Tuesday, 28 September 2010

2000AD 1704 & "Iron Man: The Movie"; How Judge Dredd & James Rhodes Didn't Speak Their Mind & Were All The More Moving Because Of It


Every once in a while I'll catch the first of Jon Favreau's "Iron Man" films as it fills up the slack hours of the Sky Movies schedule. Mostly, I'll let it play with the sound turned low and my attention focused elsewhere, for I've little interest in watching the punch-ups for a sixth or seventh time, while the scenes under the mountains of Afghanistan always stuck me as overly-worthy. In fact, for all I'd argue that "Iron Man" is one of the finest superhero movies ever, if not the finest, it's only the character moments that I can still watch over and over again. Pepper Potts electrocuting Stark as she cack-handedly inserts a new artificial heart into him, insisting that he never asks that of her again, and being told in return that Tony has no-one else he can turn to. Stark himself glad-handing the military brass as his weapons flatten the landscape of a nation which will soon come very, very close to bearing his unmarked grave. And my favourite scene, and possibly the single most touching and yet appropriately underplayed moment in any superhero movie that I can think of, wherein Tony Stark is finally rescued from the desert he fled into when escaping captivity. It's a scene completely stolen by Terrence Howard as James Rhodes, who, as Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark collapses in exhaustion to his knees, places a single and unshowy arm protectively round his friend's shoulder and, without misty eyes or sentimental expression, tells Stark;

"Next time you ride with me, alright?"

It's a scene I adore, a scene that I get misty-eyed and sentimental over every time, because it tells the viewer everything they'd ever need to know about the friendship between these two characters, and yet it doesn't do anything as banal or wearing as state its case directly or expressing its meaning explicitly. Rhodes may be declaring his love for Stark, but he's not doing anything as unlikely and overbearing as saying so. What's more, he's alluding to all the depth of fondness that his military heart can't easily express within an everyday statement which establishes very clearly how he views the relationship between the two men. For there's no doubt that he respects Stark as a genius, but he's aware that his friend is also a dilettante and a narcissist, and Rhodes carries an absolute conviction that Stark needs a strong self-disciplined man who's extremely good with very big guns to protect him. When it comes to matters of the intellect, Rhodes may well on occasion defer to Stark, but in any situation more threatening than the purchasing of breakfast in a suburban Burger King, Rhodes regards himself as the alpha male. It's his job to look after Tony, it's a responsibility he assumes without qualification, and he intends to keep the man away from harm as much as he can do from now on.

In fact, there's the strong sense that Rhodes considers Stark something of an idiot, that he's caught between a long-experienced frustration with Stark and an emasculating anger at the situation his friend has become embroiled in. There's that shadow of a weary father boiling down all the various rules of what to do here and what not to do there into a simple, forceful statement that might, just might, keep the little tyke before him out of trouble for a day or two more;

"Next time you ride with me, alright?"

Yet in his restraint, we're also being told that this is a man for whom emotions aren't easily recognised or expressed, and because of that, the very fact that he's so awkwardly communicating himself physically as well as through something of a wisecrack becomes all the more moving. And it's such an incredibly succinct statement of the relationship between the two men that it's remarkable that Marvel Comics haven't noticed how ably it defines how each might relate to the other in the Marvel Universe too. Rhodes, it seems, considers himself to be Tony Stark's older brother, in awe of the "kid's" gifts, and yet absolutely convinced that the neighbourhood bullies, or the Mandarin and the Melter, or whomever, will steal Stark's lunch money as well as his repulsor rays if the good Lieutenant Colonel isn't around.

But how very much less affecting and indeed interesting would the scene have been if Rhodes had been given the following words, if the character had been required to state what he thought and felt literally and precisely rather than being permitted to dance so briefly and movingly around the business of being honest to himself as much as Stark;

"I've been worried sick. I've missed you and I've blamed myself for your predicament. You don't know how to look after yourself, but I do and I should have done better. I'll get you home and we'll make sure you never get hurt again. Or else."

