Superhero films always seem detached from reality. Besides the obvious “normal people can’t fly or shoot webs out of their palms” issue, movies about extra-special individuals saving Earth from utter doom rarely seem to be happening on this planet. New York City becomes “Metropolis” or “Gotham,” while the normal rules of science go to hell faster than you can say “radioactive spider.”
Most troubling, though, is how major issues facing our world now don’t appear in these supernatural flicks. Minus the X-Men series’ broad stabs at social commentary (being a mutant is like having AIDS! Or being gay!) and Spider-Man’s ra-ra patriotism as subtle as Ron Jeremy in tights, superhero movies lack the contemporary social commentary that made comic books so great. Superman beat up Hitler and Tojo, for Pete’s sake. Enter Iron Man, Marvel’s latest superhero feature, and the first comic-book-based film of this decade to acknowledge the contemporary world as we know it.
Plot-wise, Iron Man brings nothing new to the superhero table. You got your regular, non-super human (Tony Stark, the uber-rich head of a weapons manufacturer played by Robert Downey Jr.) who experiences trauma (kidnapped by terrorists), but overcomes it (building a metal suit that wipes the terrorists out) and then becomes different (the baddies used his company’s weapons, and Stark realizes how bad missiles are and builds a better metal suit to help people). A main villain emerges (an old bald guy) as does a love interest (played by Gwyneth Paltrow, who looks pretty smokin’). Nothing groundbreaking here.
Likewise, Iron Man’s other elements mimic the slew of superhero pictures released in the oughts, picking ideas from the better films. Like Ang Lee’s Hulk, Iron Man features more dialogue than action, but that turns out to be okay, since the dialogue is consistently funny. Unlike the horrid writing and acting found in the Spider Man films, Iron Man boasts a funny script and a leading man capable of making it shine (Downey Jr., who really steals the show here). And when the fight scenes do come, they, for lack of better phrasing, kick ass.
But the otherwise above-average action film becomes a trailblazer within the comic-book genre by actually presenting the state (or at least some of it) of the real world. This is the first time a superhero flick this decade notes what’s happening in the Middle East, and tries to say something about it. Other superhero films focused on patriotism, how we are “united” against evil, never spelling out what that evil is except for a bad guy out of Power Rangers.Iron Man doesn’t have anything that a PG-13 blockbuster can’t get away with showing. Insurgents kill American soldiers, towns are wiped out, and one scene recalls terrorist hostage videos, such as Nick Berg’s. Iraq or the Taliban never get mentioned, but this is a summer action movie, not a Michael Moore movie. It’s just refreshing to see a superhero face real-world problems instead of a man with robotic tentacles.
Does Iron Man offer fresh commentary? Not really. Just like the movie as a whole, the analysis of what’s going on in the Middle East seems safe for the summer audiences. The main message — innocent people die and weapons manufacturers are sneaky — isn’t exactly daring. The more subtle point is that America can be just as bad as the terrorists, and that the United States needs to be careful in fighting them. But it’s still a message that has been repeated frequently during this decade, and one not even that clear.
But even if the political commentary doesn’t break ground, Iron Man’s real-world focus turns this action flick with a great acting performance into a unique film within its genre, and one that may give the superhero film a breath of fresh air. Iron Man, albeit with baby steps, takes the superhero movie into the realm of the political, and should be considered one of the most unique comic-book films of this decade. Because when we finally see Captain America beat the hell out of Osama bin Laden on the big screen, we’ll know what movie made that okay.