“Making of a Hero”
“One Man’s Legacy”

“Peace. I love peace. I’d be out of a job with peace.” –Tony

From the previews alone, you had a sense that Iron Man was going to be a different sort of comic book adaptation. The cast alone told me that the creators were playing for keeps: Robert Downey, Jr. (Tony Stark/Iron Man), Terrence Howard (Jim Rhodes). Gwyneth Paltrow (Virginia “Pepper” Potts). Jeff Bridges (Obadiah Stane/Iron Monger). Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury–stay through the ending credits). Directed by Jon Favreau (Hogan). Even if you had no sense for who this super hero was, there was an inherent intrigue about this movie.

Tony Stark is a different sort of potential superhero. Visionary, genius, handsome, billionaire, winner of the lottery of life, he’s a modern day Renaissance man and playboy, the kind of man who has a deployable stripper pole in his private plane. Though there have been other millionaire super-heroes (Batman, Green Arrow, Blue Beetle – how else can they afford all of those cool toys), Tony Stark is truly a man who “has everything and nothing”: no core, no substance, and no one to share his life with. He battles his demons from budding alcoholism to living in the shadow of his father to the specter of corporate greed to his inability to develop meaningful relationships (he’s so narcissistic that whether he’s talking to a model or the technology around him, he’s really just talking to himself).

During a trip to Afghanistan to demonstrate his latest high tech weapons for sale, he’s captured by terrorists and mortally wounded in the process. His method of escape sets the stage for his alter ego.

Even in the comic book, the character of Tony Stark always struck me as a little one note and smarmy and the producers cast the right guy to play him. The story of Stark’s fall and redemption curiously echoes the tale of the actor portraying him, Robert Downey, Jr. He has wrestled with his own share of personal demons and finds himself on a comeback from the professional and personal brink. Despite being fast talking, glib, slick, and rehearsed, Downey, Jr makes these qualities charming, but also manages to humanizes the character.

“It’s an imperfect world, but it’s the only one we’ve got.” –Tony

The typical (super) hero origin story arc follows a simple trajectory: the first half of the movie is spent establishing the everyman (think Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man, Bruce Banner in the Hulk or Matt Murdock in Daredevil) with the second half of the movie spent in big budget effects proving that said man can climb walls, smash big things, or kung fu his way through armies of men (to the point where there’s no point in asking if so-and-so can play the hero, such as the endless Batman debates, but rather can they play the alter ego).

Like all great heroes, Tony Stark has an epiphany moment, that time when he re-evaluates his life. As the leading designer and dealer of weapons, the bulk of his father’s fortune, the empire he inherited and expanded, was built on war profiteering. Selling the sticks in a “he who has the biggest sticks keeps the peace” world, the movie quickly becomes a commentary on how easily “our” sticks fall into the hands we wouldn’t want. No supervillains per se, but rather facing off against corporate greed and terrorism, from all of the double dealing (passing around sticks).

“I shouldn’t be alive unless it’s for a reason.” –Tony

All heroes need a crossroads, or end of self, moment: when he looks in the mirror and realizes that he isn’t where he was meant to be, not doing what he was meant to do, not living how he was meant to live. Tony’s brush with death forces him to not only re-evaluate his life’s purpose and direction, but also to contemplate what his legacy will be.

“There is the next mission and nothing else.” –Tony

The movie, quite literally, is about the making of a hero. Like Batman Begins, it is more about the journey to establish the path of the new hero than a typical “spandex” string of fight scenes masquerading as a plot (see Spider-Man 3). First, the hero has to realize the system we are trapped in: the “empire,” with its values and its control and order, this social and governmental impotence easily steered by corruption and greed. Next the hero has to figure out their identity. What it means to be human, in his case, what it means to be Tony Stark. Then the hero has to define their mission, in his case, what it means to be Iron Man. At this point, the hero’s life becomes one of continual mission as they hones their gifts and work with their strengths and talents to fulfill that mission.

Tony: “Thank you for saving me.”
Yinsen (Shaun Toub): “Don’t waste your life.”

Funny and taut, Iron Man moves at a good clip, slickly re-telling his origin. It’s not the kind of super hero movie one might expect, especially if you’re thinking all there is to it is putting on the costume and getting to iron butt kicking. The move is both modern and relevant (and full of nerd moments: Jarvis, the X-Men’s Blackbird reference, S.H.I.E.L.D., the terrorist group calling itself the “ten rings” a la the Mandarin, not to mention the after the credits allusion).

I’m going to have to revisit my top ten favorite comic book adaptations list, though I’ll probably wait until the end of the summer considering that Wanted, The Dark Night, The Incredible Hulk, and Hellboy 2 are all coming out.