Superhero Watching: Alternating Marvel Perspectives, Fresh and Longterm, Ignoring X-Men, or S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., is a feature in which Boomer (who reads superhero comics & is well versed in the MCU) & Brandon (who reads alternative comics & has thus far seen less than 25% of the MCU’s output) revisit the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of someone who knows what they’re talking about & someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue.
Boomer: It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when superhero films were considered box office poison, and Marvel wasn’t even thinking about producing liveaction adaptations of its material for the big screen. I won’t get into all the gritty details of the rise and fall of the House of Ideas here, but suffice it to say that political machinations behind the scenes and creative differences abounded, meaning that one of the most recognizable brands in the world nearly went bankrupt many, many times. If you’re looking to take the equivalent of a capstone class in the history of Marvel Comics, I recommend a viewing of Chuck Sonnenberg’s “Rise and Fall of the Comic Empire” video series on his website SFDebris, which offers a fair and concise outlining of Marvel’s corporate shenanigans and infighting over the past four decades, and that series still clocks in at thirteen segments ranging from ten to thirty minutes in length. I’ll try to be more succinct here.
Considering that Marvel consistently has the creative edge over the more staid DC Comics, it’s ironic that DC is usually the first to enter new realms of media. DC put two live action television series on air (the Adam West Batman in the 1960s and Wonder Woman in the 1970s) before Marvel ever got a TV show off the ground, and they beat Marvel to theatres by two solid decades (not counting the Republic Pictures Captain America serials of the 1940s and George Lucas’s 1986 Howard the Duck, which is best forgotten). Richard Donner’s Superman took the world by storm in 1978 and was followed by three sequels and an attempted spinoff. As a result of the increasingly diminished returns on the Superman film series, the general public largely fell out of love with film adaptations of comics, before the genre was briefly reinvigorated in 1989 following the success of Tim Burton’s Batman and that film’s first sequel. That franchise also devolved into garbage, with the DC’s box office domination effectively being murdered in 1997 by the dual death blows of the notoriously terrible Batman & Robin and the stunningly unimaginative Shaquille O’Neill vehicle Steel. Finally, it was Marvel’s turn.
Although the X-Men were unquestionably Marvel’s most lucrative property in the eighties and nineties, and many people would credit the success of the X-Men film series (alongside Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films) as creating the modern zeitgeist of superhero saturation, bringing Beast, Storm, and Nightcrawler to life in a film was considered prohibitively expensive at the time. The real catalyst for this revolution was the surprising success of 1998’s Blade (budgeted at $45 million but earning over $131 million worldwide). Blade proved that superhero movies didn’t necessarily have to be created by committee to appeal to a wide audience, and that a comic book adaptation could be financially successful even if it eliminated the merchandising potential of toy sales (which tied the hands of the creative teams involved; in order to prevent watchdog and advocacy groups from causing a stink about inappropriateness of toys, films had to be made not only safe for children, but to appeal to them as well). Blade was an R-rated movie that brought in tons of new fans for Marvel, and kickstarted the company’s interest in features. The problem was that, to save itself from going under following the Comic Speculator Bust of the Nineties, Marvel had sold off the film rights to its most noteworthy properties in order to get funding to keep the lights on and the presses printing. Japanese film company Toei produced a (notably ridiculous) live action SpiderMan series in the 1970s, and the character was the most popular Marvel property in that country; as a result, his film rights ended up in the hands of Sony. Twentieth Century Fox ended up with the rights to the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and Daredevil. Marvel pictures were making money, but the comic company itself was still struggling.
