Iron Mania

April 28, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

I am willing to give Paramount's publicity and marketing department a huge share of the credit for transforming Iron Man into a must-see event. Though Tony Stark's legion of devoted fans may howl at this pronouncement, in the pantheon of comic book superheroes, Iron Man is merely a Demi-God. Everyone knows Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Hulk, and the Fantastic Four. They're part of the fabric of pop culture. Iron Man, however, is known primarily to those who follow (or have followed) his adventures. Back in the days when I used to collect comic books, Iron Man was roughly on par with Daredevil and Thor - titles that generated solid sales numbers, but couldn't touch the volume of the "big books." Yet Paramount has managed to position Iron Man as 2008's second Big Event. (The first Big Event, Cloverfield, was also a Paramount property. They also have the fifth Big Event, which opens on Memorial Day weekend.)

Making Iron Man into an event movie in May 2008 might have been easier than Paramount suspected due to the weakness of the spring box office. It has been 3 1/2 months since any movie (big or small) has been able to excite movie-goers. The largest and most slavishly catered-to target demographic for the studios - males age 14 through 30 - haven't had much to see or cheer about in February, March, or April. Iron Man is a hand-engraved, welcome-back card to them. From the beginning, Paramount decided to position this film as a summer tent-pole rather than an early year "throw out" like Daredevil. It's doubtful that its box office take will come close to last year's first-weekend of $151 million for Spider-Man 3, but half that will be considered successful and it's hard to imagine a scenario in which there will be no Iron Man 2 in two or three years.

Let me pause for a moment to provide a clarification/definition. When I refer to a "comic book based superhero," I'm thinking of a character who had his start in comic books before shifting to the big screen. James Bond and Indiana Jones may be "superheroes" in the broadest sense of the term, but they are not "comic book based superheroes." Also, a movie like The Incredibles doesn't count because, although it's rooted in the culture of comic book superheroes, no book preceded the movie.

Comic book based superhero movies are nothing new. Even the big-budget, effects-driven blockbusters can date as far back as 1978 and the release of Richard Donner's Superman. Until this decade, however, they have represented sparse ingredients occasionally stirred into the Hollywood cauldron. Through the '80s and '90s, a Superman or Batman would pop up every few years, and occasionally there would be something offbeat (like 1997's Spawn or 1998's Blade). In fact, while Marvel Comics could claim some limited success on television (with Saturday morning cartoons and the Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno The Incredible Hulk), they had done little before 2000 with the exception of the previously mentioned Blade and an ill-fated Roger Corman 1994 version of The Fantastic Four that never saw the light of day.

2000 can be considered the year that everything changed for big-screen comic book superheroes. That was the when Marvel upped the ante in a big way with the release of The X-Men. It was the only comic book superhero movie of the year, but its unexpected success (exceeding studio estimates by 50%) resulted in numerous superhero movies stuck in development hell getting fast-tracked. This ramp-up would be seen beginning in 2002, with two comic book superhero releases (Spider-Man, Blade II). 2003 and 2004 both brought four titles (five in 2004 if you want to count Catwoman, which I do not), with three to follow in 2005, two in 2006, and three last year. This year, there are five expected, with four (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Batman: The Dark Knight, Hellboy 2) opening during the summer and one in December (The Punisher 2).

Comic book superhero movies are no longer a niche market. They are a major revenue engine. There is some concern in the industry about too many superheroes causing overexposure but that hasn't caused the pipeline to dry up, although D.C. is having difficulties with two of its highest profile properties. There are a lot of questions about when/if the next Superman movie will go into production and the on-again/off-again Justice League project may never get off the ground. Marvel isn't slowing down, though. Its goal seems to be to give every superhero in the Marvel universe his/her own motion picture.

New superheroes like Iron Man are necessary because some of the venerable ones are getting long in the tooth. Spider-Man is a case study of what can happen to a superhero franchise after only a few chapters. The third film was of considerably lower quality than its predecessors, even though the same creative team was in place. While the box-office bonanza of Spider-Man 3 guarantees film #4, there are a lot of questions. Will Sam Raimi come back? Will major re-casts be necessary? How to make the next adventure fresh and not a re-tread? X-Men is also in limbo, with the current plan not to continue the series but to branch out and present a stand-alone Wolverine film. And recall that the '70s/'80s Superman and the '80s/'90s Batman both went bust after the third sequel.

As I write this, I haven't yet seen Iron Man (the local screening is tomorrow night), but the "word on the street" is that the film is smartly written and Robert Downey Jr. brings qualities to this superhero movie that are unusual for the genre. That's a good thing because few tales are more boring than generic superhero origin stories. One thing I appreciated about Ang Lee's much-reviled Hulk is that it dared to be different. I felt similarly about Superman Returns, which was more of a tortured love story than a superhero movie. Big fight scenes without deeply personal stakes in superhero movies are overrated. Will Iron Man fans be happy with what they see Thursday night? Time will tell, but there will certainly be a lot of them in theaters this weekend giving Marvel's would-be next franchise a dynamic send-off.