Superhero Movie Pet Peeves

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.

Movies: Iron Man

Spoiler disclaimer: This post does not contain specific details about the Iron Man movie beyond those available in the trailer. It does kinda ruin the ending to Elf, though.

I was never an Iron Man fan–even 20 years ago when my appetite for superheroes was voracious. To my mind, the whole concept behind the character was like an extended issue of What If?: what if Batman was a big pussy who needed a suit of armor every time he fought crime?! (I was pretty passionate about stuff like this, back in the day.) Plus, Tony Stark was always battling alcoholism or depression, and what fun was that? I wanted heroes who fought HIVE or ULTIMATUM, not the DSM.

But I’d heard good things about the film, and it was playing at the Cinerama, so what could I do? My 15 year-old-self would have traveled forward in time and kicked my ass if I missed the opportunity to see it. (Come to think of it, though, I still owe that kid a beatdown for The Phantom Menace.)

Iron Man wastes no time getting to the origin story. After opening with a few moments of Tony Stark wisecrackery (all of which was featured in the trailer), the industrialist is taken hostage by a gang of terrorists, confined to a cave, and given to understand that his days are numbered. “Wow, what a rip,” though I, sitting in the theater. Even someone with as scant knowledge of the Iron Man mythos as I understood that giving Robert Downey Jr. the role of Tony Stark was a bit of superhero-movie-casting genius unrivaled since Nicholson portrayed The Joker; and yet here we were, 10 minutes into the film, and already Stark had had his Pivotal Moment, having transformed from hedonistic sybarite to somber hero.

We’ll, I needn’t have worried. The next set of scenes are set 36 hours earlier, and show Stark in all of his bad-boy glory. Robert Downey Jr. is truly a joy to watch, and the audience in my theater was in stitches throughout the extended exposition. And though Stark is Irrevocably Changed For The Better by his experience with the terrorists, Downey continues to play his part with a rakish charm throughout.

Indeed, watching Tony Stark is so enjoyable that, when the third act arrives–devoted almost exclusively to the modern day Iron Man–it’s something of a disappointment, like a headliner who fails to live up to the opening act. “But Iron Man is Tony Stark,” you might argue. Well, yes, that’s true–according to narrative. But the Iron Man suit covers Stark completely, and, thanks to the miracle of CGI, is digitally rendered in most scenes. So, to me at least, there was no real sense of Robert Downey Jr. being “in” the suit. It was as if, after spending 90 minutes with one character as the protagonist, they abruptly decided to switch the focus to a different character entirely for the finale. In fact, I found myself improbably comparing Iron Man to Elf, the 2003 comedy that devotes itself to the story of Buddy (Will Ferrell) until the last 20 minutes, when suddenly it’s all about Santa Claus. (Only later did I discover that Iron Man and Elf have the same director, Jon Favreau.)

Which isn’t to say that the climax of Iron Man is bad (though it did evoke two of my Superhero Movie pet peeves, which I will detail in another post to keep this review spoiler-free). It’s perfectly serviceable, but something of a letdown given all that had come before. I guess they couldn’t have just omitted the eponymous superhero from his own movie, but if they make a prequel called Stark and just let Downey Jr. do his playboy act for two straight hours, I will be the first in line.

The Bright Side

The Queen, observing the crowd demographics as we arrived at the Seattle Cinerama for the premiere of Iron Man: “Well, at least there won’t be a line for the ladies room …”

Journey of a Thousand Miles

Sorry about the irregular posting schedule around here recently, but National Start! Walking Day was on April 16th and that’s been keeping me pretty busy.

Speaking of which, if anyone knows when National Stop! Walking Day is, could you let me know? I probably should have checked before I left. Right now I’m about 7 miles outside of Spokane, heading east on I-90–just drive around until you find me. I’m covering about 30-35 miles a day, so keep take that into account. Also, if you could bring some power bars and water, that would be awesome, thanks.