Iron Brew

May 8th, 2008

cover to iron man 128What could be more relevant to the pissed up youth of today’s binge Britain than an absurdly over produced reprint of ‘Demon In A Bottle, the story of one billionaire superhero’s descent into alcoholism, collectably timed to coincide with the release of Iron Man (reviewed below, with spoilers aplenty), the first of this summer’s movies to claim the title of blockbuster.

Personally, I’d given up on the golden avenger before the story line began. There was only so much George Tuska art work I could take. Visually, Iron Man was at his best drawn by Gene Colan, whose work on the series looked even better reproduced in black and white in Britain. Colan gave Iron Man’s classic armour (designed by Jack Kirby) a sensual power that managed to turn the hero’s encounter with Whiplash into an S & M fantasy.

Plot wise, faltering repulsor rays and Aunt May stylee heart attacks quickly bored, while Iron Man’s alter ego, Tony Stark, was so at ease with his wealth, women and the world as to inspire nothing but resentment. It’s no wonder that for many fans Stark’s brief descent into alcoholism remains the standout event in his life.

‘Demon in a Bottle’ is realised in what now must be regarded as old-skool comic book aesthetics. I should have realised that the exploration of a superhero’s psyche late seventies style meant in-your-face four colour art, rendered even more garish here by a glossy paper stock, and a gratuitous team up with the Sub-Mariner.

Most of the artwork is by John Romita Jr and Bob Layton. It is perfectly functional but Junior is still in his early, silk shirted days of mine’s-a-bitter struggle while Layton is laying the groundwork for his fan-pleasing X-O Manowar (I am afraid I never got past the character’s name). A fill-in by Carmine Infantino retells the origin of Iron Man, but gives everyone huge jaws, big teeth and bigger hair. Even the Vietnamese look like they’ve just finished a photo shoot on the shores of lake Como.

cover to iron man 126David Michelinie’s plotting stands the test of time a little better. The political intrigue involving SHIELD (which he inherited) and Roxxon suggests that while the pace of storytelling has changed over time, the basic tropes that characterise the genre and even individual characters has changed more slowly. It really is only a short step from here to Tony Stark-Director of SHIELD.

In a brief introduction, Michelinie reveals he learnt his storytelling skills during a degree in Communication Studies. The secret is to keep it real. The trouble is this results in a bathetic sub-plot involving a lonely old man, Hiram Dobbs, who has had the misfortune to make his home on an island that is the only known source of Vibranium outside of Wakanda. I challenge you not to shed a tear as the hermit’s world explodes in “a scathing eruption of light and fury, a holocaust made even more awesome by its total, uncompromising silence!”

Just as you thought things couldn’t get worse Micheline spews forth (his words, honest) the most lamentable (my words) villains in the Marvel Universe including Leap-Frog (he leaps!) Stiletto (he throws knives!) and the Beetle (he, er, beetles!). It’s enough to drive a man to drink. And sure enough, Stark is soon hitting the hooch and his staff are deserting in droves.

A highlight of this graphic novel is the reprinting of Jarvisresignation letter (follow the link and scroll down for the text). In a hilarious act of industrial sabotage some Marvel employee pasted in an actual letter of resignation which saw print with a few amendments and is seen as a damming indictment of editor-in-chief Jim (the secret of the New Universe’s success will be its realistic representation of plumbing) Shooter.

The actual crisis-of-multiple-tipples is quite short lived (one issue) and seems to have had no lasting impact on the character. Imagine: this armour of mine keeps my heart beating, but not even the power of arch technology can save my pancreas!

iron man movie imageBooze flows just as freely in the new Iron Man movie aided by a script that sees Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark knocking back the script like a bottle of pleasant plonk. Downey’s reputation for a more-than-zero tolerance of substance misuse compliments a performance that make the most of Stark’s play-boy life style (best sight gag: a private jet cabin that turns into a night club complete with pole dancing air crew.).

Downey is the main reason to watch this movie. His transformation from a would-be Puff Daddy Warbucks to the eponymous Iron Man takes up the entire movie without becoming bogged down in the portentous navel contemplation of Batman Begins or the Spider Man movies. Sometimes Superheroes don’t stand for higher things, often they just stand for flying around zapping baddies with repulsor rays.

