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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Man of iron

The first major summer blockbuster is scheduled to open in America’s cinemas tomorrow. It is, of course, Iron Man. In a refreshing change, this will not be a mindless special-effects superhero extravaganza, but rather a thoughtful remake of esteemed Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s 1981 naturalistic classic.

Ha! Ha! Okay, I had my little joke. Of course, this is a mindless special-effects superhero extravaganza. What else could we possibly want to pay good money to see in a cinema at any time of the year, let alone when the weather starts to turn warmer. Rest assured, without even having seen this movie, I can tell you that you will not see a single a struggling shipyard worker in the entire thing. And that is how it should be.

Every time a new major blockbuster based on a classic Marvel comic book gets released, I start getting nostalgic. And Iron Man prompts the old reveries more than most. You see, Iron Man was the very first Marvel superhero with whom I became acquainted. This is not to say that he was the first actual superhero of Marvel’s so-called Silver Age in the 1960s. But he was the first one whose exploits passed before my own eyes. You don’t have to take my word for it. You can look up here, where I wrote about my history with Marvel Comics last summer.

To recap, I was a die-hard DC Comics fan, being mostly into the Superman family of comics. (Back then you had to buy a bunch of comics every single month to keep up with what Supes was up to. Even Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen had their own comic books.) But my best friend Eric showed me a new comic he had just bought called Tales of Suspense. It introduced a new hero who, at first glance, was not totally dissimilar from Batman’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne. He was a mega-wealthy playboy type, just looking to have his consciousness raised and be made to see that he needed to devote his personal resources to helping people instead of gratifying himself. That always sounds good, but we adolescent boys always liked these sorts of characters because we got off on vicariously enjoying the hedonistic lifestyle of these rich playboy heroes, with fine cars and the finer broads. Anyway, industrialist Tony Stark made the mistake of going to Vietnam, where there was a war on at the time, and ended up getting blown up by shrapnel. And that’s where the story followed the old superhero template of the hero figuratively dying and being reborn. (The movie updates this origin story by transplanting it to present-day Afghanistan.)

But beyond that, Tony Stark’s adventures deviated from the tried-and-true comic book formula. The result of Stark’s mishap in the jungles of Southeast Asia was that our hero was left injured with a piece of metal next to his heart that could end his life at any moment. And to escape his captors, he created a suit of armor that made him like, well, as I put it last summer, a klunky sumo wrestler robot. This was a departure from the tight skin-clinging uniforms that DC superheroes wore, clearly to show off their impossibly muscular physiques. The DC heroes may have had the occasional emotional conflict but, apart from the odd encounter with kryptonite, they invariably enjoyed the best of physical health. Iron Man may have been the first comic book superhero who could be considered to be handicapped. This was a theme that carried on to other characters, notably the blind superhero Daredevil.

Moreover, Stark’s private life, like his fellow Marvel heroes and in contrast to the DC universe, was a veritable soap opera. When it came to the heroes’ love lives, DC comic books like Superman followed a model familiar to viewers of mid-century TV shows like Gunsmoke and Perry Mason, i.e. the hero had a completely available woman in his life, but there was no romantic movement apart from the odd meaningful glance or hint. Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty, as did Perry Mason and Della Street, grew very long in the tooth without anybody so much as suggesting that maybe somebody should make a move before the old biological clock stopped ticking entirely. The same fate seemed inevitable for Clark Kent and Lois Lane, but their relationship was ultimately saved by the fact that, as comic book characters, they could continue indefinitely without aging—until such time as, thanks to such influences as the competition at Marvel, that the environment changed and they could finally get married. At least in one or more of the myriad DC universes.

But Tony Stark, like the typical Marvel hero, openly pined for the woman in his life. She was his secretary, Pepper Potts (played in the movie by Gwyneth Paltrow), a freckled redhead who seemed, in the beginning anyway, to have been added for comic relief. But as time went on, Stark became obsessed with this woman (perhaps because subsequent artists drew her as more and more glamorous) and, of course, he couldn’t tell her because, well, he had this secret, with the metal torso keeping his heart beating, and the dangerous job of going off and fighting super-villains in his klunky sumo robot armor. Something of a triangle formed then among Tony, Pepper and Tony’s bodyguard, Happy Hogan. The Hogan character does not seem to figure prominently in the movie. Director Jon Favreau plays him (or at least someone with the same surname) in a cameo. And speaking of cameos, this movie’s star, Robert Downey Jr., will also play Tony Stark in the upcoming Incredible Hulk movie (a do-over of the unjustly reviled Ang Lee flick of five years ago). This nicely reflects the cool way that Marvel characters would always walk in and out of each other’s comic books.

As these ramblings of mine may illustrate, for old comic book fans, these new adaptations of Silver Age Marvel heroes have something of a bittersweet quality. For one thing, it dawns on us that Robert Downey Jr. was born a full two years after that original Tales of the Suspense comic was published. Paltrow was born nine years after. Of the top billing stars in the flick, only Jeff Bridges, who plays the main villain, is actually old enough to have read the comic book when it first came out. These sorts of realizations not only make longtime comic book fans feel really old but they also drive home the point of how long we have had to wait for proper movie adaptations of these classic characters.

Will Iron Man be a major hit this summer? I am frequently wrong about these things, but that one seems to be a slam dunk. Variety, which had a review on the flick on Friday, seems to think so as well. Notes reviewer Todd McCarthy, “Finally, someone’s found a sure-fire way to make money with a modern Middle East war movie: Just send a Marvel superhero into the fray to kick some insurgent butt.” Quite so. And that raises an interesting question. Why do we keep hearing anguished moaning that nobody has been going to see movies about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Is this true and, if so, why?

Hmmmm… That might make an interesting topic for next week.

-S.L., 1 May 2008

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