The Clash of One Titan and Some Also-Rans
My pal Proty informed me a couple of weeks ago that Iron Man was “alright.” Actually, Proty said: “It was eye-ight,” with a more than slight upswing in his tone on the last word of the sentence that imparted to me that it was more than merely O.K. with him, and that Proty either likely enjoyed it or was at least pleasantly surprised, though not liked it quite nearly enough so that his statement could end with some form of emphatic punctuation such as an exclamation point. Of course, Proty just had to add the notion that “it was kinda like Transformers.”
Iron Man is more than “eye-ight.” And no, my pal Proty, except for the heroes in both films sporting metallic armor of some variety, it wasn’t at all like Transformers. Transformers, despite some fairly competent action sequences, sucked beyond belief. Transformers sucked in exactly the same way that was meant by the acne-laden, mouth-breathing, hoodie-wearing teen that sat behind me at Cloverfield, as he defiantly stood up midway through that film's credits and shouted "That fuckin' sucked!," even though he nearly shat his pants twice during the film. (Gee... so the payback for a purportedly scary film actually turning out to be scary is that you will tell your friends it isn't scary, all because you have to play tough?) In fact, I am pretty certain that this same teen absolutely loved Transformers, and then when he did go to Iron Man, he probably told all of his friends that it "ripped off" Transformers. But that is the way of Generation Oops: the idiot, uninformed youth.
But outside of that minor comparison of individual armories, otherwise -- in the realm of things on which the true quality of a film should depend: characterizations, storyline, dialogue – Iron Man is lights years past wherever Transformers barely dipped a toe. Even using characters and a plotline rehashed from comic books twenty years before the point that the Transformers flickered crudely animated onto American television screens, Iron Man still soundly quashes that latest example of Michael Bay’s general ineptitude at anything beyond flashy effects sequences.
And then there is the acting. Don't get me started on actor-by-actor comparisons, because that is truly an unnecessary undertaking in cases like these. These films draw big-time talent like flies. Especially with big-budget blockbuster films, where many actors don't really care about the potential quality of the piece, but rather about the CA$H and blockbuster exposure (which leads to even more CA$H). While there are those actors who will take a part in a comic book-style (or children's) flick because a) their kids love it, or b) they loved it as a kid, for the most part, actors take these parts because they can smell the green when the initial call from the producer gets left with their service.
Assuredly, like many of these films no matter the quality, Transformers has some wonderful actors in it, but they are mainly just there to catch a piece of the residuals. For the most part, outside of that LaBeouf twink, they have done far better work in at least more entertaining projects, if not more important or better made ones. John Turturro, Julie White, Jon Voight, Bernie Mac, Anthony Anderson -- they've all done or will do far better things. They simply collect their checks and move on...
Shia LaBeouf won't -- he's already linked to Transformers sequels for however long audiences will put up with soulless dreck -- and he has already convinced several big-name directors, in much the same way that Cruise and Keanu Reeves did before him, that he is the heir apparent to Hollywood star status. This has to be solely through the sheer power of his box office take, because acting-wise, he has done nothing in the way of convincing me that he can play anyone but himself. Such a centrally-based talent is fine for someone like Carrot Top, who really has no other choice but to be his teeth-grinding self, but LaBeouf the Grating will now be inescapable for the near future. At least Chris O'Donnell had the common decency to just be flat-out bland and kindly bored casting directors into all but killing his career. But LaBeouf actually seems to represent his dead-eyed, self-possessed generation in such a way that he shines out like a beacon in an otherwise starless night to people like Spielberg and Bay, who like anyone, are anxious to capture that core demographic, no matter the cost in credibility. And so now I have to put up with the weaselly, little snivelshit tomorrow night in the new Indiana Jones flick. If only there had been a horrible accident on the set of Disturbia, I would have been spared everything he's done since. Wait -- let's move that accident bar back to Constantine.
