Anyone who knows anything about the theory of story structure knows about the monomyth. It’s the story of a hero, good and skilled (but not perfect), who is called to adventure in search of something important. He battles a villain, suffers reversals of fortune, and usually returns home with his prize. But there is also an internal struggle as well as an external one; the hero also usually returns from his journey having grown as a person. It is this framework that makes the monomyth so easy to conjoin with coming-of-age stories. In fact, I think at heart that’s what most mythically-structured stories are: the tale of someone who undergoes a rite of passage, is forced to shed adolescent attitudes in the process, and rejoins his community as an adult.
That’s certainly what Iron Man is. Tony Stark may already be an adult chronologically, but it is clear from the first minute we meet him that he has an adolescent attitude toward life, and especially toward responsibility. This is the story of how Stark comes to learn that he needs to take responsibility for his actions and their consequences, and the growth he experiences along those lines from the first to the final shots of the film is outstanding. That’s why we love it. Iron Man is not just a great superhero movie; it’s a great movie, and it deserved every dollar of its commercial revenue and every dollop of its critical praise.
What I find most amusing about the near-universal critical and audience love Iron Man received, by the way, is that it gives us exactly what we claim to hate: the classic Hollywood formula, the traditional three-act structure. There’s no easier way to condemn a film these days than by saying it’s “just another Hollywood movie” with a “plot-by-numbers,” totally lacking “originality.” And we say that a lot. But Hollywood knows we lie; they know we love it. Their existence is all the proof they need. They are a town built on the concept that the surest way to commercial film success is to give us the same yet different. And we flock to their best formula films, rewarding them with hundreds of millions of dollars each and praising them to the echo. Then we return to proclaiming that we hate that connect-the-dots crap, and Hollywood executives gleefully chortle and count their money.
Why? Why is Iron Man spared our barbs, when so many of its brothers are not?
The answer lies, I think, in its actual fulfillment of Hollywood’s desire to make the same yet different with every new film. We like its formula. In fact, we need its formula. Successful patterns are repeated for a reason: because they touch something inside us. We want our heroes to be good, but not flawless – since that’s how we see ourselves. We want a struggle against a real villain, bigger than those we see in our own lives, and we want that struggle to be about something important. Luck is not allowed to intervene; we want our stories to be ordered, and our characters to be purposeful. The story must have twists and turns, and there can be sacrifices made for poignancy’s sake. But at the end, we want good to triumph. And we reward stories that give us all these things and more.
What we don’t want is for a story to give us only those things, and stop. We want the pattern, but we want it to grow organically from the characters and the situations. Any story that does otherwise feels false and artificial to us. It makes people who aren’t aware of story structure feel cheated – they can’t put their finger on what’s wrong, but they know something is out of joint. The more educated viewers can put names to the various phenomena. Unmotivated actions. Inconsistent characterization. Sheer coincidence masquerading as a legitimate event. And they know that the writers (or whichever executives or actors interfered with the script) have only given us that wrongness to get us to the next prescribed beat. It leaves us feeling manipulated, if the filmmakers are lucky…and bored to tears, if they’re not.
Iron Man faithfully follows a pretty standard three-act structure. But almost everything feels new and fresh and fun, because the right choices were made (almost) everywhere along the way. We get the broad pattern of the origin story, but suffused with little distinguishing characteristics springing from the script and the actors that make this feel like more than just another superhero movie. And so we love it, and it deserves that love.
For starters, the movie was put into the hands of someone who proved capable of understanding who Iron Man was and what made him work – writer/director Jon Favreau. Favreau took the standard Iron Man origin story, updated it for the modern world, jettisoned those things that would seem out-of-date, and then hired the perfect cast and crew to bring it to life. He only made one mistake in the whole process…but more on that later. Favreau must have known there were two questions to which he absolutely needed to nail answers. The first: Who is Tony Stark? The second: Why does he become Iron Man? And it is to his great credit that he not only answers both questions, but makes the whole story flow from them.
Tony Stark is a wunderkind, who was blessed with a brilliant mind and who has trained it to be peerless in discovering and determining how things work. He is not the weak CEO who ascends to his position after long years of being a company man; he is the dynamic creative heart of his successful company. Stark Enterprises runs off his brilliance, and he knows it. He is also a narcissist, an egotist, a consummate showman – and an utter charmer, a social smoothie, and a ladies’ man who can not only have any woman he wants, but who can do so while on his massive private jet heading back to his gadget-packed mansion. Basically, from the point of view of your typical 14-year-old boy, Tony Stark is everything he longs to be.
Favreau sealed the success of this part of his movie by casting Robert Downey Jr. in the title role. Downey doesn’t play Stark so much as he embodies Stark. Rarely has an actor seemingly been more perfect to play a role. Not the smallest part of that is Downey’s colorful off-screen past, which could be seen (I suppose) as an unwitting years-long dress rehearsal for this part. We’ve seen Downey drinking, gambling, carousing, and living life at 100 miles an hour. It’s not hard at all to see him do it again, only with everyone calling him Tony.
