This post contains massive spoilers for Iron Man, and pretty much every other superhero movie of the last two decades.
Harnessing the power of dumb
As I mentioned in my review, I thought the new Iron Man movie was fantastic … except for the parts that involved Iron Man, which lacked a certain je ne sais quoi (French for “Robert Downey Jr.”).
I was particularly unimpressed with the Big Climatic Fight Scene, and a little irritated that the film not only epitomized one of my Superhero Movie Pet Peeves, but flirted with a second as well. To wit:
Pet Peeve #1: The bad guy has exactly the same powers and abilities as the good guy Honestly, this drives me nuts. Who thinks this is a good idea?
Lots of comic book writers apparently. Back in the day when I routinely read comic books (late 80’s), it seemed that every hero had his evil twin as his archnemesis. Flash fought Reverse-Flash, who was as fast as The Flash but bad!. (I previously ranted about Reverse-Flash here). Green Lantern fought Sinestro, an ex-Corps member who also possessed a Power Ring. Wolverine fought Sabertooth, Spider-Man fought Venom, Superman fought Bizarro, and so forth.
Of course when the two people fighting are of exactly equal power and ability, it kind of doesn’t matter how “super” they are–Captain Marvel scraping with Black Adam is really no different from two five year-olds trading blows over a package of Necco wafers, two grandmasters playing chess for 17 hours before ending the game in a draw, or a couple of pissed off roosters in a cockpit.
Much more interesting, to my mind, are the asymmetrical rivalries. Batman is in peak physical form; The Joker is frail (in the hands of most writers), but utterly unpredictable, even to a master strategist such as Bruce Wayne. Superman v. Luthor is another good one, with the discrepancy between their (physical) power and adherence to morality even wider. Perhaps the greatest asymmetrical skirmish in literature is also one of the most engrossing: J. R. R. Tolken managed to squeeze over a thousand pages out of the Frodo vs. Sauron cagematch.
But in Iron Man, the movie (this is where the spoilers start), Stark winds up battling: another Iron Man. A bigger one, sure, but the whole thing pretty much degenerates into Robot Slugfest ’08. People, if I’d wanted to watch Transformers, I woulda downloaded it from Mininova like everyone else.
And it looks as if the upcoming Hulk film is going to follow exactly the same pattern. From what I can glean from the trailer (which appears to be: everything), the climactic battle in that film is Hulk Vs. Reverse-Hul- I mean “Abomination”. I know Marvel Studios also has “Captain America” and “Thor” films slated for next year–are we just going to see the same formula played out four times in a row, followed by “Avengers Vs. Vengers” in 2010?
Pet Peeve #2: The whole story is self-contained This is when the hero causes the very problem he is fighting to solve, or is just struggling to save his own miserable skin. In Iron Man, the power source and armor that Tony Stark creates while in captivity fall into the hands of his bad-guy business partner, and his heroics revolve around his attempts to destroy them. Fortunately there’s a bigger issue at stake (Stark’s desire to turn his company around), because, without it, the audience might think, “well, hell: if Stark had just been killed in the first 10 minutes of the film, there’d be no need for an Iron Man, as his own designs wouldn’t have become a threat to world peace.”
I understand the point of making the final battle personal for the protagonist, but these circular plots often seem like the hero is more motivated by a desire to undo his mistakes or avenge his dead parents (see 1989’s Batman) than do anything, you know, heroic. I get enough frantic ass coverage and settlement of petty grudges at the office, thanks.