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Iron Man Somehow Punctuates Awe and Humanity

By Staff | May 20, 2008

Man has always wanted to flap his arms and fly like birds into the sky. Planes, helicopters and dirigibles have been the closest humans have gotten to wings without becoming an afterlife angel. Even the first “Superman” film, with Christopher Reeves, still  trumped the special effects: “You will believe a man can fly.”

Other Superheroes have been the recipients of this power, too. In fact, in 1949, Jeff King put on an experimental rocket propulsion suit in the Republic serial, “King of the Rocket Men.” The suit reappeared in two additional serials, “Radar Men from the Moon” and “Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe.”

One of Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby’s initial creations in the “Marvel Universe,” Tony Stark, an inventive industrialist, crafted a suit for his battles as Iron Man. The current film astutely adapts the script to 21st Century terrorist fears, plucking Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in the mountains of Afghanistan to demonstrate a new missile for allies. However, he falls into the hands of terrorists (the script does not state al-Qaeda or Taliban) who demand he build them a super destructive Jericho missile. Instead, Stark forges from sweltering furnaces of his enemies, an iron suit capable of withstanding bullets, mortar, shrapnel and flames, which has offensive capabilities too, including a not fully functional flying ability.

In fact, his first flight allows him to escape captivity but reminds of the TV superhero spoof, “The Greatest American Hero,” in which a teaher received a flying suit that was missing instructions on how to use it.  Back in the United States, Stark builds a better suit of armor and perfects its flying attributes.

Interestingly, “Iron Man” has a “peace” message and, perhaps, serves as a prelude for introducing a patriotic hero from the Marvel universe, Captain America. In any event, Stark observes how his factory’s weapons have fallen into the hands of despots and dictators and vows to stop production of destructive weapons and protect the world as Iron Man.

Iron Man does not rumble to save a city on demand like Batman, instead, he picks his fights and wins through strategy and strength, then returns to bandage wounds from the battle. Don’t let robotic allusions sway you, Downey as Stark molds himself into a super hero character still possessing the most simplistic human qualifies. For that matter, without the suit, he’s plain ole playboy, billionaire, corporate boat rocker Stark.

Robert Downey Jr., who had some real-life substance abuse issues and encounters with the justice system, portrays the hard drinking, high rolling, ultra-rich, womanizing playboy with only one confidante, his assistant/girl Friday Pepper Potts played exquisitely by Gwyneth Paltrow. Boasting a black, less than perfectly short, stubble beard, Downey’s person and personality easily define him as rebellious, crafty, self-centered and eccentric. He has an authoritative, condescending, yet sympathetic, demeanor and voice that bestows confident cockiness, which generally provides most of the film’s lighter moments.

Downey has a transformation that properly tests his range of believability as an actor. Early in the film he spits bolts with a statement, “Is it better to be feared or respected? I prefer a weapon you only have to fire once.” Yet, the time in captivity softens his heart, allowing him to see the brutality of his firm’s weapons in the palms of warlords.

The high octane battle scenes will enthrall adventure seekers (at least until Indiana Jones arrives!), but the flubs and crash landings during a relatively long flight school segment punctuates both the suit wearer’s vulnerability and humanity — both qualities strongly emphasized as Stan Lee populated his Marvel superhero universe with flawed, struggling and reluctant warriors against evil.

Again, the subtle anti-war sentiments promote the creative community’s general opposition to the current Iraq confrontation without draping the film in either an abundance of symbolic nuances or patriotic flag waving. Downey does this with a solemn, laid back statement, “I saw young Americans killed with weapons designed to protect them.”

Contact Tony at trutherford@