But Stark also has depths, which Downey brings out beautifully. He has a fundamental sense of honor and decency, even if it’s overlaid by a checkered exterior. He truly believes that his company is a force for good in the world, and that core conviction is vital to him. Early on, when a reporter harshly questions him on the consequences of his weapons manufacturing, his response is not to apologize, but to point out that his weapons help keep the peace — and then to raise the ante by pointing out that the other technologies he develops in the process aid people’s lives all across the planet. Stark rejects descriptions of himself as a war profiteer or a mass murderer; he is a patriot, a philanthropist, and a benefactor of all mankind.
Stark’s near-fatal adolescent flaw is rooted in something good: his love of ideas, of technologies, of reaching out and changing the face of the world. The problem is that he has been able, by sheer force of genius, to put himself in a place where he doesn’t have to be concerned with the consequences of what he does. He’s built automated systems all through his house that are responsive to his every need. At work, people give him problems to solve, and he solves them. And that’s all he cares about.
He doesn’t worry about his company’s operations; he lets his trusted mentor Obadiah Stane take care of that. He doesn’t worry about his personal life; he lets his devoted personal assistant Pepper Potts run that. He doesn’t worry about the United States military, his biggest customer; as far as he’s concerned, his good friend Lt. Col. James Rhodes is on top of that. Stark, like any other adolescent, immerses himself only in the things that interest him. As for the rest, he simply trusts that the people around him are good, and are doing what they are supposed to do. He is wrong to do so, and as a consequence, he nearly loses everything.
He starts his journey toward becoming Iron Man when he is captured by terrorists (who seem to have laid hands on quite a lot of Stark Industries tech) and presented with an ultimatum: to build them a Jericho missile, the newest and most advanced product of his weapons line, in exchange for his freedom. Unlike most CEOs, Stark is actually capable of fulfilling their request. He knows that they are lying about their willingness to release him, however, and so uses the time instead to build a high-powered suit of armor, with which he blasts his way to freedom and destroys those products of his that have fallen into evil hands.
That his company has been double-dealing weapons to terrorists under the table is Stark’s first shock. His second comes when he learns that the villain behind his near-death, and the arms-dealing operation, is Obadiah Stane. (Not surprisingly – when has a man with a name like that been a force for good in recent film?) Stane is basically Stark’s father figure, the man who runs Stark Enterprises so Tony doesn’t have to. When he learns that Stark is planning to shut down the weapons division, he wrests control of the company from Tony and then cheerfully admits it – in public, no less, during a photo op. For all Stark’s engineering brilliance, he simply has not taken responsibility either of his company or for its actions. Stane was thus easily able to outmaneuver him in both areas. This is what drives Tony to build a better suit of armor and fully assume the mantle of Iron Man, first to deliver justice to the terrorists who have profited from his mind, and then (in a great final battle) to show Stane who really is boss.
Now, let’s talk about the cast. Favreau succeeded brilliantly at finding big names who could draw an audience, but who were also actors capable of bringing life to their characters. Aside from Downey, we have Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow as long-suffering Pepper Potts, Oscar nominee (and future winner) Jeff Bridges as the villainous Stane…and count me as one of those who actually liked Terrence Howard as Col. Rhodes, and was sorry to see him go. They each play a type in Stark’s life – the Love Interest, the Mentor, and the Sidekick. What gives them an extra dimension of pop is that they seem aware both of their role in Tony’s life, and that he takes it for granted that that’s just who they are. This drives both Potts and Rhodes berserk, as they try to reconcile their love for Stark with the frustration of not having their work or themselves really appreciated; meanwhile, it gives Stane all the opening he needs for his nefarious plans.
Just like the characters are individuals who fit into their roles rather than mere archetypes with the trappings of people, the action sequences are not just action sequences. They’re fast and fun, with lots of explosions and property damage. But they’re also meaningful; the fights come about because they’re important to the characters, and there’s something at stake in each of them – including, on multiple occasions, Stark’s life. The one real exception to this is when he dons his suit and flies halfway around the world to liberate a town, both as an act of fighting terrorists empowered by his weaponry and as a sort of favor returned to a dead friend who had saved his life. We never really get the feeling that he’s in danger there, but he sure is fun to watch.
But for my money, the best scene in Iron Man is the last one. Tony Stark has spent the whole film learning how to assume responsibility for his actions, but in so doing has developed an incredible piece of technology that could revolutionize the military-industrial complex and drastically alter the balance of military power. He also has to claim responsibility for that, if he wants to prove to us that he really has learned his lesson. So his last action, while a departure from what we expect of superheroes (who normally live their private lives as anonymous citizens), is also proof that he has completed his journey and is now fully an adult. By shrugging off the suggestions of S.H.I.E.L.D. and telling the world he is Iron Man, he makes himself liable for the consequences of his actions – which is something that an adult does, and proof that the events of the film have left him changed for the better. The fact that he does it in front of a room of reporters, though…
Well, that’s just who Tony Stark is. He’s grown up, but that doesn’t mean he’s no longer a headline-stealing publicity hound. He’s the same guy as he always was.
The same, yet different.
Now, that sounds familiar…
(Oh, yeah. If you’re wondering, after all this time, about the one thing I didn’t like? The overly-anthropomorphic mechanical arm in Stark’s private lab, which is played for cheap comedy several times and which finally helps Stark save the day in a frankly unbelievable manner. The movie would have been better served if that arm were just an extension of Stark’s talkative mechanical butler Jarvis.)