by Jeff Bridges’ benign baddie) and on the other an individual philanthropy based on fantastic and violent deflection – of evil, greed, and corporate gluttony – for those unable to do so themselves. During the excellent end sequence Stark uproots his destructively apathetic ways forever, making good on the thematic promises the film and its character have made throughout.
One could almost overemphasize Downey Jr.’s achievement, given that he’s been known as the ultimate roller coaster ride of seriousness, talent, and tragedy. Seeing him succeed is definitely fulfilling. But director Jon Favreau’s decision to cast Downey Jr. in the first place seems to be the real coup of Iron Man. Hollywood often makes idiotic casting choices in the name of mass appeal, putting obviously bland actors in roles simply to appease the supposed demographic at stake (Nicholas Cage in Ghost Rider for example), instead of taking a chance on a more ingenious, albeit risky choice who might be better suited for the role. No such flub here.
Maybe the next three months will again merely amount to a sea of hype leading a starved viewing public nowhere. But at least Iron Man has made an initial dent in my own apathetic qualms with Hollywood; keeping fresh in mind the possibility mainstream fare can both engage and entertain. If only this amazingly rare feat were the status quo.