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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: Brad Bird

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Who stuck an adaptation of the 1999 cartoon The Iron Giant into the middle of Iron Man 3? Not that I’m complaining. Even The New Yorker loved it (as opposed to the formulaic explosions that bookend the movie). Robert Downey Jr.’s abrasive bromance with 11-year-old Ty Simpkins is the film’s brightest and most unexpected subplot. Though it also adds to the film’s overall incoherence. Which, again, might be a good thing. Not since Tim Burton was defining the superhero blockbuster in a single bound have we gotten such a (to use Tony’s term) “hot mess” of a movie.

Even before the young Mr. Simpkins’ entrance, Iron Man 3 was straining its thematic rivets. Aside from the obligatory bad guy machinations, the story scaffold looks like your standard marriage plot variety. Yes, Tony and Pepper are already together at the start, not married exactly, but at least, you know, whatever. Tony quickly overturns the domestic bliss by sending one of his remote control drones to romance his girl while he finishes some work in the lab (anyone notice that Shane Black and Drew Pearce lifted the scene from Watchmen?). Tony is literally phoning it in, and Pepper’s stuck with his empty shell.

Soon the robot drone is jumping into bed with them (yep, Watchmen again) and Pepper is packing. Next thing she’s climbing inside some other super-genius’s brain, and Tony’s pal warns he’s going to lose her if he doesn’t change. Which he does. When things start exploding, he remote controls that robot suit to encase her instead of himself. It’s actually a bit poignant—especially when Iron Pepper returns the favor by shielding him a moment later.

The weird thing though? We’re only about thirty minutes in. Sure, there’s a reprise when Pepper saves him a second time at the climax, followed by the formal exploding of the Iron drones in evidence of Tony’s now focused devotion to Pepper. He even chucks his cyborg heart over a cliff in the epilogue.

But romance is not the machine driving this movie. In addition to becoming a less dickish boyfriend, Tony has to get over the PTSD brought on by his near-death in The Avengers. This is fairly new terrain for a superhero plot and is one of several ways the specter of Afghanistan haunts the movie. The platoon of regenerative thugs are all maimed soldiers who literally grow back lost limbs. Osama Bin Laden is played by the Mandarin—who is played by a Baptist minister—who is played by a washed-up British actor—who’s played by Ben Kingsley—who most of us remember best as Gandhi. Terrorism, it turns out, is not the problem. It’s the War on Terrorism. Which might explain why the President looks like George Bush and not Barack Obama—especially when he’s being rescued by Don Cheadle. So when Tony blows up his armada of Iron Drones, he’s also saying goodbye to a military policy a lot of Americans would like to see go too.

Except when exactly is it that Tony gets over all that pesky post-traumatic stuff? He’s been tinkering in his basement for months, so why does one Home Depot shopping spree turn him into a McGuiver-esque 007? And what does it mean that he promises Pepper he’ll catch her and then can only watch with us as she plummets to her (apparent) death? And if both the romance plot and the foreign policy allegory agree on vanquishing all that deadly hardware, why does the newly superpowered Pepper need an extra boost of tech to put the bad guy down a final time?

Maybe this is where Ty Simpkins and The Iron Giant come in.

If you’ve not seen the Brad Bird movie, I highly recommend it. My daughter adored it when she was four. A mail-functioning robot crashlands in smallville where a father-less boy hides it in his shed while he and a wacky father-figure partner work to repair it. Sound familiar? It gets better. Like the Iron Man suit, the Iron Giant divides into semi-autonomous pieces, and the story climaxes with the self-sacrificing hero sailing into the sky to prevent a U.S. nuclear warhead from destroying the town. Which, incidentally, is also the climax of The Avengers. The Iron Giant even pays homage to the ur-superhero, Superman, who the Giant emulates to escape his programming as a soulless military machine.

But if being a less dickish boyfriend means finding your inner father figure for a half-orphan, the film mocks the tropes more than it fulfills them. This isn’t Spielberg. It’s a Spielberg parody—a particularly hilarious one. Downey and Simpkins are a comic tag-team that skewer the feel-good formula they’re only half pretending to inhabit. It’s as if we’ve crashlanded in a different movie.

But soon Tony is driving back down the main plotline, his remote control suit soon to follow. And what is it exactly that he learned during the detour? Mock sincerity. Deadpan delivery. Comic timing. All the things we loved about Tony but that no longer worked with Pepper in the room. He had to drop his defenses or lose her. All his jokes were misfires on the home front. So the kid gave him a new comic target. Simpkins replaces Paltrow as sparring partner and straight man. Iron Man is above all else a comedian. Refueled with a live audience laugh track, he’s ready to smash the bad guys again.

This all makes sense for one reason only. Iron Man isn’t Tony Stark. He’s Robert Downey Jr. Yes, Black and Pearce wrote the script, and Paramount dropped some $200 million into the budget, but the film’s structural logic isn’t animated by CGI effects. The movie only works because it’s so damn funny.