This diaspora of character rights didn’t leave Marvel many characters or franchises to choose from, and the company made the logically sound but ultimately detrimental choice to make its first foray into film production with Marvel icon The Incredible Hulk. The television series based on the character had run for five successful seasons in the seventies and the gamma-irradiated antihero had long been a mascot for Marvel as an instantly recognizable figure and a representative of Marvel’s introspective approach to storytelling in contrast to DC’s implacable supermen; investing in a film adaptation seemed obvious. Unfortunately, Ang Lee’s 2003 film Hulk was a mess, and it would take years before Marvel started co-producing films in a meaningful way again. With the further failures of forgettable fare like 2004’s The Punisher and 2007’s Ghost Rider, it became apparent that a new approach was needed.
Kevin Feige was a Marvel exec who actually cared about the stories and characters, and he came up with a plan of creating a movie franchise that would function in much the same ways as the books did, allowing characters to cross over, team up, and occasionally come to blows. Since Hulk had been such a disaster, the newly founded Marvel Studios (with Feige at the helm) decided to move forward with an adaptation of Iron Man first, hitching the fledgling production company’s wagon to Robert Downey Jr.’s unpredictable star. And the rest, as they say, is history. In the seven years since that film’s release, the studio has moved from co-producing features with Paramount to releasing directly through Disney (Marvel’s decades of questionable solvency having ended with the decision to allow the media demigod to buy them out) and churned out two “phases” of films, with Phase II having concluded with Ant-Man, which was my first review for this site. With Phase III set to take off in a few months with the release of Captain America: Civil War, and with Brandon’s Russ Meyer project and my Dario Argento project winding down, we’ve decided to go through all twelve official Marvel Cinematic Universe films in order and review them, from the perspective of an old hand (me) and a newcomer (him). We’re calling it Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X..
Boomer: I’ll be as upfront about this as I possibly can: I never really cared much for Iron Man as a character. I didn’t dislike him, I simply remained utterly apathetic to him for most of my life. Of all the Marvel cartoons that aired during the nineties, his was the most forgettable and (to my memory) the most cheaply animated. On the Marvel side of the comic aisle, I loved the X-Men most of all, but I also liked the titular Thor beginning with J. Michael Straczynski’s run, the recently popular (and I love it) Jessica Jones, and Captain America, who represented, to me at least, the purest ideals of true ethical and upright citizenship. Then, in 2006, along came Marvel’s Civil War crossover event, which pitted Steve “Captain America” Rogers against Tony “Iron Man” Stark. To keep it simple, the narrative of Civil War was instigated by a deadly event that led Iron Man and Cap to fall on opposite sides of a political issue, the Superhuman Registration Act; the SRA would be a government mandate requiring all superpowered individuals (which in the comics is a huge but socially vulnerable minority) to reveal themselves to the government and be registered (and basically submit to the superhero version of the selective service, if the selective service had a 100% drafting rate, but I digress). Marvel’s editorial mandate was that Iron Man’s weirdly conservative ProRegistration side be depicted as being “right,” with Cap’s more individualistic and liberal AntiReg side being shortsighted and “wrong.” This was despite the fact that a proposed Mutant Registration Act had been a topic of plots in the X-Men comics for literally decades, with such a missive being treated (and rightfully so) as a gross civil rights violation. (The trailer for Captain America: Civil War that was released last week seems to show that the film version will have a more balanced approach.) I won’t discuss how that comic arc played out for fear of potentially spoiling the viewing experience for Brandon, but I will say that I found Iron Man’s choices to be unconscionable and eventually came to hate Tony Stark the way that the blogosphere hates Gwyneth Paltrow. Of course, I was super pissed a year later when I read a copy of Wizard Magazine and learned that a character responsible for so much that I hated would be the face of Marvel’s new cinematic initiative.
I still watched it, though. Eventually.
I saw the first fifteen minutes or so of the film while hooked up to a centrifuge at a plasma “donation” center, literally selling part of my blood for an extra $40 a week because I suffered from the distinct but common misfortune of coming of age in Bush’s America and the accompanying recession. The center had a small collection of DVDs they would play in the donor area to pass the time, and someone must have rented Iron Man since it was screened only once (as opposed to the dozens of times I watched their copy of Miss Congeniality, a movie I can recite backwards and forwards, much to my own embarrassment). I have to admit, Iron Man didn’t leave much of an impression on me at the time, but after nearly a decade to get over my sophomoric and hormone-addled (if well-founded and still totally justified) feelings about Civil War, I found this viewing to be much more enjoyable, even if it errs on the side of disbelief a bit too often.
