Robert Downey, Jr. in Iron Man. 2008, Paramount Pictures. Photographs courtesy of Hollywood Chicago.
In Barry Levinson’s 1994 thriller, Disclosure, Demi Moore plays a computer specialist who is sued for sexual harassment. (Michael Douglas plays her hapless victim.) Shot on location in beautiful Bainbridge Island, the film was one of the first to glamorize the computer industry and, in so doing, it rather effectively incorporated the personal computer as a sort of visual catalyst in the development of the story: while comparatively primitive by today’s standards, the sending and receiving of email was, in this case, rendered as a strategic dramatic ploy. At the time, I can recall being somewhat mesmerized by the on-screen interface which was, hard as it may be to imagine, a drawing of an envelope — with wings.
Fourteen years have passed since the days of that winged envelope — a period that has, where special effects and computer animation are concerned, witnessed a meteoric rise in speed, availability, complexity and audience expectation. And while we have come to expect brilliance where, say, vaulting superheros are concerned, the on-screen design qualities are only occasionally as good, (though the blue-black typographic majesty of Syndrome’s lair comes to mind). The degree to which this design conceit relates directly to the scene, the plot, or the character in question lends a fascinating new dramatic element to this element of production design, and has perhaps found its ultimate expression in Paramount’s latest release, Iron Man.
Robert Downey, Jr. in Iron Man. 2008, Paramount Pictures.
Iron Man is the fulfillment of all the computer-integrated movies were ever meant to be, and by computer-integrated, I mean just that: beyond the technical wizardry of special effects, this is a film in which the computer is incorporated, like a cast member, into the development of the plot itself. Going beyond the touch-screen fantasy of Minority Report that has so influenced the last five years of interface design, in Iron Man, vision becomes reality through the subtlest of physical gestures: interfaces swirl and lights flash, keyboards are projected into the air, and two-dimensional ideas are instantaneously rendered as three and even four-dimensional realities. Such brilliant optical trickery is made all the more fantastic because it all moves so quickly and effortlessly across the screen. As robotic renderings gravitate from points of light in space into a tangible, physical presence, the overall effect merges screen-based, visual language with a deftly woven kind of theatrical illusion. (Ghostcatching — the virtual dance installation performed by Bill T. Jones nearly a decade ago — comes to mind.)
But there is more going on, here: playing Tony Stark, the remarkably subtle Robert Downey, Jr. embodies the eccentricity and passion that befit a superhero, but we identify with him because he’s basically an iconoclast who thrives by being surrounded by all those gadgets. It bears saying that movies like this are about as far as you can get from Reality TV, because they’re so magical and over-the-top: from Superman to Spiderman, the superhero retains his mesmerizing pull over the imagination precisely because he is superhuman. In an age that will likely be remembered for its obsession with the average Joe (read Reality TV) such fantasy fare has retained a remarkable hold in contemporary culture: yet unlike Spidey’s Peter Parker or Superman’s Clark Kent, Stark has none of the shy character traits that make his subsequent transformation such a shocker. Like Kent, he putters around his workshop under the occasional watch of his amanuensis (British actor Paul Bettany voices the role of Jarvis, the modern-day embodiment of Alfred Pennyworth — who some of you may remember as Batman’s aging butler) but he’s really his own person. Plus, he’s rich. And he has a lot of computers. On some perverse level, most people I know would sooner see themselves in Tony Stark than in, say, the fat guy on The Biggest Loser, and trust me, it’s not because we’re all so buff: it’s because we spend more time than we’d care to admit in our studios, surrounded, at times helplessly so, by so many computers.
But even that’s just the tip of the iceberg, because there’s a morality play here, too. Stark undergoes an epiphany quite early in the film, leading him to mend his formerly questionable ways and embarking on a quest that might loosely be decribed as more, well, humane. Without giving the entire story away, let’s just say that his newly-minted conscience involves saving people instead of annihilating them, and that the locale for such efforts is somewhere in Afghanistan. And therein lies the essential irony: socially networked and globally interconnected, the illusion is that we’re within reach of anything and everything. But with the real world in political, economic and environmental turmoil, the more we sit behind the screen, the more helpless we actually feel. In this context, Stark’s odyssey is more than an action film: it’s a psychological thriller, and a sociological fantasy. Here, perhaps, the paradox of our inner-connectedness comes full circle: we’re all online constantly yet at the same time, we're powerless against our real enemies. What better fantasy than to imagine yourself capable of mouse-clicking your way to flights of supreme heroism like Tony Stark?
Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey, Jr. in Iron Man. 2008, Paramount Pictures.
To be sure, there are all the usual Hollywood trappings here — Stark’s got a magnificent Malibu pied-à-terre, a stunning love interest, a rock-solid best friend and a maniacal business partner: in short, all the ingredients for a box-office slam-dunk. But it is the computer genius — rendered so captivatingly here through those magical, diaphanous interfaces that swirl around Stark as he plots his course — that are his character’s inevitable doppelgänger. It's a wonder of seamless integration, a choreographed dance between character and computer. And blessedly, not a winged envelope in sight.