Hughes as Narcissist – Robert Downey, Jr. in Iron Man
Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (2008) has been universally praised for what it is, a well done but fundamentally generic superhero film. It’s also a pretty good Howard Hughes film. What makes it work on both levels is the inspired casting of Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark, a multi-millionaire/industrialist/inventor clearly based on Hughes.
Downey plays Hughes/Stark as a charming narcissist, a man admired and envied by the public – like the real Hughes – for his wealth, his engineering accomplishments, his willingness to test his inventions personally (the real Hughes test-piloted the aircraft he designed), and his playboy lifestyle. The narcissism of the pre-Iron Man Tony Stark manifests itself in the way he sees other people, i.e., he hardly sees them at all beyond their immediate use to him as workers to be exploited, investors to be conned, or women to be fucked.
That is, until he is captured by Afghan terrorists (Vietnamese Communists in Stan Lee’s original comic story) and a fellow prisoner, Yinsen (Shaun Taub), literally and metaphorically gives him a heart – literally in the sense that the glowing battery Yinsen installs in Tony’s chest (above) keeps shrapnel from entering his heart and killing him, and metaphorically in the sense that Yinsen’s selfless actions inspire Tony to become a genuine armor-clad hero.
The metamorphosis of Tony Stark from heel to superhero reflects the ambivalence the American cinema has always felt toward its capitalist entrepeneurs (see, if you haven’t already, There Will Be Blood). Iron Man gives us a classic good capitalist/bad capitalist dichotomy with Downey as good guy capitalist Tony Stark aka “Iron Man” battling a bald, bearded Jeff Bridges as bad guy capitalist Obadiah Stane aka “Iron Monger.”
I can’t help seeing the casting of Jeff Bridges here as a nod to Francis Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988) in which Bridges plays the good capitalist, Tucker, and the bad capitalist is Hughes himself, played as a deranged genius by Dean Stockwell.