The Writer’s Perspective – 13/05/08


So ‘Iron Man’ has made a motza at the box office. As I write this, it’s raked in more than $200 million worldwide – and that’s before you factor in the next few weeks, DVD sales and any other residuals. But in this case, those aren’t the interesting statistics. The two most interesting statistics are the ratings:IMDB: 8.3
Rotten Tomatoes: 93%

Holy shit. Not only do the punters and critics agree on this one, the critics like a popcorn action movie MORE than the hoi polloi. Even on Metacritic, which has a preponderance of sneering, elitist, fantasy-is-only-good-for-allegory reviewers, Iron Man is sitting on 78%. What’s going on?

It might seem like an aberration from the norm, but the explanation is simple. ‘Iron Man’ has something very few comic book adaptations have had: a consistent tone.

What is tone? To put it simply, it’s the manner in which a movie speaks to the viewer. If a film has an even tone throughout its two hours, it lulls the viewer into that semi-hypnotic state where they forget they’re sitting in a cinema. It happens when the characters are properly fleshed out and behave according to their own particular set of moral values. It happens when the storyline is believable and does not rely on contrivances to further the plot (although leeway is allowed in the more speculative genres).

Explaining tone can be a little abstract, so here’s an example. Let’s say you have a character who is an aristocrat and has spent most of the movie speaking in a refined manner and displaying impeccable manners. Then she says:
“My husband and I have a regular after-dinner routine. We have a farting competition. We rip as many smelly farts as we can, and whoever does the most in ten minutes wins.”

Unless it’s a comedy, it’s clearly going to jar the audience. And while this might be an extreme example, it’s not so far removed from some comic book movies that preceded ‘Iron Man’. Critics of ‘Daredevil’ (2003) often leap upon the playground fight scene between Daredevil and Elektra as one reason they disliked the movie, and there is also Spidey’s infamous dance routine and emo attitude that made ‘Spider-Man 3’ the most disappointing of Sam Raimi’s trilogy.

The same holds true for ‘X-Men 3’ – Brett Ratner brought a more ditzy, callow tone to a comic book series that had in its previous two instalments opted for ‘gritty with occasional moments of humour’.

In each case, one scene’s tone contradicted another. This usually happens when a writer and/or director does not get a clear idea of what they want their movie to be or fails to maintain it throughout. ‘The Punisher’ (2004) is a prime example. The dark nihilistic scenes generally worked well, but whenever the scriptwriter(s) tried to inject humour the movie fell flat on its face – The Punisher’s fight with The Russian, for instance. And ‘Hulk’ (2003)? That movie was as schizophrenic in tone as its main character.

Look at the most successful comic book adaptations and the things they have in common are a clear vision and a consistent tone. The filmmakers knew what sort of film they wanted to make and set about making it. To put it in boring business terms, they stayed on message. It seems to be especially important in the comic book movie sub-genre, perhaps because the subject matter is larger than life to begin with. If it goes off track, it goes WAY off track.

‘Superman’ (1978), ‘Spider-Man 2’ (2003), ‘X-Men 2’ (2003) and now ‘Iron Man’ all picked a particular tone and stuck with it. While each had its individual strengths, a well-defined tone was the common thread that led to commercial – and critical – success for all.

In the case of ‘Iron Man’, it once again vindicates Marvel’s decision to start its own studio and produce its own intellectual property. Even with (count ’em) four screenwriters, ‘Iron Man’ found a good balance between humour, action, quirkiness, politics and technobabble – and made these disparate elements work as a whole. Sure, it has its flaws – Pepper Potts’ character has less substance than wet cotton candy, for instance – but the great thing about a unified tone is that it can help smooth over such imperfections.

Director Jon Favreau might never win an Academy Award, but it seems more than a few doubters owe him an Iron Monger-sized apology. Let’s hope Louis Leterrier and Ed Norton can match him with retooling of ‘The Incredible Hulk’.