This is going to be an attempt at doing some more in-depth analysis of a film, going through it from scene to scene, shot to shot, line to line, offering thoughts and opinions, and just trying to make sense of it all. If I feel it’s going well, and if it’s received well, I’ll keep going and maybe do it for other films in the future. This won’t be a strict weekly thing, but it’s something I am interested in keeping up.
I am unqualified when it comes to film criticism, something I say not as a piece of self-deprecation but just as a disclaimer for anyone who wants to start questioning my qualifications to undertake a project as large as this and actually make it something worth reading.
But I do watch a lot of movies. And I do a lot of writing on them.
These recaps/amylases will be done in chunks roughly analogous to what I often call a “sequence”, which can be one scene or a series of scenes that are differentiated from others in some ways. I choose Iron Man for the first go for no other reason than it was in my head recently. I have a high regard for this film, it being one of the finest comic-book superhero films ever made, and maybe the very best origin story. This will be an examination into why.
So, let’s get this party started.
Iron Man 00.00 – 04.20: The convoy ambush
The first shot can be everything in determining how much you connect with a film. It has to do at least something to set the tone for the entire experience, to hook you in right from the beginning and make sure that the film has your full attention. If it’s bad, the film might never be able to get your interest.
Iron Man has one of the best opening shots, under those terms, of any film I have ever seen. A desolate landscape greets you, desert juxtaposed with distant snow-capped mountains. A convoy of distant vehicles drive down a road kicking up dust. All you can hear is a light wind and the distant trundle of engines.
And then we switch to a frontal view of this convoy, now identified as US military vehicles, and AC/DC’s “Back In Black” hits your ear drums, its famous opening rift imbuing the whole thing with a sense of American culture, thumping confidence and invincibility. Welcome to Iron Man.
The vehicles are caked in dust, but are still alien to the light brown landscape that they are rumbling through. Though care is taken to show the vehicles up close, they still seem small in the larger valley. An Afghan local, this having been identified as Kunar Province, walks by with a goat, as sharp a comparison with the Humvee’s as the desert is with the mountains. This is War On Terror America, souped up with large guns and large engines, driving casually through a vista from another world.
We cut to inside one of these Humvee’s. Some really neat characterisation is done here without Tony Stark even being seen. The front passenger turns awkwardly in his seat and looks behind him. The look in his eyes is this strange mixture of fear and nervousness, like he can barely believe who’s actually sitting behind him. He quickly looks away. We see a hand holding a glass of whiskey, the ice clinking. The arm is wearing a suit. Such a thing is entirely alien to this vehicle and to the other people in it, as much as the Humvee’s are to the landscape of Afghanistan. The soldier opposite this VIP stares at the whiskey like he is staring at the hand of God. It is only then that we see one Tony Stark, but we already know a bit about him: he’s important to be riding in a vehicle like this, he’s rich if he has that suit (and that drink) and from the looks he’s getting, he’s somebody of some fame. Simple characterisation, so vital to the Stark figure, and we haven’t even had any dialogue yet. For his part Stark just stares back, not with any kind of awkwardness, but with incredulity. Before he opens his mouth the sense is of a man thinking “What is wrong with you guys?”
The first line of dialogue can be just as important as the first shot. Here’s Tony’s:
I feel like you’re driving me to a court-martial. This is crazy. What did I do? I feel like you’re going to pull over and snuff me… What, you’re not allowed to talk?
It’s close to perfect. Immediately we know that Stark is a man with a sense of humour, that he likes to make himself the centre of attention and that he wants to talk to people. Yes, he’s a VIP, but being stoically aloof isn’t his style.
The first person to properly respond to Stark is the driver, who’s a woman, something we’re only seeing now. She isn’t turning to look at Tony and causally remarks:
No, you intimidate them.
This is also important. It’s the two men in the car who seem obsessed with Tony. This woman, not so much. The men are looking at him like they’re looking at a legend, and we can infer from that something very specific, something that Tony confirms with his next few lines.
Good God, you’re a woman. I honestly… I couldn’t have called that. I mean, I’d apologise, but isn’t that what we’re going for here? [the airmen smile] I thought of you as a soldier first.
I’m an airman.
