This round: Superhero Movies

The challenger: Los Angeles, California


A few weeks ago, I posted an entry on The Dark Knight Rises, and how I thought it was a better movie than it is often credited as. I didn’t label the entry as part of this series, because that wasn’t the point, but, well, guess where much of The Dark Knight Rises was shot. (Yes, some of it was in Los Angeles as well, but I think today’s movies have just enough focus on the filming locations in question for me to take this angle.)


So, with that in mind, I think this week it’s time to see Pittsburgh take on the big one, comparing entries from two of the most beloved superhero franchises of all time.


LA’s entry: “Iron Man” (2008 )


The Movie:


Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a playboy that would make James Bond look second rate. He’s a genius inventor that could seemingly run his frontrunner weapons company in his sleep, a showoff most people are too busy admiring to scorn, and an indulgent billionaire who does whatever he wants, before shaking off the dust the next day and getting right back to work. Then, one day, he’s hit with the full reality of his legacy, as well as a potentially fatal injury, when he’s captured by terrorists with a cave full of his weapons. But if he can fit creating his greatest invention yet into his new schedule of building weapons for his captors, it might be the key to surviving, escaping, and turning his life around.


It’s doubtful that even fans of the comic book predicted any director in Hollywood could do this much with the character of Anthony Stark (let alone Jon Favreau, who, at the time, earned his biggest bragging rights from movies like “Elf” and “Something’s Gotta Give,” both in 2003). Our protagonist is every bit as charismatic as his profile makes him sound, but in this first outing, his transformation from a playboy to a remorseful, determined hero makes him doubly engaging. It helps that he’s given a good supporting cast to play off of, including his personal assistant Pepper Pots (Gwyneth Paltrow), whose relationship with Tony involves an atypical sort of understanding. It seems their years(?) knowing each other has sparked a dedicated affection that, for the moment, can’t become anything more. We also get some nice drinking buddy moments with Tony’s best friend, Lt. Colonel Rhodes (Terrence Howard), and much of the movie’s heart comes from the first act Tony spends with the man who would be his mentor (Shaun Toub). Never mind the requisite people trying to figure out the puzzle of Tony’s mysterious new agenda.


But I do have to admit, I always found “Iron Man” to be one great element at the heart of the movie carrying the other good or decent elements. It didn’t dethrone the first two “Spiderman” movies as my favorite Marvel Comics adaptation when I saw it, and the years since have done little to change my mind. I know I’m at risk of flying myself into the sun by confessing I think the movie is only great, but I’ll attempt to stay the course; Downey isn’t just the best part. In some ways, he is the movie. Whole segments of it are filled with him just experimenting with the suits, in a mix of epic triumphs and brilliant slapstick. When he actually puts his quest into action, it’s only adequately thrilling. The scene where he solves a hostage situation and eliminates his stolen weapons, for example, is not much more or less than you could imagine on the first try, without brainstorming for ideas. The movie isn’t always clear on whether it has a main antagonist, and the big reveal is really just a tradeoff. It’s Tony himself we’re invested in, but the movie, to its credit, knows how to run the show with that.


Iron Man was a new and different take on the superhero movie that stands tall as an original and as one of the best. It’s filled with distinct and interesting personalities, the storytelling is relaxed and confident – if a bit disjointed – and by the end, we’ve long since become invested in how far they’ve come and where they still have left to go. And in hindsight, it might be even bolder than it was given credit for at first. It’s still one of not-even-a-handful of comic book films to ask questions as dismayingly difficult as the real good achieved by arms races. In fact, it made a few critics coo with relief that the inferior sequel was “less politically off-putting.”


The Winner:


In honor of the genre in this outing, I thought we might try a traditional blow by blow comparison (mild spoilers ahead):


The Lead: What we have here is perhaps the best Iron Man imaginable against my favorite live-action Batman to date. In each franchise, there are entries in which the lead is running the show less than in the others, but neither of these are that entry. “The Dark Knight Rises” contains possibly Bruce Wayne’s finest hour, in all his conflicted determination to finish the war on crime, and “Iron Man” gives us everything from Tony Stark that the sequels did, along with some other aspects that both forgot. I could consider point by point advantages all day, but…

