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Friday, May 02, 2008

Iron Man

Until today I was an Iron Man virgin. Yes, it’s true. The big guy had barely registered on my mental radar except on the rare occasion when my son might have been reading a comic book in the kitchen at the same time I was using the can opener. That’s when one of those spooky moments of synchronicity would most likely kick in and I’d find myself glancing over at the cover art of his book and suddenly and inexplicably feel the need to pry open a can of tuna fish or baked beans just to see what was inside. What can I say? I’ve always been naturally curious, even about superheroes. I just never got around to Iron Man. Maybe it was his name. It sounds too much like ‘iron lung’ to be of much interest. Maybe if I smoked it would have had more meaning… I mean really. What is going to pique a gal’s interest (or libido) more: an Iron Man or the Man of Steel? That’s right. At least Superman was called “The Man of Steel” and somehow there’s something potentially intriguing about the innuendo attached to that label which just doesn’t “ring” with the idea of iron. I know what you’re thinking. Does this old cow ever get her mind out of the gutter? Well, not often, but I try. I really do.

The truth is when I was young(er) and other girls my age were reading Silver Screen or Modern Romance magazines I had my head buried in piles of comic books, living vicariously through the
lives of the few female super-heroines that existed back in the day. There weren’t many. Saving the world was a notoriously male occupation, and for every hundred Green Lanterns flying about you might find a lone Wonder Woman, but it didn’t matter to me. Quality trumped quantity, and besides, the hunk factor of the superheroes was always enough to off-set the lack of female counterparts. At least I could fantasize about being the hero’s girlfriend, since there was always one of those hanging around. Whoever she was, she was inevitably strong-willed, talented, smart-as-a-whip, an intrepid professional, and constantly prone to getting into dire situations that required her being saved by her muscle-bound champion. Hey, it was better than nothing, and when you are a ten-year-old-girl it doesn’t much matter if you are a Superman or Lois Lane while reading comic books. The story’s the important thing.

I’m not sure why, but I threw my allegiance to DC comics at an early age and never dared venture to another brand. Now, eons later, when the boys my age have grown up and into big-time Hollywood executives, it turns out they must have been fans of that other brand ~ Marvel Comics ~ because they are continually throwing buckets-full of money into making gi-normous epics out of Marvel’s Stan Lee creations. Spiderman, The Fantastic Four, and the X-Men have all spawned franchises of their own. Others, like The Incredible Hulk, Daredevil, Ultimate Avengers, The Punisher, and Elektra have all had their turns on the big screen to varying degrees of success as well, with The Hulk even getting a re-boot this summer with a new cast and script hoping to make audiences forget the lackluster 2003 version (though the special effects CG Hulkster himself looks eerily similar in the new movie to the tepidly received big green guy from five years ago). All this said, it was almost to be anticipated that eventually with so many minds focused on the gasoline crisis someone in Hollywood would daydream aimlessly about oil barrels and connect the dots between an empty barrel and the need to fill it with the next great American screen hero, thus bringing us this summer’s Iron Man.

The great thing about
Iron Man is that he does not have any super powers per se, unless you consider being richer than God a super power, which I suppose is just as good, if you know what I mean. He’s basically a weasely Bill Gates-type by the name of Tony Stark, and if you are going to be a Stark, you might as well be a ‘tony’ one I always say. Anyway, Tony is played by Academy Award winner Robert Downey, Jr. (Zodiac), who has got to be the perfect choice since everybody knows Robert is as flawed as Tony is supposed to be. Granted, Tony hasn’t spent time in the Crossbar Hotel as Robert has, but he and Robert are both booze-hounds with a long-history of sleeping around and being trés irresponsible. Unlike former cokehead Downey, however, Stark’s drug of choice seems to be gunpowder. He is the CEO and heir to the world’s largest weapons manufacturer and it’s a heady place to be until it lands him in a cave in Afghanistan as a prisoner of a group of insurgent rebels who just happen to have captured him and blown up the platoon of soldiers he was traveling with using Stark Industries’ bombs, guns, and ammunitions.

