May 30, 2008

Iron Man review

It’s an easy bet to say that Iron Man will be the best action picture of the ’08 summer. Some of the credit has to go to the casting and performances of Robert Downey and Gwyneth Paltrow. They’re so good it makes us realize these two actors should be in a lot more movies than they are. But most of the credit has to go to the script.

There’s a natural tendency to think of the action genre as the most director-dependent of all the forms, what with all their spectacle, staging, and special effects. But this is just another example of where conventional wisdom is wrong. Invariably when an action film goes wrong, it’s because of the script. And when it stands above the crowd, it’s definitely the script.

Comic book action films like Iron Man look deceptively easy to write. Just a fun, heroic character flying around and fighting evil villains. It’s actually a tricky form, because you are combining three genres: action, fantasy and comedy. In this script, writers Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby, and Art Marcum & Matt Holloway avoided every pitfall of the form and made all the right structural choices.

One choice was already made for them. As the film that introduces the character to the audience, Iron Man is an origin story, and that is always the best story in a series. Think of Batman Begins vs. all the others, even the Nicholson one.

But the key choice the writers made that set this action film apart had to do with the characters. In the Action Class, I talk a lot about how to create characters that have the capability to change, a structural element that becomes even more important when you combine action with fantasy. Here in Iron Man, instead of a superhero who is super heroic, main character Tony Stark has a number of weaknesses and is in many ways an unlikable person. Instead of being a one-note fighter for good, he is a real man with a deep need that is both believable and relevant in today’s world.

The writers take this same approach to the opposition. Instead of battling a silly, over-the-top villain, Stark must go up against a deadly Afghan warlord and a corporate boss who will let nothing get in the way of profit. These opponents are not detailed or deep in any way. We’ve certainly seen them many times before. But they are believable and relevant to the audience in the real world, and that gives the contest power beyond the boundaries of the comic book world.

This grounded and real character work makes it even more surprising that this is also the funniest script of the season. The action-comedy combination has been popular for a long time (it’s one of the seven comedy sub-forms I detail in the Comedy Class). In the past this has been used most often in action-crime films, like Beverly Hills Cop, as a way to show that the action hero is so good he can make jokes in the face of death. But here the comedy is used to undercut the natural pretentiousness of the superhero character. The writers extend this technique by having the main character make fun of the comic superhero form itself. This again makes him seem more real as he performs his heroic deeds, because the comic book heroes are all those other guys.

The combination of action and fantasy is now virtually the sole genre of summer blockbuster films. It’s obviously one of the main products that Hollywood wants to buy in their never-ending quest for worldwide popularity. If you want to write an action fantasy, do not underestimate it. Going back to the deep structure techniques necessary for any great story is your only guarantee of success.

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