Did it have to suck so
Guess which movie I’m talking about.
This movie. You didn’t expect that, did you!
I’m deliberately invoking a values-construct I despise, in a fit of sarcasm: that triumphant, half-sniggering delivery in pure geekspeak of the phrase, “it sucks!”
Let’s talk about “awesome” vs. “sucks.” They’re both conversation-stoppers, used to silence discussion of a thing and turn it into a device for socially-positioning the speaker. Once the thing is so designated, then people are obliged to say one or the other about it in order to belong to the tribe. Certain subsets exist, like the posed role of the insider-iconoclast, who has a few catch-phrases to redeem the thing-which-sucks or to condemn the awesome-thing, but again, only as subordinate positions within the larger, acknowledged position the thing has been assigned. Whether the assignment comes from emergent culturally-effervescent properties among the people, or from carefully focus-grouped media blitzing, or from some disorganized network of higher-status opinion-makers among the audience, I have no idea, and I don’t really care.
One crucial detail in these dynamics, though, is the privileged role of movies. It probably has something to do with the raw commercial volume involved, based on how much they cost to make and especially on how much they rake in. I don’t suppose we have to look deeper than that to understand why they command such respect, or, if aesthetics have anything to do with it, I expect they’re in that context anyway. It’s important here though because people who purport to love and value comics become outright insane with stress and commitment regarding how well a comics property does as a movie. Apparently it is very, very important for the movie to … I don’t know … to be successful, to be liked, to usher in name-recognition of the character for people who don’t read the comics, to … geez, I dunno. I really don’t get it. Movie success does not particularly pump comics success in market terms, only in shareholder and board-member terms, so this whole obsession misses me by a wide margin. Bluntly, fandom wholly embraces the notion that the movie’s reception and its reputation in cultural terms sets the gold standard by which they stake their geek identity and the comic’s intrinsic worth.
It’s tied as well to the perfect confusion between talking as an audience member and customer, vs. talking as a policy-maker and investor in marketing, profit share, ROI, and meme generation. A full 50% of fanwank is rooted in thinking of oneself as advisory to the latter, and using its priorities as a way to threadcrap the former.
On to this film, because it’s perhaps the current poster child for THE FUCKING AWESOME in fandom terms, far beyond just being a good movie on its own, but allegedly validating comics and providing comics fans with status which they apparently yearn for beyond all reason. And yeah, it is so much good! Much better than even Spider-Man 2003, especially due to its exquisite pacing; it hits the emotional beats so perfectly:
- 15 minutes: “I prefer the weapon you only have to fire once. That’s how Dad did it, that’s how America does it, and it’s worked out pretty well so far.”
- 30 minutes: Yinsen is threatened by the warlord and Stark saves him
- 37.5 minutes: Yinsen (dying), “Don’t waste your life”
- 45 minutes: “I never got to say goodbye to Dad. I never got to say goodbye to my father. There’s questions I would have asked him, I would have asked him how he felt about what this company did, if he was conflicted, if he ever had doubts, or maybe he was every inch the man we all remember from the newsreels. I saw young Americans killed by the very weapons I created to protect and defend them. And I saw that I had become part of a system that was comfortable with zero accountability.”
- 52.5 minutes: physical business as Pepper walks away with the old “heart” he’s just told her to discard (which she won’t), and he looks after her and unconsciously taps the new one
- 60 minutes: first successful test of the flight technology (this is the only “beat” based on tech display) (nb the next 15-min unit, exact halfway point of the film, is a little crammed)
- 65.25 minutes: the inscription on the old “heart” case, “proof that Tony Stark really has a heart”
- 67.5 minutes: Tony crashes Stane’s gala to confront him – next bits include dancing with Pepper and Stane disclosing, basically, how much he hates him
- 75 minutes: “A child’s simple question: ‘Where are my mother and father?'” (with the chilling profile shot of Stark as well as the mirrored glass)
- 82.5 minutes: (to Rhodey) “It’s me!”
- 90 minutes: “I shouldn’t be alive, unless it was for a reason. I’m not crazy, Pepper. I just finally know what I have to do, and I know in my heart that it’s right.”
- 97.5-97 minutes: Stane, to the helpless Stark, “Your father, he helped give us the atomic bomb. Now what kind of world would it be today if he was as selfish as you? … A whole generation of weapons with this at its heart, weapons that will help steer the world back on course, with the balance of power in our hands.”
There are no throwaway scenes at all. Every bit of action, every explosion, every bit of mechanical porn in this first hour and a half feeds straight into the next emotional beat, and each of these is a direct development and escalation from the last one.
The scripting and performances to this point are brilliant, as I need not tell you. Stark is unbelievably good. His snark never sidelines the story. It’s seething with romance. The whole complex of imagery and content perfectly distills the historical comics imagery and events.
The politics are real too, shockingly so. It shifts Vietnam seamlessly to Afghanistan, which is more appropriate maybe than viewers realize. In the comics, for decades, editors and writers shifted and wandered all over the place regarding Stark as a weapons manufacturer. Starlin and Gerber plotted to turn him into an ecologist (remember all that emphasis on his solar-powered armor?), which was reinforced in Englehart’s Avengers dialogue. Layton brought it up in the 80s in the context of personal failings and alcoholism, among the most gutsy Marvel work of the period. It’s here in the movie too: productively transferring the 1960s tension between Iron Man fighting all these simplistic communists in a contradictory rather lefty creative context (here I include Lee, and I suspect Kirby) to today’s simplistic notions of terrorism, and driving like a Golden Avenger’s boot-jets toward the ecology-energy issues raised in the 1970s and the stressed warmonger issues raised in the 1980s.