This is just the sort of life-altering experience that you know is going to turn a guy like Stark into either a superhero or a born-again Christian who starts his own television ministry. Fortunately, since washed-up child star Willie Ames already has the “Bible Man” gig in Pat Robertsonsville and assorted tent revival meetings across the South, Stark opts to use his time in captivity to con his captors into letting him rebuild some of his missiles into a flying suit of armor complete with its own weaponry to aid in his escape from the camp. Ta-da! The spirit of Iron Man is born.

Meanwhile, back in the US, faithful assistant and alliteratively dubbed go-to gal Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow; Love and Other Disasters) has waited patiently for three months for her oh-so-famous boss to come home, always certain that he would escape the terrorists. Sure enough, but upon his return she finds him a changed man in more ways than one. Not only had his attitudes
about war and weaponry changed, he had also physically changed, the result of his initial injuries, which required some remarkable makeshift surgery just to keep him alive in the short-term. A fellow prisoner, a scientist named Yinsen (Shaun Toub; The Kite Runner), saved Stark by wiring his heart directly to a car battery as a way to create a polarized magnet that would keep shards of shrapnel from entering that particular organ. The filmmakers neglected to explain what might happen if the offending metal wandered towards another organ, but then I’m guessing at least one of these might well have benefited from the publicity, but I digress. Stark himself perfected a permanent solution for his dilemma with a technology which would power his heart for centuries in a mechanism no bigger than a mayonnaise jar lid and much more attractive than any of Flavor Flav’s bling.

In case you think I’ve spilled more beans than a New York Governor’s hooker, trust me when I tell you that this is barely scraping the gold and red-painted outer shell of this beast. Once Tony returns, he decides to pull the plug on all weaponry production at Stark Industries, a plan that does not sit well with his mentor Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges; Surf’s Up) or the rest of the Board of Directors. It does, however, help inspire Stark to perfect his Iron Man prototype with the help of his supercomputer Jarvis, a sort of HAL-9000 on antidepressants who you might suspect spends his down time watching reruns of “Sex and the City” on his com-link. You’ll love him. He’s just one Cosmo short of giving Stark a “You go, Girl!” when the randy researcher takes his Iron Man drag out for a spin.

Despite seeming like a “typical” superhero flick on the surface,
Iron Man really is the thinking man’s take on this genre. Downey inhabits the role as if it’s a second skin, imbuing Stark with the debauchery, world-weariness, and contempt necessary to bring forth the duality all good superheroes possess. On the one hand he is the epitome of the crass narcissist it takes to trump Trump in the business world; on the other, he is a metal-plated Tin Man with a heart, one who is determined to extinguish war and the suffering it entails.

Paltrow, too, rises above the cheesy pre-feminist caricature that anyone named Pepper Potts conjures up and balances her portrayal as something between dutiful and efficient employee with an edgier undercurrent, as if she is the only person around who has been able to keep Stark ~ the weapons magnate ~ in check, a task that is at times both irksome and tiresome yet ultimately necessary because of her personal sense of morality.

As for Bridges, his fanatical warbird role is less well-defined but he plays the creepy mentor-gone-wild role with zest and his physical look, with shaved head and Texas polygamist-style beard, works well in establishing his credibility, or lack thereof. How anyone would put a guy named Obadiah Stane, with a look like his, in charge of anything that goes boom is beyond me. It’s as obvious a mistake as putting a guy with a black Tupperware™ head and asthma named “Darth” in charge of a day care center.

All said, I was much impressed with
Iron Man. Even in my dotage I guess I can be taught new tricks. Imagine: a superhero without a cape! I may not rush out and buy any comic books soon, but I am already looking forward to the anticipated sequel. And, who knows? I may even leave my can opener at home.

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