Winner: Tie


The Villains: I’ve developed more respect for Obidiah Stane, who really does leave an impression with his cold, cynical logic and, even in his most insane moments, confidence and self-assurance, never doubting that his approach to the arms race is realistic and correct. However, there are still points when he seems dangerously close to your standard self-entitled, moustache-twirling villain. Bane, even disregarding his size, is more intimidating and has a more convincing stake in what he’s doing. The terrorists in Iron Man aren’t much more or less than they need to be, though their leader (Faran Tahir) has a few good lines. Meanwhile, Catwoman is some of the most fun you’ll ever have with Anne Hathaway, and I should also mention that I did appreciate the brief return of a certain villain who is now the most recurring in the “Dark Knight” franchise. It was just nice to see, after a less-than-respectful exit in “The Dark Knight,” that he’s still doing what he does (or at least is ready to).

Winner: “The Dark Knight Rises”


Best Supporting Cast: All of the characters who made for great members of Batman’s team before are back in “The Dark Knight Rises,” now with the interesting addition of an officer played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. However, they all take a back seat a bit, as the focus shifts to Bruce Wayne’s ultimate internal conflict. Meanwhile, I don’t think I need to say much more about the supporting cast in Iron Man, who bring heart and humor in spades. The likable Pepper Pots is among the front-running love interest characters in movies today (I also realized in my last viewing that I hadn’t fully appreciated the first time I heard her explanation that her job sometimes requires her to “take out the trash”). I’m not sure if I should count Catwoman in this category, but even if I did, I think it’s easy enough to say which cast contributes more in the end.

Winner: “Iron Man”


Best Action: The sequels would expand the possibilities that could come from battling Iron Man suits, though unlike them, at least the first movie got all the satisfaction it could from the relatively simple, play-by-play battles it depicted. The last act in “The Dark Knight Rises” has some of the best and most triumphant action of anything in recent memory, and the earlier scenes involving Batman’s reappearance (and team up with Catwoman) are not to be thrown away either.

Winner: “The Dark Knight Rises”


Best Visuals: The bat plane and other special effects work pretty well, and the locations in “The Dark Knight Rises” (save for Tony’s house) are probably more distinct. But “Iron Man” deserves credit for its more colorful atmosphere that adds to the excitement a bit more, and it goes without saying which one has more fun with special effects.

Winner: “Iron Man”


Best story: Both use a more character-driven story, but as I noted above, the way the story unfolds in “Iron Man” is not really the element that makes it a great movie. Instead of enhancing Tony’s dilemma, it serves just enough to successfully move it forward. While many accuse “The Dark Knight Rises” of overlooking plot holes, the answers to the ones brought up seem assumable at worst and heavily implied at best. Why does Bane turn the city upside down before destroying it? For the same reason he breaks Batman and sends him to a hell hole without killing him: He wants to take away its will to ever stand back up before he finishes knocking it down. In fact, where that was mostly sadism with Bruce Wayne, it might actually be a necessity with Gotham, which has proven resilient. How did Batman get back into the heavily guarded Gotham City from his prison in just a few days undetected? This would be hard, but not impossible, especially if you know how to do things beyond the average man. If he’s good for nothing else these days, I think Frank Miller and his unforgettable little internet meme have provided an appropriate answer there.


And while both deserve credit for their epic ambition, it might be fair to say that not worrying about a sequel (or having to) helps with the effect. “Iron Man” moves forward without much rising action per se and leaves some of its conflicts hanging, or at least the remnants of them. “The Dark Knight Rises” – as the title would suggest – is masterful at rising action, establishing the dilemmas from the start, making the direness of the situation clear, and progressing to weighty standoffs. You can tell from the first punch that evil is going to win round one, and it gets progressively sadder until the resounding final blow. Then, following that, we get a clear progression to the next round, in which Bruce finds himself and stands back up. His journey and its implications are written better than many give it credit for, so that when he returns, it takes just one line to let us know that Bane is not facing the same Batman he met in the beginning: “No, I came back to stop you.”


Winner overall: “The Dark Knight Rises.” As much as I like “Iron Man,” the Dark Knight rises will always be a favorite, delving into the lore of its franchise just as thoughtfully and with an even bigger punch. Pittsburgh escapes the giant with one small credit under its belt.



And with that finished, now that the demand is slowing to a halt, it is time to conclude Pittsburgh Against the World. Next time, we’ll move on to tying up some lose ends before putting some new ideas inspired along the way into action.

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