Thursday, June 19, 2008

6/19/08 Iron Man = awesome

I'm late to the bandwagon, I know, but I saw Iron Man last week and it's awesome. And its success as a movie ties back to the basic unsatisfying-ness of Indiana Jones that I attempted to outline a couple of weeks ago. I cried out for the necessity of a light tone in a summer blockbuster, and lo and behold this gem of a movie was sucking up box office left and right quite in front of my ignorant nose. Brilliant.

Well, the fact that a whole lot of people went to see it doesn't necessarily indicate quality or not - sometimes popular success has a lot to do with quality, and sometimes it doesn't. Especially when it comes to summer blockbusters, attendance is in some ways simply a function of obligation - we all know that summer movies are when Hollywood pulls out all the high-dollar smoke and mirrors, and the movies tend to accrue self-propelled momentum, like so many gargantuan snowballs starting avalanches. My friend Andrew once tried to put his incredulity re: this phenomenon into words, as he was attempting to grapple with the massive success of "Jagged Little Pill" (Alanis). He attempted the futile task of asking himself who the hell kept buying this thing once it had reached tipping point? Like, who was the 18 millionth person to buy "Jagged Little Pill", after it had already sat perched atop the charts for a year or more? Who was that person that had somehow not fallen into those 2 most obvious categories: 1) people who heard one of the ubiquitous singles and thought to themselves: "I simply must own whatever album this bewitching Canadian chanteuse is plying her her trade upon" or 2) "This blows. I can't wait until this pap is off my damn radio."? There were people who only decided to check the album out after single #13.5, simply because at that point it had accrued enough cultural momentum.

Also, that Santana album with "Smooth" on it.

Well, when it comes to Iron Man, I'm that person. I caught it at the tail end of the run, based on word of mouth from my friends and parents. I caught the steadily building opinion from those I talked to that this wasn't just a movie to go see because it's June and June = time for things to blow up at the movie theater; rather, this was a movie to go see because it was, well, quality filmmaking.

And it is. I had an inkling it could happen to me going in, but I can only imagine those lucky souls on opening weekend who saw the movie and felt it began to dawn on their brains: "This isn't just's...good...I'm laughing...empathizing...hmmm....processing..." A wonderful moment that I half-experienced, since I had been led to expect it.

In any case, why? This a movie that promotes not a vague sense of being impressed, but warm feelings of affection, but superficially it should do no such thing, being as it is Marvel comic adaptation #29323, directed by Jon Favreau. "Swingers" was great, but nothing in it really suggested future deft big-budge filmmaker for JF. Ah, but the Rosetta Stone could lay within the souls of Mikey and Trent, because what "Iron Man" brings in spades is tone. Tone, tone, tone.

Not for Favreau the leaden weights of expectation and history that so burdened Indy 4. The guy made a movie that is, despite the clear accumulation of special effects/set peices, quite light on its feat. The summer movies that stick are the ones with that fizzy but satisfying tone, where it's a genuine pleasure to step into the universe to get away from the sticky, oppressive heat outside for a few hours. Iron Man has that quality, a certain fleetness/lightness that keeps it fun to be around. Part of it is Robert Downey Jr.'s impressively charming turn as Tony Stark, part of it is the way Stark's character is written. He lives a life of aspirational fantasy; the zillionaire playboy whose enthusiasm for living rubs off on the audience. The trick that the screenplay pulls off is that Stark remains a fixating, enjoyable presence even as his motivations morph from the fizzy highs of women, cars, and money (easy things to glamorize) to Doing Some Good In This World (much harder to glamorize, but with Downey Jr. and a lot of silent movie-style comedy grafted onto neat-o robot special effects, Favreau's working with a few aces up his sleeve).

Downey, Jeff Bridges, and Gwyneth Paltrow all register as warm, real presences, no matter that the fit neatly into their prescribed categories as protagonist, antagonist, and romantic interest. Their interactions carry the relaxed, inviting bantering energy through some of the tenser and more effects laden sequences. It's a hard balance to make a light, funny summer movie with stakes that feel high enough the audience mentally throws in with the designated good guys, but Favreau sticks the landing.

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