So what’s my problem? Am I being that supercilious geek who tells you why your awesome thing actually sucks? Nope, I’m talking about something much more important than geek judgment, status, or the need for larger social validation. I’m talking about stories, and the way this brilliant one simply evaporates in its final twenty minutes, and worse, obviates everything that made it good to that point. The problem here is Ironmonger. Not, I hasten to say, not even the slightest criticism of
the Dude’s Bridges’ performance. Nor even in concept, i.e. different values about something important, because that’s spot-on too and gorgeously present from almost the first five minutes of the movie. Exactly the problem? He has No Pie.
It was totally there to do! Jeff Bridges was perfect for it and manfully nailed it all the way up to the 100-minute mark or so until the script bent him over and not in a good way. It shows up first in the over-tight connection between Stane and the Afghan warlord. Without that, the setup and developments were perfect for it. I was sitting there in practical ecstasy, seeing arguably the finest comic book movie I’d ever seen all come together and … … thud. Because that over-tightness by itself was only irritating and possibly forgivable, but what he does in the final twenty minutes makes literally no sense.
- He already has his control over the Stark Industries board and has successfully ousted Stark.
- Iron Man’s attack on the warlord is no big deal. He’s already tarred Stark with the PTSD spin.
- He doesn’t need to make armor. The energy source is the issue, not the battle-suit. The whole bit about recovering the original armor and making one of his own is flatly moronic. He’s a weapons designer on his own; he can make a new thingie of whatever sort.
So why, exactly, did Stane have to put on that suit and go all berserkoid after Stark? Did he get some Pie which suddenly made this situation a zero-sum between his goals and Stark’s life? No, he just … gets all murderous and puts it on. If it were the the standard Kick-the-Dog, I could still at least appreciate his efforts toward his villainy even in the face of a little audience-manipulative Snidely Whiplash nastiness. But no! Look at what he does next. There is no discernible point to his actions. There is zero, zip connection between his subsequent rampage and his revealed goals and values, basically U.S. supremacy straight out of George Kennan, expressed earlier in his gloating over Stark’s helpless body.
Is it about when Pepper swipes the intel and escapes his office? Well, not really, because once that happens, Stane is done. He has his spiff armor, but his entire planned personal role in re-establishing U.S. hegemony is Oh-Ver. SHIELD shouldn’t even have gone to arrest him at all, least of all taking Pepper along; they could simply put out an ordinary APB and arrest the guy when he tries to order waffles somewhere. He can’t live in the damn armor. He has no company, no infrastructure, no resources – no power. It’s not like Tony couldn’t clue them in to whatever little techie tricks he’s carrying around. In this situation, his only hope is to get out of there and spend the rest of his life being the Rhino, without any sort of goal or career or influence or even criminal prospects.
Think: does smashing his way out of his HQ and murdalizing Stark in the street further his own goals in the tiniest way? He says “No one’s going to stand in my way, not even you,” but now that he’s totally busted, what “way” is he talking about exactly? Does he think he’s going to finish that fight, take off the armor, and go back to run Stark Industries some more? Is there even that tiny bit of delusional ambition to talk about? Or am I suddenly looking at a previously rational albeit wicked human character in the story suddenly turning into a bona-fide armor-headed holder of the idiot ball? That’s a rhetorical question. Obadiah Stane was wonderfully evil and above all relevant, but Ironmonger is an unmitigated idiot. He doesn’t even Kick the Dog on his way to doing something understandable, because in terms of response and reaction and rising action, he’s just thrashing around. He has Cow Pie. (hey, I’m getting good at this trope creation, aren’t I?)
That’s why SHIELD’s and indeed every good guy’s action in the final fifteen minutes is moronic too. Stane’s transformation into a moron forces everyone else to do the same so there can be a fight between two armored guys to watch. I’m back in the early 90s groaning over the stupidity of Robocop 2. The fight is unnecessary (Stane’s ambitions are already thwarted), manipulative (Pepper gets shoehorned there for no reason except for Tony’s girl to be endangered), irrelevant (it has nothing to do with Tony’s social ideals and responsibilities), predictable at every step (oh look he falls down a hole which blows up, so surprising), and completely anti-climactic.
This is a writing issue, character and plot, whether originally scripted or doctored or on-set revised this part of the story into what happened in the film. Whoever did that made it suck. Not a fandom, geekspeak “sucked, man!” reeking of its conformity to all the reviews and to what everyone “knows.” Whoever did that made this a bad story.
Don’t be blinded by pop culture loyalty and the desire to validate what you like through commerce. This was a disaster, all the worse for its – I’ll say it – genius setup and execution until that precise sequence. It reduced all that excellence into a mere setup for franchise writing: more “Robert doing Tony” schtick, more armor-porn as if that weren’t the most played-out imagery in cinema, more depiction instead of development, more fight instead of conflict, more “see it again like last time” instead of closure and change. I’d have liked the movie better if the entire thing had been this stupid; then I could have accepted all these things as a spectacle worth a movie ticket, no more than a blatant advertisement for toys and for its own sequel, in fact, why not accept that every movie is now nothing but a trailer for the next. I get that. It’s banal but it’s not evil.
This was evil. To ground a story in this much history, this much solid politics, this much humanity, this much scripting expertise, this much thoughtful use of the comics material, this much personal development, this much potential genuine villainy … and then we get Idiot Ball Cow Pie … … it’s worse than “thud.” Buzzkill is a mere irritation by comparison. Hell, coitus interruptus takes a distant second; you can always fuck some other time. We are talking here about outright ruining something beautiful and unique.
Geekdom assembled, abandon your “awesome” and your “sucks.” They have not served you well.
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