It’s been a dark time for comic book movies since Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” and Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns.” Over the past two years, “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” “X-Men: The Last Stand,” and “Spider-Man 3” raised red flags with audiences and critics alike: is the comic book movie Golden Age finally imploding upon itself? If Marvel Studios, Marvel Comics newly-launched production company, has an answer, it’s “NO!” Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man” marks Marvel Studios first independently-owned production (distributed by Paramount). It follows the high-tech adventures of billionaire Tony Stark, as he soars into the world as the red and gold avenger, Iron Man. Amongst us comic book nerds, when we’re not debating if Wolverine could take Superman, a frequent discussions is how Iron Man is Marvel’s Batman. So in honor of us comic nerds’ long-standing debates, we’ll see how Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” stands against the high-flying, repulsor-blasting “Iron Man.”
Meet Tony Stark: womanizer, billionaire, alcoholic, genius. A child prodigy, Tony Stark is responsible for the world’s most deadly military weapons, developing and funding his inventions via Stark Industries. Robert Downey Jr. plays our hero, a self-absorbed braggart who suffers a mid-life crisis after being abducted by Middle East terrorists and barely escaping with his life. Determined to make a difference in this dangerous world he’s help create, Downey’s Stark takes to building a suit capable of mitigating the disasters in the world. Surprisingly funny and well-acted, but also with its serious moments, “Iron Man” is a testament to movie audiences that comic book movies are not dying. Jon Favreau’s sharp direction and Downey’s well-thought acting clearly form the backbone of this avenger’s journey, an adventure that sometimes suffers from clunky pacing and unsure character moments.
The Defending Champion
As a movie icon, Batman was all but dead following Joel Schumacher’s nipple-clad, hyper-colored “Batman & Robin.” Somehow, Christopher Nolan relaunched this franchise by tossing aside the previous films and starting from scratch. And when we say scratch, we mean scratch — a young, vengeful Bruce Wayne wandering the world, lost in his own misery. There is no Batman. Nolan’s psychological action-thriller traces Wayne’s journey in becoming the legendary Dark Knight, and his first attempt to defeat a overzealous terrorist mastermind who shares Batman’s hate of corruption but wishes to eradicate it using genocide. Complex and a tad heavy-handed, “Batman Begins” captivates audiences with great casting, amazing action set pieces, and a darker tone that encourages a contemplative movie-going experience.
Believe it or not, this is actually a hard one. As comic book adaptations go, “Iron Man” is perhaps the most faithful comic book adaptation ever made. Favreau’s attention to the Iron Man mythos is impressive — from Tony’s technological prowess, his building of the suit, his arrival as Iron Man. You actually feel like you’re watching a comic book on film. But faithful adapting does not alone make a superior film.
While “Batman Begins” makes significant alterations to the mythos, its exploration of Bruce Wayne’s psyche is more well-rounded and fulfilling. This is due to the simple choice of what the audience gets to see on screen. In “Iron Man,” Tony Stark suffers at the hand of his kidnappers and then returns to the United States, and announces that he’s shutting down Stark Industries’ weapon developing sections. This announcement, occurring at a press conference, is just as much a surprise to the press as it is to the audience — who really hasn’t been prepared for this selfish egomaniac’s massive character shift. On the other hand, Bruce Wayne is already yearning for a change in his life and the audience watches discovering the morality and the philosophy of his mission. We see it develop, unlike Tony Stark’s sudden “weapons are bad and must be stopped.”
In “Batman Begins,” Bruce Wayne’s mental and physical transformation occur on screen and pay off thematically with the film’s end — which has Bruce facing a villain whose goals are similar, but whose means are much more extreme. This symmetry is lacking when Tony Stark goes up against the film’s villain, a stereotypical corrupt businessman who just feels like the obligatory third-act challenger. That, and the excessive use of one-liners during the film’s overly bombastic climax, steals some of the class and sophistication that “Iron Man”‘s first two acts mastered so well.
Also, Nolan seemed to have a better handle on the development of the hero’s arsenal. Favreau nearly copies it, and it feels as such. We spend nearly a half-hour watching Stark build things… and it’s really not all that interesting. As Bruce Wayne builds his arsenal, he struggles with forming allies, reclaiming a lost love interest, and deciding the morality of his quest. For Stark, he’s dealing with a talking computer who makes sarcastic quips back to him. One of the thing that both these films have going for them are their action sequences, with “Iron Man” being the clear superior in terms of orchestrated action set-pieces in terms of just choreography and special effects.
Whether or not “Iron Man” succeeds by virtue of being better than the crap produced in the past two years is up for debate. Listen, the movie’s fun, well-executed, and is certainly worth the rising cost of a movie ticket. However, it hasn’t broken into the sacred movie realm that the first two “Spider-Man” and “X-Men” movies created, and that “Batman Begins” so ably joined. Favreau struggles with giving us on-screen character development instead of obligatory character waypoints. Fixing that, and a little restraint in the cheesy bad guy dialogue, would have easily pushed “Iron Man” into one of the best comic book movies ever made, and not simply the best comic adaptation. When looking for a superhero, I’d rely on the avenger whose put a bit more thought into his personal mission and taken the time to fashion himself as something more than a red and gold hot rod. For this reason, “Batman Begins” smelts “Iron Man” with a superior script and better character development.