You have, actually, excellent bone structure there… I’m kind of having a hard time not looking at you now… Is that weird? [everyone laughs]…Come on, it’s okay, laugh.
Even more about Tony here. He’s a charmer and a flirter and he says these lines completely deadpan, not even smiling. If the driver was trying to one-up him, she’s failed. Stark just takes it and throws it back at her, but in as good-natured a way as possible. He knows his audience, and satirises the “PC” way of looking at women in the military. And then he goes into full flirtatious territory, but we can tell he isn’t very serious about it. It isn’t that the driver is unattractive in reality (I suppose she’s not a bombshell) but this interaction just shows that Tony has the confidence to say something that other women might find offensive, knowing he’ll get a positive reaction. And he does. She laughs, everyone else does too. The ice is broken.
Tony takes a question from the front seat passenger, and its more perfection for characterising him:
Is it true you went 12 for 12 with last year’s Maxim cover models?
That is an excellent question. Yes and no. March and I had a scheduling conflict, but fortunately, the Christmas cover was twins.
Stark is funny, making sure this is the best possible answer for laughs. But he also makes sure we’re not really certain if this is true or not. I mean, we can well believe that this guy is a “player” alright but this does sound a bit rehearsed. But he replies so smoothly, whipping off the fancy sunglasses as he does so as if looking the soldier dead in the eyes will reinforce the truth of what Stark says. It gets better:
Anything else? [Forrest raises his hand] You’re kidding me with the hand up, right?
I just love that line so much. “Forrest” has betrayed his nervousness in being around Stark, and Tony just responds so beautifully, dismissive, but not in a snide way. This is a famous guy, with the gift of the gab and a personality that exudes charm, but he’s also cool enough to not want other people to treat him like some authority figure.
This is also one of the first examples of the MCU’s usually seamless ability to throw in simple but effective comedy moments to lighten the tine as much as it needs to be lightened. It’s snarky and throwaway, but it just fits.
Stark agrees to take a picture with Forest and agrees to let him throw up a “Peace” sign. As this happens, Tony says something else rather flippant, but this has a more serious connotation:
Yeah, peace. I love peace. I’d be out of a job with peace.
This is the pre-kidnapping Tony Stark in a nutshell. He’s made his fortune through guns and he doesn’t really care that much. He’ll joke about it, and treat the word “peace” like some minor irritant. It’s laughable to him, the idea of a world with peace. Compare this to the guy, one film from now, claiming that he has “successfully privatised world peace”.
The soldiers mess around with a camera, the interior is still awash with good cheer. You’d never suspect what was coming.
Throughout the following sequence we stay almost entirely within the Humvee, and that’s a good choice. There’s a brief exterior shot to get a larger look at the exploding Humvee – if you’re spending the cash on blowing one up you want to make sure the audience can see it I suppose – and you also see the driver get shot dead from an exterior shot.
But everything else up to Stark stumbling out of the wrecked vehicle is internal, and that’s perfect. It’s only then, when the guns are firing, the sound of bullets striking metal ringing through the air and the soldiers trying to move clumsily out the doors with their weapons, that you really understand how small that interior space is. Here, when the action starts, it turns from just a locale for a couple of guys and one gal to laugh and trade jokes into a total death-trap, where its suddenly dark, cramped and no kind of refuge from the bad guys shooting outside.
The three soldiers are quickly killed in succession. Stark, torn from his comfort zone is stunned to see all three of these people die so fast, after joking with them just a moment ago. He asks for a gun from the last one, and the words are barely out of his mouth when the Humvee is rocked by shrapnel, tearing its metal plating apart with ease.
He stumbles outside, but there’s no respite here. Smoke swells across the screen, other soldiers are getting shot down behind Stark. Very importantly for creating that terrible sense of confusion and terror, the attackers are nowhere to be seen. Stark, this odd suited figure trapped in a desert warzone, ambles with no amount of grace away from the road, that oft-used ringing effect still clinging to the audio track (it’s overused for a reason, its effective). The shots here are all clinging to the figure of Stark without taking in much of the surrounds, to make sure that we retain that feeling of being caught, unprepared, in a war zone, with a limited field of view and no idea of the larger situation.
