I saw Iron Man this morning. It was the first time I’d paid to see a movie at a multiplex in almost eight months. Maybe I should’ve gone to church instead, seeing as it’s Sunday, but aren’t superheroes sort of like gods? And isn’t a movie theater sort of like a church? Whenever I do go to church I like to tell my fellow parishioners about my theories during the sermon. They’re too polite to tell me to shut up, face forward, and pay attention, which of course gives me an opening to remind them how no one in a movie theater ever tells anyone to shut up, face forward, or pay attention either. I don’t think that’s because moviegoers are polite, though — most of us are just used to the extra noise in this day and age, plus we’re not sure which psychos in the audience are harmless and which are on furlough from prison.
Anyway, I was hoping that the audience at the 10:05 showing of Iron Man would be sparse and too sleepy to talk. Well, they weren’t that sparse, but they were quiet, so I had a good time. However, most of the reviews of Iron Man made it sound like it would be a great movie that would make me have a great time, not just a good time. Why couldn’t you be perfect, Iron Man?!
But no movie is perfect, and Iron Man is certainly more fun than last summer’s bloated Spider-Man 3, but it’s another one of those comic-book movies that had me thinking, “The sequel will probably be better.” It’s not that the “origins” exposition isn’t interesting — every superhero franchise has to get that stuff out of the way in part one so we’re up to speed on why this particular hero fights crime and dresses funny, and in the case of the original Spider-Man (2002), the best scenes were the origin scenes.
Unfortunately, Iron Man drags a bit in the middle, the climactic showdown between Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) often looks like a game of Rock’em Sock’em Robots, and the “message” about war profiteering being a very bad thing is ridiculous coming from a movie that cost more than $150 million and has already grossed $220 million in the U.S. after two weeks of release, not to mention that most of Iron Man‘s thrills are derived from watching missiles and bombs and planes blow up real good. (One thing I loved/hated about Spider-Man 3 was that it cost something like $250 million to produce, meaning no expense was spared to make Peter Parker’s studio apartment look like an authentic New York shithole.)
On the upside, Iron Man’s suit looks really really really cool on the big screen thanks to Stan Winston’s armor designs and Industrial Light & Magic’s digital effects, and that goes a long way, as does Downey’s self-assured performance as Stark. Gwyneth Paltrow is also good as Stark’s faithful assistant, Pepper Potts (hard not to love those alliterative comic-book names), but Downey and she need better dialogue for their will-they-or-won’t-they? scenes in the sequels.
I just remembered that Downey was in 2000’s Wonder Boys with Tobey “Spider-Man” Maguire, and his most recent lead role prior to Iron Man was in 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, in which he costarred with Val Kilmer, a onetime Batman. Kilmer hosted Saturday Night Live in 2000, but Downey was a full-fledged cast member during the 1985-’86 season, one of the worst in the show’s 33-year history despite its talented, eclectic cast: Jon Lovitz, Nora Dunn, and Dennis Miller joined the cast that season and were the only three who returned the following year, but the single-season roster included Downey’s Weird Science costar Anthony Michael Hall, who was only 17 at the time, as well as past Oscar nominee Randy Quaid (1973’s The Last Detail) and future Oscar nominee Joan Cusack (1997’s In & Out). Downey himself was nominated for Best Actor in ’93 for Chaplin.
Oops. It looks like I got lost on the Tangent Turnpike again and ended up making a detour through Trivia Town. Where was I?
Iron Man is good but not great, but if you’re 11 years old you’ll probably love it, and that’s who the movie is made for. For instance, when Stark returns to the U.S. after three months in captivity in Afghanistan, he says he wants a cheeseburger. Stark’s a billionaire, so I expected someone like Bobby Flay to stop everything and hand-deliver him one. Unfortunately, the mention of the desired comfort food leads to a gratuitous shot of a Burger King bag in the next scene, but to an 11-year-old Burger King probably does have the best cheeseburgers around. I’ve never been against product placement in movies, but it’s best when the products are placed in the background and, like a crazy aunt, never ever spoken of.
I don’t feel like getting to the point yet, so let’s go back to Trivia Town for a minute. Much has been made of the Iron Man cast’s pedigree. In addition to Downey’s Oscar nomination for Chaplin (1992), Paltrow won Best Actress for 1998’s Shakespeare in Love, Bridges has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor three times (for 2000’s The Contender, 1974’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, and my favorite film, 1971’s The Last Picture Show) and Best Actor once (1984’s Starman), and Terrence Howard, who plays Stark’s friend Jim “Rhodey” Rhodes, was nominated for Best Actor for 2005’s Hustle & Flow.
This summer also has Oscar nominee Edward Norton and Oscar winner William Hurt starring in The Incredible Hulk (everyone thought the not-so-jolly green giant looked like a cartoon character in Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk despite all the money spent on special effects, but it’s five years later, and judging by the new film’s trailer he still looks like a cartoon), plus there’s Oscar winners Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman appearing in the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight.
That’s a lot of highly trained, highly paid acting talent, and it’s being used to deliver soul-searching dialogue like “I will destroy you!” Actually, that’s a cheap shot — the last Batman movie, Batman Begins (2005), was a class act all around, and Iron Man provides plenty of lighthearted laughs, in particular Stan Lee’s cameo. These actors know they’re signing on for a summer-blockbuster comic-book movie, not Shakespeare (in love or otherwise).
Now, in addition to being Oscar-worthy, the four stars of Iron Man have something else in common — they’re all recording artists. In 2000 Bridges put out his one album to date, Be Here Soon, featuring contributions from Michael McDonald. I asked Popdose editor-in-chief Jeff Giles if he’d heard it. His response was “I used to have that album, but I hope it won’t surprise you that I got rid of it somehow.” Bridges has been one of the silver screen’s best actors for almost 40 years now — if he’s not one of the music world’s best singer-songwriters, I’m sure he hasn’t lost too much sleep over it.
