Written originally as a sample essay for Media Studies, this review is a story and production element analysis of five key scenes.
Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (2008) is a suspenseful, action-packed comic book adaptation with strong comedic touches. It explores arms magnate Tony Stark’s transformation into a superhero and the effect this has on his relationships with various colleagues. Favreau explores these themes by employing a variety of story and production elements appropriate to the superhero genre, while maintaining a consistent style. Favreau’s use of these elements will be analysed through five key scenes that represent the film.
The film opens with Tony (Robert Downey Jr) being transported through a desert setting with a military team, before they are attacked by unknown forces. The soldiers’ admiration of Stark is made evident by the casual tone of the dialogue and their playing diegetic music (a rock song) in the jeep. Tony is further depicted as an impressive figure by being introduced through close-ups of his whiskey glass and suit before he is fully revealed. When the enemy strikes, the style of the scene changes completely to reflect the shift in mood. Heavy sound effects are used to represent gunfire and explosions, their impact accentuated by an absence of music. Lighting, previously subdued, is harsh and bright, exposing us to the unforgiving desert conditions. The road to Tony’s transformation into a heroic figure comes with specific production techniques. The revelation that the enemy’s weapons bear his name is reinforced with a quick zoom in, and the impact of his injury from it is depicted from Tony’s point of view, the soundtrack hollowing out and a bird’s eye view of him receding as the image flares to white, giving the impression of an out of body experience.
As Tony refines the technology that has kept him alive since the attack, he calls on his personal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) to assist in replacing his miniature arc reactor with an improved model. The scene is an intimate one, reflecting the will-they-won’t-they nature of their relationship. The camera is principally limited to close-ups and mid shots, emphasising the connection between Pepper and Tony, and the results of her efforts. Lighting concentrates on Tony’s exposed chest and the faces of these friends, emphasising their emotions and the actions that bring them about. Sound effects and dialogue delivery lend the scene a sexual subtext, underlining the potential consequences of the characters’ closeness. By scene’s end, Pepper decides to keep the old reactor, a decision that will later prove vital.
Towards the film’s midpoint, Tony tests his newly built Iron Man suit in the field for the first time by attacking the very terrorists who attacked him. Another action sequence, this scene plays out more conventionally than the jeep attack while maintaining a similar style. Music is conspicuous in its absence, except where a non-diegetic heroic theme (accompanied by low angles of Iron Man) signals Tony’s victory at scene’s end. Lighting is bright and overexposed to reflect a return to the region the opening scene was set in. Dialogue is reduced to subtitled chatter and a few phrases from Tony, visuals emphasised by the wide variety of shot types and angles used. Sound effects become crucial in emphasising the impact of the violence depicted.
An ironic counterpoint to the earlier ‘operation’ scene is an equally intimate moment that serves as a turning point on Tony’s journey. Obidiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), his business partner-turned-traitor, paralyses Tony and steals his arc reactor v2.0. The lighting is ominously dark, an open fire casting sinister shadows across Obidiah’s face, while the blue-white light from the reactor accentuates Tony’s deathly pallor during this life-threatening event. Tony, unable to speak, listens as Obidiah explains his motives in a sinister tone, the reactor removed to the accompaniment of a rending crunch that emphasises the seriousness of the act. Tony here finds himself with his greatest uphill battle: Obidiah has the reactor and intends to power his own suit with it, and Tony is dying, powerless to stop his former friend.
The film concludes with a massive action sequence, Tony having reclaimed the reactor Pepper had saved so he can fight back. Tony still has many challenges ahead of him: Obidiah’s suit is bigger, Tony’ reactor is less powerful, and Obidiah has threatened to kill Pepper if he wins. The danger of the situation is made clear during a freeway fight in the final battle. Most of the lighting in this night sequence comes from car headlights, constantly reminding us of the peril faced by innocent bystanders. (This peril is emphasised by sound effects like car horns and screeching tyres playing in favour of music.) Inside his suit, Obidiah is cast in red light, making him look evil. We only hear him speak through the suit, so he sounds robotic and inhuman; whereas Tony’s few lines are heard from inside his suit, in his normal voice. Low angles make Obidiah’s impressively large suit look even bigger. The overall effect is that Tony has a hard road to victory.
While an entertaining superhero movie, Iron Man ultimately fails in spending too much time developing its superhero before he is seen in action. The cause and effect of the story is often too obvious, and Obidiah becomes a stereotypical villain. However, Favreau’s unusual handling of the film’s production elements, together with the excellent characterisation of Tony and Pepper, make this a film worth seeing.
Next week: Additional teaching resources to accompany this sample essay.