But back to Iron Man, where if the actors did indeed sign up only for the bucks, they at least were signed to parts practically perfect for each one. Downey has certainly climbed back fully from the abyss in which he mired himself (there's no one else to blame, really), but then, I thought that when I saw him in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. (Really, people. Avail yourself of this film already. It's a riot.) Unlike Kiss though, Iron Man is putting yourself out in front of people on one of the most grandiose levels that one can. It takes balls to possibly destroy your career further by taking on the lead role of a superhero, especially in a film that potentially could have destroyed an upcoming studio should it have failed on any level at all. But it doesn't fail anywhere, and while the entire cast is terrific, this is Downey's film to carry and the true responsibility for its success should lie upon him.
Now, a word to reviewers who love to describe Jeff Bridges' acting in this film as "over-the-top" or "hammy" or "scenery-chewing." Honestly, I felt he underplayed the role. In fact, he is so far in the background until a pair of huge scenes, I thought the scenery was chewing him instead. Yes, in those big scenes he elevates his emotions to almost shocking levels. But what the hell do you want in a movie which is derived from a comic book? (And this is no knock on comic books -- I am a lifelong collector.) Look, I just reread the original Iron Man story once again last week, and do you realize that the only word balloons that don't end in exclamation points are the ones that end in question marks. And those are fairly rare. Comic books -- and comic book heroes and villains -- are supposed to be accompanied by exclamation points! And while I am at it: !!!!!!!!!!!
Sure, you could point out that this would then give an excuse for that thankfully rare Batman & Robin fan out there to claim this is the proof that Ah-nuld or Uma were actually dead-on in their portrayals of Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy. I say thee "Nay!" There is a monstrous difference between "good" over-the-top acting and the "bad" variety. Of the examples given above, only Mr. Bridges represents the former.
To this point, even after the first two Spideys, the original two Reeve Supermans and the Burton and Nolan Batman flicks, Iron Man could turn out to be the saving grace for modern superhero films. It’s the one where the ratio of regular guy audience connection to super-powered alter-ego action is finally mixed perfectly. Seriously, I am a Batman-aholic, but the Caped Crusader as envisioned currently can be a tough nut to crack for even the hardiest of fans. Iron Man, mainly due to Downey's completely infectious performance, may be the specimen that allows hoity-toity film reviewers from even far-flung lands – who will spend a good portion of their review explaining how normally they find all that super-hero action to be greasy kid's stuff and far below their notice – to finally recognize that these types of films can have their benefits.
The best of superhero stories can possess what the best of any genre should have, and they can have ideas beyond simple good vs. evil. They can weigh in on far more serious matters beyond "I'm lonely and misunderstood... boo-hoo! -- Hey, I have superpowers!" Iron Man touches on the military-industrial complex, war profiteering and terrorism. Tony Stark himself will even likely have a fall from grace in the movie sequels due to his rampant alcoholism, and if it sounds old hat today, when I was first reading those stories in the seventies, I was absolutely shocked with how I suddenly had to deal with such an adult issue. (The mind reels with how Downey will play this aspect of the role.) Soon, we will have the Watchmen onscreen with their ever-present nuclear clock, and while the answer to the question of "Who Watches the Watchmen?" will likely be answered, "Not huge audiences..." (it is a cult concept at best, and the film must be rated a very hard "R" to be pulled off properly), it will show once more that superhero comics are not just greasy kid's stuff after all anymore.
True, the use of these powers can often right the world for the character in a simplistic fashion, and it's also true that often the use of these powers can be seen as being ironically fascistic. But those that condemn the genre automatically -- and those that assume that this attitude is the only prevalent standard within comics -- have clearly never been fully exposed to the genre. They don't understand that the genre, especially in the past thirty years, has grown up enormously, and that it is far beyond the donning of some colorful tights. Or a shiny metallic suit.
All of these concepts are far beyond those to be found in Transformers. Yeah, it too has shiny metal heroes. What it doesn't have, and what it's director will never have, is any concept of a soul. Sorry, Proty. It's a surface-to-airhead missile that the likes of Tony Stark would never have designed on his worst day.