The other characters exist only as plot functions. Pepper Pots (Gwyneth Paltrow) has a character that seems contingent on the mechanics of the scenes she’s in – by turns “peppery” as she evicts Stark’s one night stand from his Malibu Mansion; a slightly nerdy industrial spy as she down loads data from Stane’s personal files; and a screaming Fay Wray in the hands of a metal King Kong. A romantic interlude on a balcony is followed by a postmodern moment where Stark explains to her the generic conventions of being the girlfriend of a superhero. The scene is funny and as slickly written as much of the movie, but it doesn’t go on to offer a credible alternative.

However, no amount of postmodern gesturing can rescue the faltering morality that lies at the heart of the movie. Stark’s own change of heart (from arms dealer to avenging angel) comes when he learns his good weapons aren’t only killing the bad guys (assorted shifty mercenary types and entire villages of swarthy looking men, women and children) but are killing good American Soldiers. You see weapons of war are good when good soldiers use them. When bad people use good weapons against good people, entirely innocent mines, missiles and machine guns become corrupted. And that’s bad.

The moral ducking and diving continues as the film tries the convince us that the villains are only Taliban look-a-likies and are actually a rootless, multi-cultural rag tag gang called the Ten Rings who are actually led by Stark’s own mentor, co-board member and best buddy. Frankly, even the script writers can’t believe this and the motives of the group or of Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) are entirely unclear. After all, Stark Industries don’t need to create wars to sell weapons, the American presidency is quite capable of opening up such markets on its own.

Then there’s the Iron Man costume itself built, if I heard the throw away dialogue correctly, to explore other planets but which handily has enough weaponry to take out tanks, mercenaries and a big non-identical twin that turns up for the film’s climactic battle. The violence is delivered as Tex Avery slapstick. But even the audience of 10 year olds with fake IDs that I watched the movie with looked uneasy at the comically choreographed scenes of burning bodies and exploding tanks. It is, of course, an axiom of action movies that dealing death is a laugh riot as long as you get the timing right.

In the event, the most politically on-the-nose observation is Stane’s remark to Stark that just because you have an idea doesn’t mean you own it. How Stan Lee must have chuckled at that line. True the credits acknowledge Jack Kirby, Don Heck, Larry Leiber and Stan Lee, but there’s a fair bit of Warren Ellis and Adi Granov here. One knock-off scene from Extremis has a family thrown about in a car but the movie achieves a double whammy by making the car an Audi.

In fact, the movie is an extended advertisement for Audi and Dell who break the Hollywood convention that AppleMacs are everyone’s PC of choice. Stark’s request for a good American Cheese Burger seems like a plug for Burger King, but when the burger is delivered – on the steps of the Walt Disney Concert Hall – the logo is fairly indistinct so I guess the company didn’t cough up enough money for a proper product placement. Speaking of cheese, Stan Lee makes another Hitchcockian appearance. The credits say he appears as himself, but Stark greets him as “Heff”. If they ever make a Mighty Thor movie, Lee should be a shoe-in for the role of Ego The Living Planet.

There are fans crying out for an exploration of the ‘dark material’ (sic) of ‘Demon in a Bottle’ (hic). I support this, but only if the movie includes the Sub-Mariner, The Porcupine and Hiram Dobbs. Actually, I hope Marvel resists the temptation because part what makes the movie work is partly its joi de vivre, of the kind that made the first Fantastic Four film just-about-bearable, together with a clarity of storytelling that still eludes the Batman franchise after a decade and more of trying to get it right. It would also be good to see a sequel upping the political content in a kind of super heroic take on The West Wing and increasing the moral sophistication.

Unfortunately, a post-credit scenes with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, ho ho) and loose talk about “The Avengers Initiative” portends the kind of multi-character complications that up-ended Spiderman 3 and Batman Begins. There’s a thin line between becoming entangled in continuity complications and being immersed in an entertaining ‘universe’. The trouble is you can only tell when the line is crossed by the painful experience of watching it being crossed, so I’ll be awaiting the sequel with less that baited breath. Till then True Believer-Make Mine a Martini!

Iron Man gets drunk at the bar

Note: The Mindless Ones do not condone excessive drinking of alcohol. If you find your drinking is having an adverse effect on you family, friends and work life contact Alcoholics Annonymous and repeat after us “The Mandarin is not an appropriate higher power.”

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