I just happened to watch two great super hero movies not too far apart. Rather than review them separately, I’m going to mix and match. Unlike my other reviews, I’ll be talking about the plot more in depth.
Dark Knight was being constantly hyped, first with catchy viral campaigns and then tragically through the death of Heath Ledger it went ultimate viral. There was so much anticipation building up around the film that anything less than a masterpiece would have buckled and collapsed under the weight. Instead, it shined beyond those expectations. Iron Man on the other hand was the super hero film written off before it got off the ground. Robert Downey Jr., recovering addict, a super hero? Get out of here! Do you possibly think he could pass as anything remotely macho? Yet, Iron Man somehow managed to become a surprise hit that put Robert Downey Jr. back on the map as a bankable blockbuster star for the first time in his career. It probably didn’t hurt that he’d been doing intensive martial arts training for the past 5 years as he kicked his habit.
The film picks up where the previous left off. Batman is in full effect, doing bat things to bad guys. Being a bad guy is getting tougher and tougher to the point where they’re about to go out of business now that Batman has succeeded in capturing the criminal syndicate’s chief accountant and the Joker has robbed them of one of their major deposits. On the legal front Harvey Dent, the new district attorney, is emerging as the White Knight of Gotham City to rescue it from crime. For the first time in years the people of Gotham are finally beginning to have hope. Yet, the Joker arrives to bring chaos to all that he touches.
While the Joker’s portrayal is eerie, Bruce Wayne’s inner conflict with enforcing justice and doing justice (as his means become more questionable), more or less consist of Christian Bale sitting exhausted on a couch still partially in a bat suit on a posh business floor with nice full length glass windows all around. Hope nobody sees you.
The irony of the Dark Knight’s brilliance as a film is the fact that the so-called titular character is reduced to a supporting act. Not only is the Joker’s portrayal of a criminal so deeply disturbed that he is oblivious to his own madness yet finely attuned to the fear and drives of those he seeks to terrorize, but Aaron Eckhart’s portrayal of Harvey Dent, a District Attorney glowing with hope and idealism and love for Rachel Dawes, is heart-breaking and compelling as his spirit is gradually broken by the Joker’s force of chaos. Eckhart does an amazing job of portraying a man burning with idealism, gradually being overwhelmed by the task at hand and finally snaps when he is robbed of his most precious love and severely burned in an attempted double murder. You can actually feel the moment he snaps and see the pain and hurt in his eyes as the part of him that was once good is now overcome with evil.
Iron Man is the story of an accidental hero. Tony Stark is living the wild life as a brilliant weapons scientist and billionaire weapons manufacturer. A boy wonder who inherits his kingdom from a pioneering Manhattan Project scientist-turned entrepreneur. Tony continues living a storied life until he is seized by terrorists after a weapons demonstration in Afghanistan, mortally wounded by the very weapons that he helped create. He wakes up to captivity and a electro-magnetic device strapped to his chest, keeping residual shrapnel from tearing his heart apart. He is forced by the terrorists to recreate his greatest weapon in a terrorist enclave. Instead, he builds the ultimate armored suit and escapes with his life. On his return, he renounces his past and embarks on finishing his iron suit only to be caught in a web of betrayal.
Iron Man is more or less your typical super hero movie. Robert Downey Jr. does a brilliant job as an aloof billionaire, brilliant but selfish to a fault. Gwyneth Paltrow is Pepper Potts, his beautiful yet reserved and faithful assistant. The thing I liked about Iron Man is how they handle all the themes of death and betrayal with a certain lightness. The film is casual and laid back for the most part but for the crucial scenes these brilliant actors show us what they’re made of. One minute, Tony Stark is sipping whiskey in a humvee cruising in the Afghan desert and the next moment he is bidding a final farewell to the man who saved his life with pain in his eyes. Tony Stark is a hero but his approach is methodical and an exercise in intellectual curiosity as he continues perfecting his iron suit.
I also liked the restrained love story between Tony and Pepper. They strongly feel for each other but the match is not even consummated with a kiss.
The biggest difference in Iron Man and Dark Knight is that Iron Man takes a classic comic book approach while the Dark Knight is a graphic novel brought to screen. Comic books are uplifting and straight forward in their portrayal of good and the hero’s struggle as he grows into a role thrust upon him by destiny. In graphic novels there are no clear boundaries, just vague borders, that the reader is forced to confront with their own perspective. I liked both movies but the Dark Knight was filled to the brim with brilliant actors and some really deep themes that it could have easily been two very good movies and that’s probably what made Bruce Wayne and his Batman nothing more than a backdrop against which Heath Ledger’s Joker and Aaron Eckhart’s Two-Face steal the show. Iron Man was in retrospect sparse and light, yet on point where it mattered. The actors were minimalist in their approach but that made the film all the more approachable and believable.
Many are hailing Heath Ledger’s performance and I whole-heartedly agree. Yet at the same time it’s hard to really appreciate the performance because I still can’t see it as a performance. It’s as if they really found such a lunatic and made a reality show around him. There isn’t a single moment that I can even faintly discern the actor behind the character. The Joker masks his evil lunacy in the facade of humor. While we all mourn the loss of Heath, it would have been really difficult for him to surpass this achievement were he to survive.