By the way, has this review seemed a little overly political to you? That’s intentional. Iron Man is a strange movie in the way that it is paradoxically both steeped in and independent of the politics of 2008, especially with regards to the othered “foreign” antagonists. White businessman Obadiah Stane and his vaguely country accent have a clear narrative arc: Stane likes money, and he wants to keep making money, and if he has to play both sides to keep raking in the dough, he has no moral or ethical qualms about doing so. The motivations of the vaguely Middle Eastern group (who are obviously modeled after Al Qaeda but have an English language group name and live in an unnamed desert country) are never explained and implicitly irrelevant. The script takes great pains to dance around the word “terrorist” when discussing the Ten Rings, instead opting for “warlord,” but it clearly utilizes visual rhetorical strategies to evoke that image. But to what end? Why are they rounding people up? Is Stane complicit in an ethnic genocide? A bloody border dispute? The film expects you not to think too hard about it, or anything else, for that matter, especially not matters of narrative convenience.
For instance, Stane confronts the leader of the terrori—I mean, the Ten Rings, and obtains the suit Tony built “in a cave(!) with a box of scraps(!)”; in the next, Pepper visits Tony and he asks her to go to Stark Industries and steal files using his magic flash drive; in the very next scene, Pepper finds plans for a finalized Iron Monger suit on the desktop before Stane walks in. Everything that happens off-screen happens instantly. It’s so ridiculous that it would be insulting if the film didn’t make up for its inadequacies by being so much fun. The intermix of horror tropes that seem to come out of nowhere (in the scene of Tony’s escape at the end of Act I, and when Pepper is startled by Stane in the Monger suit, for instance) somehow don’t feel tonally inconsistent, and there are scenes that are, frankly, exhilarating; in fact, I think the fighter jet set piece is probably one of the best sequences that Marvel has done to date, and easily out-paces the finale. A lot of that fun comes from the tightness and polish to the script, which reads like an exemplary if basic lesson in successful planting-and-payoff, with regards to things like high-altitude freezing points, magic nuclear pacemakers, and the sonic paralyzer (I have no idea if that device has an actual name). It’s easy to go along for the ride if you can accept it for what it is: a comic book movie.
Brandon: Full disclosure: A large part of the reason I’ve been avoiding catching up with the dozen or so MCU movies & TV shows I haven’t bothered with is my distaste for Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. The four hours I’ve spent with the character in the two Avengers films has been more than I would’ve ever asked for. He just hits this annoying little anti-hero sweet spot that always gets on my nerves: the “lovable” jerk. The philosophical opposite of characters like Kenny Powers & BoJack Horseman, who ruin everything they touch, the lovable jerk is a character you’re supposed to celebrate for their asshole tendencies. If you want a concrete example just look to just about any character Vince Vaughn has played since Old School. Or, better yet, look to Tony Stark, a womanizing drunk whose reformed bad boy act is never quite as convincing as his grotesquely egotistical beginnings.
I’m admitting to all of this prejudice early because it was highly unlikely that I was ever going to be able to get on Jon Favreau’s Iron Man‘s wavelength. As soon as the dad rock licks of AC/DC play Tony Stark into the frame so he can crack smarmy, chauvinistic jokes in the back of a limousine in the film’s opening scene my worst fears about Iron Man were confirmed & the next two hours left me with the distinct feeling of taking my medicine so that I can enjoy better MCU titles down the line. Everything from the stewardess-banging to the US-Iraq War context to the throwaway transphobic joke in the airplane hangar to Stark’s horrific Guy Fieri sunglasses & facial hair combo were huge turn-offs for me. By the time our hero suffers the irony of being attacked with the very weapons he pushed as an arms dealer & gets the liberal bug, all of a sudden super stoked about renewable energy sources instead of getting laid, it registers as too little too late. Too much of the film reads as a being-a-rich-dick fantasy fulfillment for me to focus on anything else.
