Clothes make the man in superhero action flicks


Published: Wednesday, October 1, 2008 at 1:51 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, October 1, 2008 at 1:51 p.m.

In the next few months, the video stores will be jammed up with all manner of superhero movies. "Hancock," "Incredible Hulk," "Hellboy 2," "Wanted" and "The Dark Knight" are all coming soon. But the first superhero to storm your home entertainment systems is "Iron Man."

As the saying goes, "the clothes make the man." This is very true of superhero movies in general, which sometimes can only be differentiated by the colors of the spandex costume.

It is especially true of Tony Stark, who, as an eccentric super-genius playboy billionaire, wears a tuxedo when he needs to appear rich, and creates himself a super-suit when he finds himself captured by terrorists. The man underneath the clothes is always the same: deeply flawed, cavalier, arrogant. But what he wears can change him into a different person entirely.

Robert Downey Jr. stars as Tony Stark, a man who is insanely wealthy because of his brilliant talent of creating weapons, which he then sells to the military. After a field demonstration of his newest bomb, Stark is gravely wounded and captured by a terrorist cell. The bad guys force him to make a weapon for them but instead he makes a crude suit of armor, heavily loaded with guns, and shoots his way free.

Back in the States, Stark finds himself conflicted. He is a party animal by nature with a great many lady friends and too many nights of drunken debauchery, but now he finds himself driven to right some of the wrongs he has witnessed. And so he creates a high-tech suit of armor with jet-boots, repulser blasters, shoulder-rockets and enough gadgets to make Batman jealous.

This could have all been standard-issue superhero stuff, not much different from anything we've seen before. But the origin of Iron Man isn't what makes "Iron Man" a great movie; it's all in the characters.

Downey is amazing in the role; he makes the character charming and sympathetic even though he is a complete jerk most of the time. But he is a smart man and smart people are all too rare in the movies these days. He surrounds himself with other smart people: his whip-smart military liaison friend (Terrence Howard), his stalwart assistant (Gwyneth Paltrow) and his business partner (Jeff Bridges) who may or may not but into some shady side-deals.

"Iron Man" is funny and action-packed but smart enough that will still appeal to people who don't ordinarily like superhero movies.

The clothes make the man and the Iron Man armor is one righteous outfit.

The same can't be said for "The Tuxedo," in which the high-tech clothes actually weigh down the main character and make him boring. The man in this case is also known as The Man Jackie Chan, one of the living legends of kung-fu movies. I recently heaped praise on him for his work in "The Forbidden Kingdom" but "The Tuxedo" reminds me that even Jackie has some dogs in his filmography.

Chan is a goofy, hapless driver for a suave super spy. When the spy is put into a coma, Chan is called into action in his place. He puts on the spy's tuxedo and finds that it is filled with gadgets and can even fight for him and turn him into a kung-fu master. So he teams up with Jennifer Love Hewitt to finish the spy's mission and save the world.

There is a lot wrong with "The Tuxedo" but its greatest sin is that it has Jackie Chan and doesn't use him properly. Here is one of the all-time greats in the realms of physical comedy, slapstick, acrobatics and fight scenes. And what do they do to him? Stick him inside a suit that fights for him. What a waste of talent. It's like making Stevie Wonder sit at an automated player piano or making Jackson Pollock do paint-by-numbers. It just doesn't make any sense.

For this and many other reasons, "The Tuxedo" is arguably the worst Jackie Chan movie ever made. And it's all the fault of the clothes.

Ellen Ripley isn't particularly concerned with fashion or what she wears, but she is smart enough to know when a new outfit will help her save the day. In "Aliens" she battles hoards of alien monster in her tank top. When a little girl is nabbed by the Alien Queen, the biggest, foulest, most dangerous beastie of them all, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) jumps into a hydraulic-powered mechanical exo-skeleton and calls out the Queen for a fist fight.

Ripley is strong, tough and as capable as any woman who has ever fought monsters. But sometimes even the best of us need to dress for success and when she dons the massive metal suit, it becomes a classic movie moment. "Aliens" is an incredible movie otherwise and this final showdown is like the cherry on top of a jumbo-sized hot fudge sundae.

So what have we learned here today? That what you wear to beat someone up can be a tremendous boon or a horrible burden. When it works, it is because the exterior enhances the already present inner qualities: Ripley wears a suit of strength to mirror her own inner strength and Tony Stark makes a flashy, powerful suit based on his own arrogance, his belief that only his genius is capable of making the world a better place.

And when it doesn't work, it's because the exterior runs counter to the human beneath it. Don't put John Wayne in a clown outfit, don't put Jodie Foster in a cheerleader's uniform and don't let Jackie Chan wear a tux that fights for him.

On a side note, stay tuned through the closing credits of "Iron Man" (or fast forward through them, if you're like me) for a special bonus scene that serves as a teaser for future superhero movies. You get a cameo from a terrific actor and the promise of not only more Iron Man, but a super-team lead by Iron Man. Groovy.

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