2. "Judge Dredd: The Skinning Man: Part 5" writer:-John Wagner, artist:-Ben Willsher

There's some considerable part of this narrative restraint and emotional inhibition in Judge Dredd's discussion with the wounded Cadet Connors in the last chapter of "The Skinning Room" in this week's Prog. Connors has been impaled by the psychopathic Skinner and lies shaking on the floor of Reysk as Dredd approaches him;

"Doesn't look too bad. Med wagon's on its way. Maybe next time, Connors, you'll come in a little sooner with the daystick."

If the reader were unfamiliar with the character of Dredd, these words would read as flat and uncaring, but they're of course anything but, and the key to making sense of them lies firstly in the order in which Dredd expresses the two clauses of his brief statement. If the admonition to Connor about being too sparing with his application of violence had come first, the Cadet could have no doubt expected censure, if not expulsion, from the Academy as a consequence of his behaviour during this case. But

by placing the reassuring, if apparently disinterested, statement from Dredd that the terrible wound "Doesn't look too bad." first, we're aware that Dredd is expressing, as best as his autistic sensibilities can, concern and sympathy. For we know that Dredd himself wouldn't be able to hide any extreme disappointment had he felt that the Cadet had proven himself bereft of the Right Stuff, and we can be sure that Dredd's undemonstrative attempt to reassure the lad is rooted in professional respect rather than good manners and bourgeois compassion. (Dredd, of course, can express frustration, anger and disappointment far easier than any more unexpectedly revealing and empathetic emotion, which is why the slightest kindness on his part is always so telling.) A Dredd who was unhappy with Connors would find it next to impossible to say anything nearing the coffin-plate reassurance that he offers here, but he's letting Connors know that he's got a career ahead of him as well as a life, and so what seems like the least that any Judge could say to the Cadet in such a situation is in fact for Dredd a rather substantial and even somewhat emotional gesture.

And his advice about the night stick can be read, in that context, as Dredd's way of protecting the Cadet against future harm far more than it is criticism for its own sake.

But the mind shudders at the possibility that a lesser writer might have produced the following;

"Hang on, son. It's serious, but help's on the way. You'll live, I won't let you die, and if you learn from this, you'll make a great judge."

The screen-caps from the first Iron Man movie were found at http://www.leavemethewhite.com/index2.html. My sincerest thanks to whoever did the hard work there.



  1. It's also a point in Dredd's favour that he decides to bring Connors along, deliberately so the cadet can have something to do. That was quite nice of him.

    - Charles RB

  2. Hello Charles - you're right of course. Dredd actually is a rather pleasant character, although that does sound ridiculous, doesn't it? Perhaps that's one of the ways in which the character stays sympathetic to us despite being something of a brute; we hope he'll call an ambulance for us when we get shot, if you will.

    I hope you got my e-mail a few days ago, Charles.

  3. Charles is right, this bit is foreshadowed by the scene at the bottom of the first page. You'd hope someone coming to this without the help of having read a lot of previous progs would be eased into it and realise he isn't such a granite-assed, bar steward after all, without him having to say anything obvious out loud.

    Coincidentally, I stumbled across Dredd killing his deformed clone Nimrod in #1419, it is done to give him a quick death and Dredd apologises twice, then tries to hand his badge in at the end. He doesn't need to say much ("they sure dealt you one helluva hand") and he does need Vienna to show him the way but he comes round in the end.

  4. Hello Emperor:- it is remarkable though, is it not, how many folks have seemed to have believed that Dredd is "granite-assed"? It's as if quite a few readers won't accept any reading other than their own unless it's SHOUTED VERY LOUD at them in the form of a wordy Claremontism. Of course, such a patronising storytelling technique can become self-perpetuating, as each half-a-generation becomes acclimatised to being spoon-fed the bloody obvious in less and less subtle measures.

    You can see the process constantly at work in British TV, where the mixture of the soap opera tradition mixed with a belief that audiences need everything explained to them as if they were very young and thick children leaves even supposedly high-powered documentaries spending their time either telling us what we're going to be told or what we've just been shown, leaving no time at all for detail or subtlety.

    So, huzzah for any creator who can show and not tell. It's a bloody relief.