November 9, 2008

Now out on DVD: "Iron Man"

Here's my review of "Iron Man" from last May in The American Conservative:

In contrast to the manga-addicted Japanese, Americans don't actually like comic books much. Sales have been sluggish since the collapse of the speculator-driven collectible bubble in the early 1990s. The fundamental flaw of comic books is that by using pictures to dispense with time-consuming verbal descriptions, they quickly chew through countless plot permutations, exhausting all but the most obsessive readers.

What Americans like instead, as the $100 million opening weekend for the entertaining "Iron Man" shows, are comic book movies. Two hours is the right amount of time for the tragic death of the parents of the superhero, his dawning awareness of his powers for good and evil, a bruising fight with an older supervillain in the skies over a megalopolis, and an epilogue setting up the sequel.

Granted, Hollywood is scraping the bottom of the comic book barrel with Iron Man, a name more famous as the title of the thudding heavy metal classic by Black Sabbath. (Was the song inspired by the superhero? Nobody seems to know -- you try getting a straight story out of an elderly English rock star about what he was thinking in 1970.) Yet, Iron Man's obscurity didn't prove a marketing problem because, as Canadian journalist Colby Cosh has noted, "The public adores the familiar, even if all they know is that it should be familiar."

Iron Man was dreamed up by Stan Lee in 1963 as Marvel Comics' answer to DC's Batman. Like Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark lacked superpowers, but he made up for it by being a billionaire playboy inventor a la Howard Hughes. That was an era of engineer heroes, such as Hyman Rickover of the nuclear navy, Wernher von Braun of the space program, and Kelly Johnson of Lockheed's Skunk Works. In contrast, today's most celebrated tech tycoon is Apple's Steve Jobs, whose specialty is simplifying user interfaces (while the boring manufacturing is subcontracted off somewhere overseas).

Rather than fighting crime like Wayne, Stark's focus was foreign policy. While prototyping a new Stark Industries weapons system for our advisors in Vietnam, he was captured by "red guerilla tyrant" Wong Chu, who put him to work building a superweapon for some nefarious purpose. Stark, though, secretly banged together a robot exoskeleton (probably inspired by the mobile infantry powers suits in Robert A. Heinlein's 1959 novel Starship Troopers) and smashed his way out.

The movie is transplanted to Afghanistan in 2008. The villain isn't the Taliban (there are a lot of Muslim potential ticket-buyers out there), but a freelance warlord who has assembled a multicultural gang of mercenaries from across the Eurasian steppe, from Hungary to Mongolia, to rebuild the empire of Genghis Khan. (How using Stark's high tech weaponry to pillage one mud brick village in the Hindu Kush gets him closer to world domination isn't explained.)

In most action movies, the bad guys' henchmen are suicidally devoted to the cause, even if they are just in it for money. In a clever touch of realism in this consistently enjoyable film, however, the hired goons are just bullies who flee in terror from what looks like a man wrapped in pick-up truck bumpers.

Soon, the engineering genius is back in his workshop in his John Lautner-designed Iron Mansion in Malibu, building a more advanced suit to track down who is bootlegging his firm's weaponry. "Iron Man" is a refreshing throwback to the pre-virtual age when heroes forged tools out of metal, rather than just tap on a computer keyboard. It's the most loving tribute to machinery since James Cameron vanished.

Casting the twice-imprisoned Robert Downey Jr. as the hero was a risk because the leading man in a $186 million production must be insurable, and his work ethic should provide a role model for the crew. That's one reason Cameron made Arnold Schwarzenegger a huge star, even though he can barely speak English. Downey, in contrast, is blessed with the most nimble articulation of any American actor since James Woods. He could whip through Hamlet in three hours. Indeed, one of the more intriguing what-ifs of recent American theatre history was the drug-cancelled 2001 production of Hamlet, in which Downey was to be directed by his friend Mel Gibson.

Sober for half a decade, Downey remains the master of the throwaway line. Watch how lightly he tosses off his inevitable last line, "I am Iron Man," just before Black Sabbath's power chords clang over the credits.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

unrelated to this post, but relating to something you've discussed in the past: Silicon Valley Insider, ex-Wall Streeter Henry Blodget's tech blog, has an example of a question from Microsoft's puzzle brainteaser quizzes it gives to its college recruits.

basically an IQ test, but don't dare call it that!

this is the type of puzzle, BTW, that investment banks used to ask (when they were around and when they actually hired people), and major consulting firms like McKinsey ask.

Not sure about Business International Corp. though......I hear they have an essay portion in which the candidate can explain the oppression he or she faced in the ghetto/barrio/dumpster and thus why he or she should (must!) be hired.

Anonymous said...

The song Iron Man was inspired by the book The Iron Man by Ted Hughes. Listen to the lyrics and read the book, you'll get it.

But the driving beat and the vocals suit the movie quite well.

Anonymous said...

It was an enjoyable film, but one silly touch was that a greedy defense contractor would sell weapons to some ragtag terrorists. Even if the executives were completely amoral, what would be the logic of selling to a Bin Laden, when Uncle Sam can outspend him a thousand times over?


Anonymous said...

To many Brits, the Iron Man means only one thing.

Anonymous said...

