If there’s anything the writer’s strike reminded us, or should have reminded us, it’s that the fundamentals are what matter most…a good story, strong acting and solid directing. The advances in special effects over the years have brought wondrous results to the screen, but, more often than not, these fundamentals have gotten lost in the high-flying, eye-popping, mind-bending visuals that sometimes dominate Hollywood films. How many times have you been watching a movie steeped in special effects and wondered, “is there a story?” It feels like it’s acceptable to not even expect a story from a big-budget special-effects blockbuster, because we’re so used to not getting one. Or the ones we get are so outlandish or hard to follow that we don’t even try.
This syndrome seems particularly true in the summer months, when our theatres are populated with dumbed-down special-effects-heavy popcorn people pleasers that are designed to be the movie equivalent of a two minute Disneyland ride: totally non-threatening, easy to handle, thrilling while you’re riding it, but totally forgettable the minute it’s over.
There have, of course, been a few notable exceptions to this. Gladiator, for example, came out in May, which technically made it a summer movie. It was a huge hit and ended up winning the Oscar for Best Picture. It had brains and brawn, a story, directing and powerhouse acting. And it was original. Gladiator wasn’t a superhero, a sequel, or based on a television show, which seems to make it a rarity these days. It seems summer films seem to fall into one of these three categories, all of which make the fundamentals even less important. [As proof, look at the lineup of this summer’s most anticipated films: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (sequel), Iron Man (superhero), Sex and the City (TV show), Speed Racer (TV show), The Incredible Hulk (superhero), The Dark Knight (superhero), Get Smart (TV show), The X Files (TV show), Hancock (superhero), Hellboy 2 (superhero), and The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (sequel)]
Summer + superhero + sequels + TV shows = lots of special effects, lots of familiar characters, not a lot of originality, less story and even less acting. There go the important things. I mean, who needs a writer when you’ve got Harrison Ford in that fedora and Batman in that suit?
What we do know about sequels, superheroes and films based on TV shows is they pretty much write themselves. You put characters you know on the screen (Indiana Jones, Maxwell Smart, Carrie Bradshaw, Batman), put them in situations we would be familiar with, and let them go. No need to challenge us. It’s about familiarity. We love the characters, we love the special effects, it almost doesn’t matter if there even IS a story. The Bourne Supremacy, for example, was the fifth biggest film of the summer in 2004 and I guarantee if you ask anyone who saw that movie to tell you the plot of that film, besides the fact that Jason Bourne doesn’t know who he is, they wouldn’t be able to tell you. We go to the Bourne films to see the action. The story is so convoluted it doesn’t even matter….so why even try?
Then there are the character-driven films, like Batman and Spider-Man, where the audience is so involved with the main character’s personal traumas, transformations and demons that any other story is secondary. Yeah, they fight villains, but it doesn’t matter, because we’re really only invested in Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne’s personal ghosts and inner battles anyway. They could be fighting a purse-snatcher and we’d root for them, they don’t have to be saving the world, because we’re invested in THEM.
So we go to a summer film for one of two things it seems. We are looking for the action/special effects, like in the Bourne films or Transformers, or we’re looking to connect with a character we love, like in Batman or Spider-Man.
Isn’t it interesting to note that summer films never seem driven by those two fundamentals that SHOULD drive a film: story and acting. How NICE it would be for a summer blockbuster to combine all the elements….special effects, a familiar superhero character we can root for, PLUS great acting and a well-done story? Superman couldn’t do it. Batman couldn’t do it. Spider-Man couldn’t do it.
Well……Iron Man does it.
Iron Man delivers, not the perfect summer film, but a great film. For any season. And what makes it great is that it has everything a superhero film should have, but it also has two things the rest of the superhero films don’t: excellent acting and a relatable, simple and intelligent story.
Superhero films in recent years have brought back the human elements, and they have been more successful going in that direction. Audiences want to see the hero’s vulnerabilities and human flaws, we want to relate to our heroes, understand their traumas and know the demons they fight. Christian Bale brings a humanity to Batman, which made Batman Begins so successful. Tobey Maguire makes Spider-Man feel like he is one of us.
What makes Iron Man different, and what makes this film a better film than Batman Begins and than every Spider-Man film, is that this superhero, and his alter-ego, isn’t as complex as Bale’s Batman (making him more relatable and thusly more likeable), and isn’t as naïve and, dare I say it, boring as Maguire’s Peter Parker, or even his Spider-Man.
But even more than comparing the heroes themselves—we could go on for hours about who’s cooler, Batman or Iron Man—there is just no comparison between the films. Iron Man is just the better film.
Spare me the psychoanalysis. Just give me a simple human reason I can understand. Tony Stark is rich. He’s smart. He knows weapons, how to build them and how to use them. He then gets put in a situation where he’s motivated to do something. Put those things together and it MAKES SENSE that he would have the means, knowledge and wherewithal to build a suit that could make him fly and shoot things. Period. THIS I can understand. No need for all the muss and fuss of learning about his terrible childhood. Just take me to the cool effects and let’s see him kick the bad guys’ butts. Am I right?
But the real gift of this film and the real reason it works is its star. While I love Christian Bale, his gravitas certainly makes the current Batman darker than ever. And Tobey Maguire sometimes just tries so hard to play pathetic that he actually is pathetic. The best thing they ever could have done for Iron Man was cast Robert Downey Jr. as the lead. He not only has the acting chops, but he has comic tendencies that lend themselves perfectly to this film that never once takes itself too seriously. And he never takes himself too seriously. He is so likeable in this film and never overplays it. He is equally powerful in the comic moments, the snarky moments, the “superhero” moments, and the quiet moments. Because he can ACT. What a concept. And so can Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeff Bridges, the first time that I know of that three Oscar nominees make up the starring cast of a superhero summer blockbuster. It’s no wonder this film is so good. It’s about the fundamentals, kids.
The essence of why this film works is because it works so little at trying to be so much. It keeps it simple. It doesn’t try to psychoanalyze our hero too much. It doesn’t complicate the story. It keeps the motivations simple and easy-to-follow. This is an actual relatable, real-world story, with real-world people and, yes, it may be a little outlandish (it is a superhero movie after all), but it does MAKE SENSE. I mean, certainly more than any other superhero movie lately. Remember Spider-Man 2?
So, in the end, Iron Man brings the fundamentals back to the summer blockbuster while still giving us what we crave. It may not have the eye-popping visuals of The Matrix, or the mind-blowing proportions of Independence Day and it won’t blow you out of your seat like Transformers, but it delivers. It’s got guts, it’s got glory, it’s got glitz, and, yes, it’s that good.