Iron Man. The movie where everything came together just right, kicking off the Marvel Movie Dynasty that culminated in last year’s The Avengers raking in over a billion dollars at the box office. A billion, in case you forgot, is a thousand millions.
This movie doesn’t just click, it soars. Everything more or less works. But what about the fight scenes?
A superhero movie fight scene, mind you, can be a tough nut to crack. On the one hand, part of the appeal of superhero fiction is wish-fulfillment: it’s an empowerment fantasy about either natural super powers or advanced technology making a character into a One Man Army of Awesome (compare to action heroes like John McClane or Indiana Jones, who are strong but vulnerable, and have to triumph against seemingly overwhelming odds). On the other hand, the superhero can’t be too invincible, otherwise you have an “action” movie where an unstoppable god stomps on helpless mortals for two hours, and that’s boring; you need to invent some credible threats. It’s a difficult balance, and the problem is magnified with a character like Iron Man, whose fights necessitate spectacular staging and expensive special effects.
1) Iron Man vs The Ten Rings (round one)
- Tony Stark, a self-described “billionaire genius playboy philanthropist.” Played indelibly, indeed perhaps legendarily, by Robert Downey Jr.
- Armed with: the Iron Man “Mark I” armor, cobbled together out of missile parts and various other scrap, powered by the miniature ARC reactor in his chest. Made of strong, durable steel and outfitted with wrist-mounted flamethrowers and at least one small rocket. Also it can fly, briefly. Essentially a walking mini-tank.
- Members of the Ten Rings, a group of carefully diverse and non-Muslim (wouldn’t want to offend anyone) terrorists, who openly seek power rather than any specific ideology or religion. Played by various small-timers and stunt men, with Faran Tahir as the faction’s leader, Raza.
- Armed with: various small arms, and some not so small.
The Setup: The Ten Rings kidnapped Tony, ambushing him while he was giving an on-site weapons demonstration in Afghanistan, and are holding him hostage until he builds them one of his advanced missiles. Instead Tony and his assistant Yinsen (a doctor and engineer who the group also kidnapped) secretly build what will later be the Iron Man armor prototype, a crude and bulky but effective weapon. Quite clever of him, and a nicely updated version of the character’s comic book origins, which were in Vietnam.
[Speaking of the comics, the name “Ten Rings” is a reference to the comic book Iron Man’s nemesis the Mandarin, a villain who wears ten powerful rings of alien origin. Presumably the upcoming Iron Man 3, starring the decidedly non-Asian Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin, will resolve whether the group’s name was just a winking nod to the comics or a hint that Kingsley’s Mandarin was in charge behind the scenes the whole time.]
Raza– written well and ably played by Tahir, established as more canny & cruel than his underlings– has recently grokked the fact that Stark is probably stalling him, so this adds a ticking clock to the hero’s plan. In fact, the clock ticks too close to the wire, and Yinsen is forced to take drastic measures in order to buy enough time for the suit to power up. Director Jon Favreau does an excellent build-up, cross-cutting between Yinsen getting cornered by terrorists and the progress bar on the computer the armor’s attached to slowly building to full. And then….
The Fight: More excellent work here. Although we saw some of the suit before Yinsen even left, we haven’t seen the whole thing yet; as Tony dispatches the first three thugs who enter the room (there’s a sweet shot of his gloved fist tightening in anticipation first), Favreau only shows brief glimpses of Tony’s metal limbs brutally slamming into the terrorists’ bodies. A deft camera turn gives the full reveal just as the film’s hard rock theme starts up, and Iron Man charges into action.
Plenty of fantastic business ensues as Stark clanks his way through the cave. Bullets bounce off him ineffectively, with one particularly dumb baddie trying a point-blank pistol shot which only gets him a very unfortunate ricochet. Stark clotheslines another terrorist coming around a corner, sending him spinning rather comically. He knocks down a thick metal door with several concussive pounds– something that Favreau shoots from the other side of (cliched, but effective). At one point, an errant swing gets Tony’s arm lodged into the cave wall, which he has a bit of trouble with; this establishes that the armor is not entirely perfect, and could use with some upgrades.
As he approaches the cave entrance Iron Man faces off against Raza, who came armed with a rocket launcher. His rocket misses, and Tony responds with a rocket of his own which also misses, but hits close enough to take Raza out of the action and obscure him in a cloud of smoke and debris. Stark then comes across Yinsen, looking much worse for wear after we last saw him being surrounded by gun-toting bad guys.
Yinsen’s death scene is good enough to have dramatic impact without being sad or drawn-out enough to drag down the gleeful mayhem of the overall sequence. It also serves a rather ingenious secondary purpose: distracting Tony and the audience from stopping to wonder if Raza is genuinely dead. Thanks to this bit of plotting, when Raza shows up later in the film with wicked burn scars, it’ll be a pleasant little surprise. Plus, Raza being felled inside the cave is what’s going to save him from the fireworks that will soon happen outside.
Favreau stages another great sequence as Tony exits the cave, removing all sound except for the slow clomp clomp clomp of his fat iron boots. Iron Man lets the waiting terrorists expend their magazines on his steel armor (thankfully none of them hit his exposed eyes or fingers) before fighting fire with, well:
One of the Ten Rings members is able to train a crew-served weapon (a .50 cal if I’m not mistaken) on Stark, and it is enough to knock him down– he’s not completely unstoppable, it turns out. Things are looking bad for Iron Man, but fortunately he’s unleashed enough flames that they start consuming the stockpiled munitions, triggering a series of explosions that engulfs the whole camp, and Stark jets away just in time. He doesn’t get all that far before the armor crashes, breaking apart on impact. A noticeably exhausted Tony breathes out a solid quip: “Not bad.”
Everything here works. The special effects are an excellent blend of practical and CGI, and with the possible exception of Tony jetting away at the end, you never get the sense that Iron Man isn’t really there. The music is the same cheerful hard rock stuff that permeates the whole movie (Favreau deserves restraint points for not using the famous “I Am Iron Man” song until just before the end credits roll) and the sound design is equally wonderful, selling Iron Man’s mechanical movements as well as making his blows against the villains feel palpably (but not graphically) brutal. That element of physicality is important, because the scene also establishes the terrorists here as unquestionably, though not cartoonishly, evil, and it’s immensely gratifying to watch them get taken out.
The pacing is just right, which is very important given that this is the movie’s opening gambit, at least as far as comic book action goes; Yinsen’s death provides a poignant little breather in addition to its aforementioned other purposes. Most importantly and remarkably, RDJ’s Tony Stark has completed a credible transformation from hedonistic rich kid to driven superhero. Not bad indeed.
Coming Soon: With some well-applied spray paint and a LOT of hardware mods, Tony Stark is ready for a rematch, even if the bad guys aren’t.