Even the post-credit Avengers 2 teaser is pure sketch comedy—Tony and Doc Banner trading barbs in a two-minute therapist routine. The material is pretty hackneyed, but these guys make you want to laugh anyway. Political commentary, character arcs, plot structure—it all melts away when you’re laughing.

Comedy is Iron Man’s real superpower.

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Well, he’d like to be. Mr. Incredible was Santorum’s surprisingly witty answer when asked by nine-year-old Ari Garnick what superhero he most liked. (As previously discussed, the rest of the Republican field went with the yawningly obvious Superman. Republicans in Tights.)

Mr. Incredible is the dad from Pixar’s 2004 The Incredibles. It’s creator, Brad Bird, worked with a budget of $92 million and grossed over $631 million worldwide. Mr. Santorum’s 2011 fundraising budget was under $2.2 million. Until he swept Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri, then he pulled in as much in two days.

But Santorum wasn’t talking cashflow with Ari. He was talking family values: “I would have to go with the guy who played in The Incredibles, because he was a good dad, cared about his family, and cared about his community and tried to do what the right thing was.”

Unfortunately, the Incredibles aren’t the kind of family Mr. Santorum would ever value.

The Incredibles hid their true selves under the name Parr (get it?) because their community hated them for being “super.” Their country even passed legislation to prevent them from living in the open. Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl didn’t choose to have superpowers. Like Lady Gaga, they were born that way. And so were their three kids. Which means a life of pretending to be “normal.”

This is the America Santorum would create for gay people. He declared that homosexuality is the same as bigamy, incest and adultery. The legislation he has in mind is the Marriage Protection Amendment to prevent same-sex marriages anywhere in the country. He would even turn the military clock back to the days before Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell.

So what kind of families does Santorum value?

Well, he says old style “shotgun marriages” weren’t all that bad. And with abstinence-only sex education high on his agenda, you can count on a lot more of them. Fortunately, he’s making sure there are plenty of shotguns cocked and ready. He voted against trigger locks and background checks, and he doesn’t think anyone should ever sue a gun manufacturer. His abstinence plan is double barreled too, because he thinks it will stop poverty (although a higher minimum wage apparently won’t). Stricter divorce laws are in, and mandatory inoculations for children are out, as is public education and state mandated insurance (because then forced sterilization would be okay). English would be the “official” language, and, oh yeah, the division between church and state, that’s out too. Santorum’s American will be a Christian nation the same way Iran is a Muslim one.

So if you’re gay, non-English speaking, not a Christian, be prepared to live like the Parrs. Because under Santorum’s family values agenda, your family is all you’re going to have.

But that actually worked out pretty well for the Parrs. When Mr. Incredible got himself captured by the supervillain Syndrome (currently played by Mitt Romney), his wife snapped on her elastic tights and flew to his rescue. This despite Santorum’s insistence that women not perform combat duties because male soldiers will be distracted with rescuing the damsels-in-arms. (He must have been buying popcorn during Elastigirl’s scenes.)

Santorum also thinks women should stay at home, though he doesn’t seem to mind when Mrs. Santorum moonlights on his behalf. A devoted wife’s domestic chores include writing her husband’s book without receiving credit. Karen Santorum’s name doesn’t appear on the cover of It Takes a Family or in the list of names acknowledged for helping, but Rick recently explained that Karen wrote the section attacking “radical feminists.” When a passage was quoted to him, he said he’d never heard it before. So not only did he not write his own book, he didn’t bother reading it either. (And that might be the only thing he and I have in common.)

The book Santorum should read is Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel–and not because the hero sounds so gay (he’s the only superhero named after a flower). The Pimpernel is the savior of the aristocracy. When the working class rebels, he swoops in and rescues the idle rich. That’s the world Santorum thinks he’s living in under Obama’s liberal mob:  “When you marginalize faith in America, when you remove the pillar of God-given rights, then what’s left is the French Revolution. What’s left in France became the guillotine.” Santorum is even championing the division between the wealthy and the poor: “There is income inequality in America. There always has been and, hopefully, and I do say that, there always will be.” Since he also wants to dismantle the national education system that aids underprivileged children, more income inequality is a political promise he intends to keep.

So, let those home-schooled pregnant teen welfare mothers stay at home and eat cake from an English language cookbook and feed it to their closeted gay husbands after they all get home from church. (Which, sadly, maybe does sum up America.)

Since his three-state sweep, Mr. I-Want-To-Be-Incredible lost in Maine (another non-binding “beauty pageant”), but he tripled Gingrich’s numbers. Next week, it’s Arizona, Michigan and Washington. Then Super ten-state Tuesday a week after that. Despite his moment in the superhero spotlight, I’m praying Santorum, like The Incredibles, won’t have a sequel.

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