Looking forward to seeing The Avengers again soon – which got me thinking about the first Iron Man movie, and a storytelling flaw that I call the ”Oooh, shiny!” story.
An ”Oooh, shiny!” movie is a movie with an inherent conflict between it’s genre and it’s theme. It thinks it’s making a particular moral statement – indeed, it makes it explicitly in dialogue – but the action and the iconography of the movie contradicts the theme so severely that the audience is effectively seeing a totally different movie.
An example. Eastern Promises, written by Steven Knight, is the story of an idealistic nurse in London trying to protect a baby born to a young Russian prostitute. But I bet the first thing that popped into your head when you saw the title was Viggo Mortensen covered in gang tattoos, menacing our heroine and fighting bad guys.
The movie really wants to be earnest, moral and serious. Often, it is. It has important things to say about international crime, people smuggling and the human cost of the sex trade. But every few scenes, the narrative is pulled off course by the glamour and danger of the Russian Mafia into whose world the heroine is drawn. They’re unusual, visually compelling, carry the promise of action, conflict and danger. They feel much more like the heroes of an underworld thriller than a nice nurse ever will.
Like a magpie who can’t ignore that shiny object just off it’s path, the narrative of Eastern Promises is constantly being distracted from it’s stated theme and purpose. ”Right, we must talk about the evils of people trafficking… But look, there are gangsters over there! With guns! And they’re all exotic and inscrutable! Ooh, shiny!”
Iron Man has exactly the same flaw – it’s action and it’s iconography are at odds with its stated message. The first act is quite an audacious story for a superhero movie: an arrogant billionaire who made his money from armaments is captured by the enemy and forced to create a super-weapon for them. A fellow prisoner teaches him about the human cost of conflict, and he learns for himself what it’s like to be a prisoner of war. Secretly turning his super-weapon into a means of escape, he returns home to shut down his company’s weapons division and devote his talents, and his newly invented power source, to technology that will benefit humankind.
Splendid. Hand that man a Nobel Peace Prize, right? Well, actually, no. Because while he does a lot of clean energy research, etc, the film is actually about him inventing, refining, and using a battle-suit with tremendous offensive capacity. Not a defensive weapon, mark you, but a means of attack. Not only that, but he doesn’t wait to be threatened: he actively goes looking for trouble in it. With the suit on, he’s powerful, glamorous, and he looks damn cool. He’s a hero. Say it with me: ”Oooh, shiny!”
And Tony Stark does much the same things in The Avengers, of course. But you know what? I have no problem with his behaviour there. Because, unlike the first act of Iron Man, The Avengers isn’t pretending to be a serious exploration of the traumas of war. It’s a straightforward tale of traditional heroism and derring-do, where might and right are intrinsically linked, and while heroes don’t start fights, they always finish them. The vigilante code – ”My courage, physical strength, and personal suffering place me above the law, the only one who can save you” – belongs in a story like The Avengers. It doesn’t belong shoulder to shoulder with an apparently serious attempt to say that war is hell.
So, if you have a strongly stated theme, especially one that equates to a particular social or political standpoint, take a good look at how you’re presenting it, and how you’re presenting its opposite.
Of course you shouldn’t be presenting the other viewpoint as a straw man, only there to be knocked down and ridiculed. But it’s worth asking yourself: when the characters representing the two sides of my thematic argument are on screen, is the audience’s eye drawn to the right one? Is your hero embodying your theme in a dynamic, compelling, and convincing way – or are you secretly feeling drawn to the shiny temptations of the Dark Side…?