Iron Man for President

By Doug Thompson
I’m glad “Iron Man” opened to about $100 million in domestic box office receipts this past weekend. It gives me something to write about besides this endless, depressing presidential election.
I haven’t seen the movie yet. So this is not a column about Iron Man, per se. The subject is escapism.
The superb “Internet Movie Database” ( lists the top moneymaking movies of all time with adjustments for inflation. You have to go down to number 24, “The Da Vinci Code,” to find one that I’d call a straight drama that isn’t either animated or special effects driven. “Titanic” is just a soapy love story but it’s a soapy love story on a very expensive special effects recreation of a sinking ship. Calling “The Da Vinci Code” a straight drama is stretching it, too.
The movie medium’s penchant for fantasy is a good thing.
“The Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind” is a very good movie. It uses effects to create a vision that can only otherwise be achieved by imagination.
Movies — whether they are a business, an art form, a confection or whatever combination of all three that you want to argue — are unique in the quality of special effects they provide. I’d argue that massive scale and thousands of extras, such as in the old movie epics, are a special effect.
Movies can and should have fine acting, fine direction, a literate script or brilliant photography and editing. A play or a novel should have most of those too. The strong suit — pardon the pun on “Iron Man” — of movies is to show us things that look real that aren’t.
In “The Godfather,” Michael Corleone blows the Turk’s brains out, Sonny Corleone is shredded by .45 rounds and Moe Greene is shot through the eye. None of that really happens. There’s fine acting, fine writing, fine direction, great cinematography and editiing and so forth, also, but “The Godfather” is a great film made out of a pulp novel. Its inspiration is closer to “The Public Enemy” than “Crime and Punishment.”
There’s an account in Tolstoy’s “What is Art?” when he talks about the costume dragon in a Wagner opera. He said the thing looked stupid and resembled some crude stunt by carnival hucksters to fool peasants at country fairs. He expressed justified contempt that anything so clownish could be taken seriously. He has a point. Special effects movies have suffered from the same justified contempt at their clumsy technique for most of their history. They also suffered from clownish stories made to justify special effect scenes.
When the effects worked, however, art and lots of money were made. “The Wizard of Oz” is probably the ultimate example.
The author of the “Chronicles of Narnia” famously said he hoped his story wouldn’t be made into a movie because the special effects would be embarrassing. That was before computerized effects. Now, with sufficient care and craft, you can’t tell what’s real and what isn’t through purely visual means any more.
Special effects alone are not enough. That’s a conclusion forced on me when the American version of “Godzilla” opened in 1998. You need a story. You need a myth. You need magical powers. You need conflict.
That’s where the comic books came in, with their plots and back-stories refined over decades. Spiderman had his young-adult angst. The orphaned Batman became driven. The X-Men were ostracized and considered freaks.
These characters were also successful before movies. For every successful character made into a movie, there are hundreds who flopped or didn’t build a huge following. There are no superhero movies planned for the Atom, to my knowledge.
There’s another shared advantage of comic books and comic book-based movies: Sequels.
“Titanic” is the ultimate box office champ. It grossed $1.8 billion in ticket sales worldwide. However, it was a one-shot wonder. The three “Spiderman” movies grossed something more than $2.4 billion. Iron man stands to do at least as much. That $100 million figure is domestic. It grossed about that much more outside the United States.
Like them or not, superhero movies are big for a reason.

Categories: Features