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A Hero for Our Times

Why Iron Man is an action magnet for liberals. Plus: David Mamet’s sports flick.

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Every age gets not the superhero it deserves but the superhero it needs to ease its anxieties: the midwestern farm boy who conquers metropolitan crime; the caped vigilante of the Gotham night; the tortured teen whose sticky excretions become a source of potency; the persecuted freaks whose differences empower them to save the normal folks. Now, in Iron Man, the first of the season’s megabudget comic-book spectaculars, we get an American weapons mogul whose guilt over facilitating the deaths of U.S. soldiers and Mideast civilians impels him to turn off the arms pipeline and rescue Afghans from marauding warlords. The military-industrial complex ravages the Third World—then its former emissary swoops down from the sky in the guise of an impregnable weapon, using his might (and money, and American ingenuity) to undo the damage. Iron Man Akbar! It’s utter, wish-fulfilling crap, but when the whole world hates you, it does feel good.

Iron Man is a shapely piece of mythmaking. The director, Jon Favreau, doesn’t go in for stylized comic-book frames, at least in the first half. He gets real with it—you’d think you were watching a military thriller. After jetting to Afghanistan to demonstrate a guided missile (which launches itty-bitty guided missiles), “billionaire industrialist” and conscienceless playboy Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) gets kidnapped by insurgents, who blow up his convoy and kill his Army escort. He wakes up in a cave, where a kindly Afghan civilian (Shaun Toub) has inserted a magnet in his chest to keep the shrapnel from drifting to his vital organs. The bad guys order Stark to replicate his super-duper weapon. But are they in for a surprise!

The robotic Iron Man has little in the way of an expression, but his eye slots and the circular magnet in his chest have an unearthly glow, and his coloring is warm—gold and trimmed with red, like a sunset. Favreau keeps cutting to Downey’s big head bouncing inside the helmet, somewhat offsetting our knowledge that the Iron Man itself is entirely computer-generated. His first liftoff and crash landing owe a lot to Brad Bird’s incomparable The Iron Giant—although Favreau would probably say it’s “an homage.” At least he steals from the best. A movie like this is a sound designer’s wet dream: thunk, squish, clank, whir, kaboom. The heavy-metal rock that kicks in when Iron Man appears is an aural pun that works like gangbusters—although I wish there were a melody in there somewhere.

First chapters of superhero sagas are more alike than unalike: The hero tests out his new powers (painfully), amazes his friends and foes, and makes his auspicious debut before the wider world. (What is it? Where did it come from? Is it friendly? Is there a franchise in it?) Then there’s a villain who gets hold of the same technology and uses it for evil instead of good—that’s Obadiah Stane, played by Jeff Bridges with a little beard and a bald dome, making his bid both for Stark’s superpowers and William Hurt’s hold on the ex-leading-man hambone character-actor market.

The casting alone generates tons of goodwill. Who wouldn’t root for Downey as a guy who has to clean up his act? His Stark is a sex addict, a fast-talking heel whose jokes about his own irresponsibility are a hedge against growing up. Downey has such terrific instincts. He demonstrates his transformation by looking as if he has been yanked out of a blissful dream; his self-love dries up and so does his shtick. His loyal assistant, Pepper Potts, isn’t much of a part, but Gwyneth Paltrow is a presence. She stands around looking amused and flabbergastingly pretty, slinging wisecracks with serene aplomb. Bridges makes Stane scarily at ease with his villainy. He’s an inspiring actor: His movie-star vanity never gets in the way of his playing an asshole. Only Terrence Howard as Stark’s military liaison Rhodey seems ill used: He’s perilously close to being Jim to Downey’s Huck. Or maybe he’s supposed to be Colin Powell.

Blockbuster action movies often pick up on bad vibes in the air and transform them into something that lets us sleep better at night. In 1989, the same summer Spike Lee dramatized our seemingly unbridgeable differences in Do the Right Thing, Hollywood gave us Lethal Weapon 2, in which an unruly white guy and a middle-class black family man collaborated to destroy the evil representatives of South African apartheid. Poof—racial divisions melted away in a show of righteous force. Iron Man is more family-friendly, but it’s in the same liberal-fantasy tradition. And don’t misunderstand—I loved it. I’d so rather think about blockbusters than bunker-busters (or the Democratic primary).

It’s always fun to watch David Mamet Mametize another film genre: the heist picture (Heist), the red-meat war movie (Spartan), and now, in Redbelt, the go-for-it sports drama. So how’s the Mamet Rocky? Fast. Lively. In your face. Very watchable. And, like its predecessors, so bizarrely convoluted it barely holds together on a narrative level. But the underpinnings are consistent. As Mamet has evolved into a confident and resourceful film director, his worldview has hardly budged. What’s changed is that his movie heroes manage to protect themselves from life’s inevitable betrayals.


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