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Geek out

In this inaugural edition of the Arkansas Times Movie Club, our critics get in-depth with ‘Iron Man.’

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Lindsey Millar: I know that we've all been anticipating “Iron Man” for months now, pouring over screencaps, sending each other links to new versions of the trailer and crossing off days our calendar. Anytime a studio teams a director with a relatively smart, offbeat track record (Favreau of “Swingers” fame) with a serious actor (Downey Jr.) and stupid-cool F/X tricks, my expectations get a little silly. But fellas, I gotta tell you, I wasn't really let down. 

There's no question that “Iron Man” belongs in the pantheon with the first “Spiderman,” “Batman Begins” and “The Flash” (joking). Are we all in agreement? Who deserves credit? Marvel Studios? Favreau? The writers and rewriters? Downey Jr.?

Matt Reed: I agree, this is one of the best superhero movies ever made, and Favreau and Downey and the writers deserve the lion's share of the credit. Downey was tailor-made for this sort of role. It's even better if you grew up with some of his comedies in the '80s, like “The Pick-Up Artist.” Smarmy guy with heart of gold stuff. In fact, that's “Iron Man” for me: “The Pick-Up Artist” with robot suits. And everyone knows that if there's anything better than picking up chicks, it's picking up chicks in a robot suit.

David Koon: You know, Matt, I've gotta disagree with you on RD Jr. being tailor-made for the role. The lovely part about great actors — Brando comes to mind, as does Johnny Depp — is that they have this uncanny ability to take on roles that have you scratching your head and then knock your friggin' socks off. That was RD Jr. in Ironman. When I heard he was doing this, I honestly couldn't see him in the role. Now that he's done it, I can't see anybody else. Ditto on Christian Bale in “Batman Begins,” and ditto on Ed Norton in “Incredible Hulk,” which makes me think that one's going to rock as well.

LM: I'm not sure if he was tailor-made or not, but I dug Robert Downey Jr.'s performance. He talks more entertainingly (and acrobatically) than anyone in Hollywood, and early in the film, in full-on hedonistic international playboy/weapons manufacture mode, he out wish-fulfillments even “Entourage.” When he has to play serious in the caves of Afghanistan, I thought he pulled off the transition from self-obsessed chatterbox to slightly more subdued, self-obsessed chatterbox pretty well, but I had more trouble buying him as a crusader. The suit helped, clearly. The plot, too: If you had seen people killed with your missiles and been imprisoned by the killers, then yeah, I guess it's not too much of a reach to think you'd want to build a virtually indestructible rocket-powered future suit and destroy your own weapons. But what really didn't work for me was the transition from captive to crazy, but clear-eyed, indignant: the kernel of the crusader. Maybe I just like my Downey Jr. self-possessed and self-obsessed. Once he started building the suit and then flying around in it, he was helping people, but mostly, he was having a good time. 

I realize I'm complaining about like five minutes of the movie, but it was sort of pivotal. 

So, in sum, I thought Downey Jr. carried the film, the script was above average, but still suffered from the kind of plot problems that scripts that are written and rewritten by a huge team usually do: Namely, that Stark's able to create a giant metal weapon-suit under the eyes of his captors and that after he escapes, no one talks about what happened. Not even: “What happened?” “I don't want to talk about it.”

MR: I guess being waterboarded (nice touch there, but ruined when he started setting his captors on fire) and seeing his own weapons used by our enemies was supposed to be sufficient motivation for him to do a moral 180, but yeah, it would have been more believable if it had been less about The Mission and more about having fun and generally being awesome and stopping bad guys in particuarly bad-ass ways ... oh, yeah, and helping people.

I think this was trying more to stay in line with the character's comics origin story, which is nearly identical, except Viet Cong instead of Al Qaeda. In fact, now that I think of it, “Iron Man” makes sense coming out now: Back then it was display of America's technological might against the damn Yellow Commie Bastards, and now it's the damn Brown Terrorist Bastards. Timely.

Even so, I stick to my story that Downey was made for the role. Nobody does charming smarm better than him, and the playboy thing's part of the character. I was cheering him on: Drink more whiskey! Seduce more reporters! Be a role model for our children!

Marvel's going to get a lot of mileage out of this, and hopefully with Sam Jackson as Nick Fury as well. Can I confess? I was one of the dumbasses who didn't stick around through the credits.

DK: I didn't stick after the credits, either (my kid's got the bladder of a smurf). What happened?