Speaking of which, I’ve been so wrapped up in ranting about Iron Man’s Lifestyles of the Rich & Douchey aspects that I forgot to mention that it’s also a superhero movie. The few elements of Iron Man I appreciated were distinctly non-Tony Stark related. Jeff Bridges was deliciously evil & barely recognizable in his role as the film’s Big Bad, who was giving off an unignorable daddy bear vibe (especially in a bedtime Skype session). Gwenyth Paltrow had a gloriously uncomfortable surgery scene that has inspired a new fetish in me: chest-fisting. I also liked a good deal of the film’s gadgetry, especially J.A.R.V.I.S. the sassy robot, the car battery heart Stark carries around like a lunch box, and the crude Iron Man suit prototype he builds in a terrorist cave to take advantage of the gullibility of his unintelligent brown people captors (ugh). And, you know, there’s always plenty of mindles surface pleasures to be found in watching two dudes in mech suits fighting it out. By the end of the film, even the flying-through-the-air superhero antics were exhausting to me, though, especially in the relentless suiting up montages & the empty spectacle of the climactic battle.
I’m promising myself & anyone else who’s interested that I’ll be more open-minded about future MCU outings, especially since the select few I’ve already seen (the two Avengers films, Ant-Man, and Guardians of the Galaxy) were all very enjoyable, Tony Stark content notwithstanding. I just couldn’t commit to what Iron Man was selling me & I expect that it’ll probably stand as one of my least favorite entries in the MCU franchise. I also suspect that it’s probably a crowd favorite among George W Bush & his supporters, since it feels distinctly tied to the tail end of their era of American thinking.
Boomer: As to where Iron Man fits into the rest of the MCU, I have to say it’s a pretty good place to launch, and it was probably a smart decision to focus the first Marvel pic on an entirely human character whose gimmick is combining wealth and mechanical genius, rather than going straight for the Norse gods, sentient robots, and super soldiers. Regarding plots left to unfold, I think the fact that this film was only responsible for sowing a few seeds of the larger universe contributed to the movie’s more laidback feeling. As someone who spent his childhood obsessing over Star Trek and his adolescence reading comics and Kurt Vonnegut books, I’m used to the idea of maintaining an elaborate, intersectional fictional universe in my head; I don’t generally think too much about accessibility, but, looking back, Iron Man is refreshing in its simplicity in this regard. S.H.I.E.L.D. is present throughout but only tangentially, with the first appearances of fan favorite Phil Coulson and Nick Fury’s post-credits scene comprising the organization’s entire role in the plot. It actually made me a little nostalgic for the early days of the MCU, when things were less complicated and not all villainy had to link back to Hydra somehow. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Brandon: When I was watching Jessica Jones last month I found nearly every element of the series enjoyable except for its gestures to tie itself into the MCU at large. Fans already tuned into the MCU were likely tickled by offhand references to the Hulk & the loose ends of Luke Cage’s storyline, but I found they were mostly wasted efforts, weakening some of the the series’ strengths as a self-contained property. Iron Man’s Nick Fury & S.H.I.E.L.D. nods work sort of in the same way. I get the feeling that the MCU’s formula is going to play out the same way as pro wrestling or soap operas or, hell, comic books: always promising to deliver on the next spectacle instead of focusing all efforts on the task at hand. I’m not entirely opposed to letting the story arcs build toward a larger goal, but as a moviegoer unfamiliar with the comic book source material, it can be a little frustrating to not know where this whole thing is going or if it even has a final destination to begin with.
Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Iron Man (2008)
-Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.