That same year Paltrow sang three songs on the soundtrack to her movie Duets, directed by her father, the late Bruce Paltrow. Her duet with Huey Lewis, a cover of Smokey Robinson’s “Cruisin’,” was a big hit on adult-contemporary radio stations in 2000 and 2001, and her collaboration with Babyface, a cover of the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me),” goes down easy, but the need to change the original lyrics so that Paltrow’s object of affection can be a guy leads to silly slang updates in lines like “I’m so lucky he’s so fly” and “Out of all the girlies in the world he belongs to you.”
One reason the “Just My Imagination” update goes down easy is because Paltrow has such a sweet singing voice. Back in 1989 Michelle Pfeiffer was asked if she was going to record an album after she sang a few torch songs with some distinctive flair in The Fabulous Baker Boys, costarring Jeff and Beau Bridges. She politely demurred, but Paltrow’s the one who really sounds like a singer to me, not just an actress who can hit the notes and figures it’s worth a shot.
Downey released his album, The Futurist, in 2004. I’ve only heard one track, “Broken,” a low-key soft-rock number that plays over the closing credits of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. When I saw the movie a few years ago I had no idea who was singing it until “Performed by Robert Downey Jr.” scrolled up the screen. I don’t know what I expected Downey to sound like behind a microphone, but his performance on “Broken” is certainly more nuanced than anything Bruce Willis or Eddie Murphy did back in the ’80s. (His vocal tics threaten to overwhelm the song at times, but all is forgiven whenever the lovely female backing vocalist brings him back to earth.) The line “God grant me the strength to accept the things I can’t change” is a reminder of Downey’s well-publicized drug relapses in the late ’90s and earlier this decade, a part of his past that informs his performance in Iron Man — in the comic book Tony Stark is a recovering alcoholic.
Terrence Howard’s album won’t be released until later this year. According to a recent Associated Press article by Nekesa Mumbi Moody, “Howard plans to make his musical debut this fall with a mix of soft, pop-rock tunes he wrote or co-wrote. They draw upon his musical influences such as Simon & Garfunkel, Jim Croce and the easy-listening sounds of The Carpenters.”
Wait a second. Didn’t Babyface already release this album last year and call it Playlist? Mr. Face, a.k.a. Kenny Edmonds, covered songs by Croce, James Taylor, Bread, and other ’70s AM-radio staples. I didn’t think he added much to the originals, at least not the way the Isley Brothers did when they covered Taylor and Carole King back in the ’70s, but it was a nice tribute all the same to Babyface’s adult-contemporary forefathers. It was also a reminder that in the ’70s black teenagers were listening to white artists just as white teenagers were listening to black artists; the music was reflecting the integration of several cross-bred styles. (In All Music Guide’s review of Playlist, Andy Kellman calls Bread “the Coldplay of their day.” So does that make Chris Martin, Coldplay’s frontman and Gwyneth Paltrow’s husband, the David Gates of his day? Gwyneth, I’m-a want you, but I can understand if you’re-a already taken.)
In case you’re wondering if Howard just sees music as a hobby he can pursue while he makes his living as an actor, here’s what he thinks of his day job: “She was a slut. She was a slut. She wasn’t as truthful as the music.”
Most actors can only dream of having the kind of career Howard has, since only a small percentage of actors can earn a decent living doing what they love, never mind make millions of dollars, get nominated for Oscars, and star in blockbusters like Iron Man. But what does Howard think of the craft you love, underpaid actors? It’s a slut. That’s why, when his album comes out this fall, I’m going to refer to it as the new album from “Babywipes.” See, last year Howard did an interview with Elle magazine, in which the following exchange occurred:
ELLE: What one item could you find in a woman’s house that would prove that you weren’t compatible?
HOWARD: Toilet paper — and no baby wipes — in her bathroom.
ELLE: Wait. I don’t think I understand.
HOWARD: If they’re using dry paper, they aren’t washing all of themselves. It’s just unclean. So if I go inside a woman’s house and see the toilet paper there, I’ll explain this. And if she doesn’t make the adjustment to baby wipes, I’ll know she’s not completely clean.
This fall, instead of buying Howard’s album on CD, I’m going to pay him $14.99 to record an MP3 explaining the importance of baby wipes in lieu of a bidet in the average American home. I’ll then expand it into a play and cast actors who may one day be nominated for Oscars and star in big-budget comic book movies and record albums that won’t go platinum, gold, or even iron. Some critics might call them sluts for playing superheroes and indulging their musical vanities, but unless Howard delivers a brilliant debut album, his detractors are likely to call it shit.
Babyface and Gwyneth Paltrow, “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” (from 2000’s Duets soundtrack)
Robert Downey Jr., “Broken” (from 2004’s The Futurist)
The Cardigans, “Iron Man” (from 1996’s First Band on the Moon) *
* I realize you’re only supposed to focus on the line “I am Iron Man” and Black Sabbath’s crushing riffage when their song is used in the movie’s advertisements, but the Cardigans’ cover of “Iron Man” doesn’t contain said riffage, so I focused on the following lyrics instead: “Nobody wants him / He just stares at the world / Planning his vengeance / That he will soon unfold / Now the time is here / For iron man to spread fear / Vengeance from the grave / Kills the people he once saved.” Doesn’t sound like the superhero who gives up weapons manufacturing to save the people his weapons once killed, but it does sound like the origins of an entertaining Iron Man sequel. Get to work, Marvel Studios.