In high school, we used to have a day of foreign language skits. One year, each period of German class found an excuse to work the head banging song "Du Hast" by Rammstein into their skits.

I swear this movie was just a 2 hour excuse to use that Ozzy Osborne song.

Anonymous said...

Steve, you're not a Comics fan.

Iron Man is the big gun of the Marvel Universe, he's been very popular.

Of course Marvel wants to make a movie about him -- it would be like no DC Comics movies featuring Green Lantern but most of the other characters.

The problem with comics is that the creators and editors made them for forty something adults, instead of kids, with dark, angsty, adult, and depressing storylines. Which are mostly uber-liberal moonbat style.

Comics cost more than $5 now, can only be purchased in Comic book specialty shops, so kids don't read them. No new characters have been created (that were actually popular) since the late 1970's. [Which was the Punisher.]

What you have in Comics is like the crisis in Popular Music, or movies, or plays, or literature, and particularly, Black Culture. No new creative achievements, just recycling the old stuff in various formats for an ever-declining audience.

Comics were mostly the creation of assimilationist bent-Jews, just like Jazz was the creation of assimilationist bent Blacks, or movies the creation of assimiliationist bent Jews. In each case a minority, wanting on the inside to be accepted as fully equal, creates an art form that expresses that desire for creation, and once they are indeed largely accepted the creative impulse that drove the art dies.

What people forget is the sheer power, size, scope, and genius of Black and Jewish culture in America from say, 1920-1965 or so. And then, extremely rapid collapse.

Can anyone compare the creation of Superman, or Marvin Gaye's 1960's tunes, or Miles Davis, with anything created today?

Anonymous said...

I rented the DVD and watched Iron Man for the first time last weekend. Not thought provoking or high theatre for sure, but an entertaining 2 hours.

Anonymous said...

I picked up an excellent 'learn to weld titanium and impress Tony Stark' Iron Man comic book at a community college last summer.

Batman, on the other hand, is stuck with underground comics about him and Robin, sitting in a tree-

amnesiac said...

The song is, I believe, a (dumbly) dramatised exploration of the predicament of a dehumanized and vengeful Vietnam vet. I don't see any reference to Hughes's poem in it at all.

I'm not sure who wrote the words. The band's main lyricist in the early years was Geezer Butler - out of whom you actually do stand a reasonable chance of getting a coherent answer, at least in comparison to the totally frazzled Ozzy. But the exceptionally dumb vocal melody, which cleaves to the guitar riff note for note, suggests to me that Ozzy might in fact have been behind this one.

It still sounds extraordinary even today though - and has been used very effectively in the trailers I've seen. Ought to catch the movie really.

Anonymous said...

Iron Man was dreamed up by Stan Lee in 1963 as Marvel Comics' answer to DC's Batman.

Black Sabbath's first LP, including the "Iron Man" track, was recorded and released in 1970.

Oizzie has said that the cost of recording the album was something like 1200 {British] Pounds ... pre-inflationary era.

His daytime vocation at the time was apprentice plumber.

Anonymous said...

it's been obvious for a while now that steve has no idea what he's talking about when it comes to comic books.

not only is iron man one of the major marvel characters and in no way scrapes the bottom of the barrel, the comic book pre-dates the song by years.

on a related note, it was stan winston, the physical effects genius, who built all the iron man suits for this movie. stan's previous work can be seen in terminator, aliens, predator, jurassic park, and a dozen other films. unfortunately he died this year, leaving a huge hole in the physical effects world, and perhaps forever stranding us with the alternative, fake looking computer generated monsters. at least until james cameron's next generation "avatar" comes out.

steve must hate awesome science fiction/action movies, judging by his reviews. there is never anything said about them in a straightforward way, positive or even negative. instead he always writes a sociology paper trying to explain how one thing or another in the film relates to a real world phenomenon or something.

michael farris said...

You're way off on the comics history.

Iron Man has been a major Marvel character for a long time.An Iron Man movie is hardly scraping the bottle of the barrel the same way that a Hawkeye or Dazzler or Valkyrie movies would be.

Also, comics creators have always stolen and repackaged each others ideas relentlessly. In that light Tony Stark is partly a recreation of Bruce Wayne (rich inventor who uses the cover of a playboy industrialist). But Iron Man has nothing in common with Batman.
Spiderman is also a reworking of Batman (having lost loved ones to random criminal violence both become crime-fighting avengers without possessing impressive powers and use repulsive animals as icons).
There's also Nighthawk (originally a villain Batman satire later D-list hero).

And comics declined in popularity largely as a part of distribution hassles. Their disappearance from drug stores and convenience stores and grocery stores started happening in the 1970's (and go back to the 50's - Marvel was hamstrung throughout most of the 60's by limited distribution deals that limited the number of titles they could ship) and the switch to comic book stores was related to that. Unfortunately the publishers didn't really think of how to attract new readers. Previously comicbook readers started with the kids books, moved onto superheroes, ghost stories, etc. With the newstands gone the non-superhero titles that appealed to more casual readers disappeared and kids weren't reading them in numbers anymore and the comicbook store business started going south.

verification word : hottorr, that sounds uncomfortably like some oneshot Marvel villain from the 70's