Yeah, I'm with you a bit on the not-quite-believable turnaround from Merchant of Death to Savior of Humanity. I squared it, however, with that hot rodder facet of Stark's character — that becoming Iron Man afforded a bigger rush than all the sex and booze and badass cars. It isn't until the end [mild SPOILER ALERT], when people he really cares about are in trouble, that I think he really gets why he's doing it in the first place. His throwing off the secret identity/cover story in the last frame and announcing he's Iron Man to the world kind of backs that up — that it's about ego as much as it's about saving people. That made for a really believable, very nuanced character. 

Not to go off on a Michael Moore-esque political tangent, but I'm fairly glad that the plot was more about the evils of the American Military Industrial Complex than about whupping up on some Osama Bin Laden stand in (if we were only a few years closer to 9/11, you can be sure that the dastardly Middle Eastern terrists would have played an even bigger role here than they did). As seen in Iron Man, the terrists are exactly what they are in real life — angry people who'd be hitting each other with rocks and sticks if not for the weaponry WE SOLD THEM. Hmmm ... If only Dick Cheney could get held captive in a cave for three months and then escape with the help of a cobbled-together super-suit, leading to a revelation about the evils of fostering war. The world might end up a genuinely better place (that said, I'm pretty sure ol' Dick has one of those miniaturized arc reactors under his suit, keeping his bum ticker from imploding).

LM: Ha. So enough on Robert Downey Jr. How about the supporting players? Jeff Bridges is bald and bearded and named Obadiah Stane, so you know he's going to be a supervillian, but he infuses his early scenes with such laid-back charm (the Dude as international magnate) that when he's revealed to be wholesale evil, it's a bit shocking.

Gwyneth Paltrow, too, gives what could be a really stock Girl Friday character nuance. It's kind of weird that they've taken this pre-feminist character and not exactly updated her — she lives to serve Tony Stark — but still given her enough sparring dialogue to make her more than one of those secretaries on “Mad Men.” The scene where she replaces Stark's arc-reactor-heart is definitely one of the film's high points. 

What else? Did Samuel L. Jackson really appear after the credits? I stayed for a pretty long time, and no Nick Fury. How long do we have to wait for Iron Man 2?

Bonus bit: Best audience-nerd dialogue overheard: “Yeah, that was before my hand started cramping for pushing the button too rapidly.”

DK: I was really pleased with Paltrow as well. Given her star-power, I expected something not much more than a cameo out of her, but she really managed to make a three-dimensional woman out of what could have really been a standard superhero love-interest. But I wish the filmmakers could have let some of that sexual tension linger; she and Downey really managed to throw some sparks. (It's a Mulder/Scully thing ... plus, I like the idea of her as the one woman in Tony Stark's life who is too smart to get involved with him.)

I liked Jeff Bridges, too. He's always played a good Devil — enticing, charming, but also able to convince you that there's pure evil in him. You can see why Stark kind of looks up to him even though Stane is clearly not his equal. I've always thought that Bridges is a great character actor, easily the equal of actors much better known and paid, and he really gets into the dark corners of Stane. By the end of the film, he's really sold you on the idea that the reason Stane is ready to destroy Stark is — more than anything — his sense of betrayal over having this surrogate son turn his back on him. 

MR: Bridges was good for the role, yes, and I'm glad that it was the military/industrial complex and not Arabs that were the real bad guys here, but I feel like they dropped the ball on a couple of points. First, the government is not only not at all complicit, leaving the blame on the “industrial” side of that equation, but they're the unquestionably good guys, which isn't an accurate reflection of even Marvel Comics' depiction of the U.S. government, much less the real thing. They're the guys in white hats who will do no wrong, ever. Granted that the government organization in question is S.H.I.E.L.D., the legendary comic book good guys headed by Nick Fury, but even so, that rang a little hollow for me: “I'm from the government and I'm here to help” actually turned out to be true, even regarding a rogue citizen in super-powered armor flying around the globe and getting involved in sensitive military operations to which he hasn't been invited.

Second ... how do I do this without spoilers? The bad thing? That Bridges did regarding Stark? That we don't discover he was behind until later? Didn't buy it. Later, going after Stark, sure, but the first thing? Nope.

The Internet tells me that Jackson indeed appears after the credits to tell Stark about the “Avenger Initiative,” which Marvel Comics fans will recognize as the superhero team that Stark later becomes a part of, along with Captain America, Thor, and a host of other Marvel heroes who are, not coincidentally, due to have their own movies made within the next two years or so.

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