Stark finds a rock to hide behind and two more important things happen. First, he takes out his phone, presumably to call for help or something. This shows his reliance on technology, and how when the chips are down, at this point, it’s the first thing that he turns to. It’s all he can turn to. He’s dependent on it, and how he is forced to operate without it, in a primitive environment, will be on the keystones of the first act.
And then a rocket lands next to him with whump. A sudden close-up effect, meant to embody Stark’s own surprise at what he sees, shows the words written on it clearly: “Stark Industries”. This starts us into the larger plot of Iron Man proper, investigating how such weapons wound up being fired at American soldiers. Who are the attackers?
Stark only has just enough time to express shock before he’s scrambling to escape, but he can’t. He’s thrown back by the explosion.
A downward shot shows us Stark, looking suitably befuddled and stunned. His clothing seems pocketed with holes – only those aren’t holes. The mounting horror is brilliantly executed as the drops of blood spread across that crisp, clean shirt. The music drops, the camera start panning away, and Stark rips off his shirt revealing a bulletproof vest that was unable to stop the damage. The light closes in. Is Stark dying? Is this his end? Of course not, but that sense of the unknown is what director Jon Favreau manages to achieve, at least partially.
The glare turns to a strange interwoven pattern with a blazing light behind, until it gets whipped away. A strange language, Arabic perhaps, is being spoken rapidly by a man close by. Stark squints at the sudden intrusion of total light. He’s bruised, bloodied and surrounded by armed men. His own eyes open wide as he sees’s what’s actually happening around him, even as the camera pans back to include the audience in Stark’s sudden understanding. It’s every American in Afghanistan’s worst nightmare: captured and paraded on television by the bad guys, at the mercy of the men who want to destroy “the Great Satan”. Fans of the comics will also have immediately noticed the banner behind Stark, which looks like several rings interlocked in a circle, the sort of minor hint the MCU excels in.
Then a sudden crash cut to the title of the film, which comes with the ringing of a hammer on steel, simple and brutally quick, to really reinforce the sense of shock and suddenness of events on the audience.
This opening action scene is painfully realistic, by which I mean it’s something that the audience would have no problems accepting, or even being disturbed by if they are American. Remember this film came out in 2008, and the idea of an American military convey getting bushwhacked in the middle of desolate Afghanistan was not only very believable, but an accepted part of the war effort.
For The Film
The entire opening sequence is just great. Favreau has established so much about the Stark character in just four minutes, as well as introducing us to some of the key themes of Iron Man: the beginnings of Stark’s character evolution, the proliferation of weapons in the Third World and the state of the American military ego in the modern age of asymmetric warfare. The stakes have also been set quite high in these opening minutes, with death and destruction all around, and the main character left very badly injured.
Compare with a few others from the MCU. The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3 and The Winter Soldier’s are far more low key with their opening few minutes, which could be viewed as a detriment in a way. This isn’t always a bad thing, but for a film like Iron Man – that is, a comic book movie – a strong opening that hooks the audience in early is vital and sometimes some action, even of a basic level, is required to do that. Iron Man pulls that off without going too far with the action altogether (in fact, the more comic book style stuff will be limited to only the finale really).
And that very small hint for the greater plotline, the “Stark Industries” logo on the rocket, is enough to preview the more engaging story to come, beyond the personal liberty or imprisonment of Stark himself.
Though I rate Iron Man quite high as an origin story, its general framework is still generic enough. Tony Stark as we open has to be weak and to an extent powerless, so that we can see him rise up, gain some measure of power somehow, and fundamentally change himself so that he can be worthy of the title “hero”. His weakness is established in these opening shots in the two necessary ways. One, he’s morally weak (for lack of a better term) as he’s clearly arrogant, misogynistic (confirmed to a greater extent in the next few minutes), flippant and over-reliant on technology. Two, by the end of this opening he’s physically weak and endangered, badly wounded and at the mercy of masked gunmen.
But these first few minutes also makes sure that Tony Stark is likable despite some of his more potentially irritating flaws. He’s funny, he’s relaxed in strained circumstances, he’s confident and, of course, he’s immensely charming.
Next time, we’ll jump back a day to confirm the in medias res aspect of the opening and take a greater look at the pre-Iron Man Stark.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.