Iron Man vs. The Dark Knight
Two crime-fighting billionaires with no super-powers, two great 2008 films. But is the winner so obvious...?
The Dark Knight was nominated in no fewer than eight separate categories in this year’s Oscar nominations, with a posthumous nod in the direction of Heath Ledger’s brilliant portrayal of the Joker joining the usual mish-mash of technical recognitions. But, after grossing more than $1billion worldwide and being met with a relentlessly positive response upon its release, many will feel disappointed by its no-show in the big-hitting categories of best picture or best director.
But lest we forget, TDK wasn’t the only comic book movie released during 2008, and controversial as this might sound, I think the Iron Man team can feel every bit as disappointed to have not been recognised by those in charge of handing out the little gold men. Of course, Downey Jr did get a nod for his role as a dude playing a dude disguised as another dude in the hit and miss Tropic Thunder, but watching both films again I just cant help but ask whether Iron Man is actually a better film than TDK.
Don’t get me wrong, I love TDK, I really do and, without doubt, it is an excellently shot, acted and written film. But, take away the hype and watch both movies through again and I tell you what, there’s not as much to separate the two as you might think. So whilst you fetch your pitchforks and warm up that torch, I thought I’d plead my case and pit the two giants over comicdom against each over.
TDK is the latest in a line of comic book movies (see Batman Begins alongside the first two Spider-man instalments), which has elevated the comic book movie beyond the status of mere popcorn trash to a legitimate source of cultural reference. Gone are the camp costumes and ludicrously silly plots found in the dark days of Schumacher, instead the Nolanverse has serious actors playing gruelling roles exploring the tortured pyches of our protagonists. It is a serious piece of action-drama full of brooding internal conflict and wider spread social commentaries. But, to steal a line from its chief villain, why so serious?
What TDK lacks, Iron Man has in shiny red and gold spades. Watching it back it gave me a real buzz and the film combines its fast paced action with enough beautifully sculpted one-liners to script a Bob Monkhouse stand-up. It’s this sense of levity that leaves the audience with an over-riding sense of joy and what’s more, it does so without sacrificing the exploration of character or a sense of social commentary. Without the weighty three hour running time it’s also a much tighter film than the TDK, which at times, particularly those involving Harvey Dent, felt like it was bludgeoning me over the head with its message like I was some kind of cinema-going whack-a-mole.
The winner: Iron Man
Interestingly there is a lot of similarity between the characters of Batman and Iron Man as both are the non-powered flag bearers of their respective publishers. Even if they inhabit different realms, they both rely on their intelligence and vast fortunes and both struggle with inner demons that drive their mission. So in this clash of titans we have to go to the actors themselves to separate the two.
Firstly, I have to praise Christian Bale, an excellent actor whose pensive style is perfectly suited to both Bruce Wayne and the Batman. But watched back to back I have to say the verve of Robert Downey Jr’s performance blows Bale off the screen. I was sceptical about his casting at first, but he simply is everything Tony Stark should be. He brings a sense of playfulness to the role perfectly delivering the wise-cracks, whilst his chiselled well worn expression shows us that the jokes are merely a guard against the emotional connections he finds so difficult. He humanises an otherwise alien character and, most importantly, he doesn’t growl.
Winner: Iron man
Heath Ledger was one of the standout actors of his generation and his death has robbed us of what would have undoubtedly been some remarkable performances to come. But sadly, the timing of his demise has blurred the boundaries of perception and reality making it impossible to objectively view his performance. Jeff Bridges puts in fine innings as the villain of the piece in Iron Man, but I still have to plump for what I (objectively or not) believe is an astounding portrayal of the Joker in TDK. Ledger’s mannerisms and delivery are highlights of the movie and he really does steal it, although he is helped by a script, which is as much about the Joker as it is the caped crusader.
THE SUPPORTING CAST
I don’t like Gweneth Paltrow; there I said it. I’ll probably have Chris Martin come and pelt my house with quiche now. Seriously though, I’d rather liquidise a SugarBabes album and inject it directly into my brain than watch any of her movies. So, sad as it is for me to say it, but she absolutely crushes Maggie Gyllenhaal in terms of charisma and presence. To be fair, I don’t think that Maggie had the lines and Gweneth was handed some good ones for her role as Stark’s feisty female foil. But look elsewhere and TDK comes up trumps, with a supporting cast including another fine showing as commissioner from Gary Oldman and an equally noteworthy shift from Aaron Eckhart’s sideshow of Harvey Dent.
So I’ve failed to separate two films, which are actually more closely matched than you might think, but my personal vote, and I’m shocking myself by saying this, goes to Iron Man. That might make me about as socially acceptable as a leper in a conga-line, but surely even the most hardened of TDK fans can join in my despair that Iron Man didn’t come anywhere near Oscar recognition.
Sadly, this comes as no surprise, as joy, verve and audience enjoyment, no matter how well executed, do not an Oscar win. Instead, if you want to get up on stage and have a good cry in front of your peers, you need to engage in the sort of relentlessly dark and grim subject matter that the bigwigs over at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences look for, or at the very least have more Nazis than the other nominees.