‘The Irishman’ vs ‘Iron Man’: Both Great American Cinema

As it turns out, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Marvel Studios’ Iron Man are two great works of American cinema, if “great” is used in the sense of high significance, somewhere between “representative of their respective genres” and “super-sized with extra bacon, please.” Spoilers for The Irishman to follow:

Both The Irishman and Iron Man center on a charming lead character whose job is to beat the hell out of people, or kill them. Robert De Niro and Robert Downey Jr.’s performances are key to the whole thing. The affable manner, and/or rakish joie de vivre, distracts effectively from their swaths of sheer destruction. 

They are as important as movies are, that is, equally meaningless and life-changing, depending on taste. The Irishman is full of ridiculously-named folks like the Razor, the Hunchback, Whispers, which is no more or less weird than people calling themselves Hawkeye or Ghost. The project of endearing an audience to the career criminal’s journey requires as much reality-detachment as the myth of superheroes vs. costumed villains. If there’s some sort of conceptual competition over which genre is more silly, in this case, they tie. 

Both achieve their effect with style conventions that are specific to their genres, and not much else. This is not a knock. Good execution without innovation can make for a full success, as in, let’s say, a Thanksgiving dinner. In The Irishman, it’s the gangster-film motifs well-known from those other Scorsese films Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed, and still as seductive: the guys in suits in old-fashioned restaurants, the period music, the rough and sentimental language. In Iron Man, it’s the shine of the armor, the imagined roar of boot jets, the fight with the bigger metal monster, all of them well-executed versions of stuff that happens in virtually every Iron Man comic.  

The spectre of war hangs over both narratives. Frank’s deployment in World War II and Tony’s role as an arms manufacturer inform both character arcs. Of course, The Irishman is more grounded in real-world events and technology.

It’s possible that both films set bad examples for our dumb president to emulate. Trump & Co. are notorious for their poor performance of gangster film conventions, with the crudely-coded speech (“Some people are a little concerned”) and weak macho bluster. It often seems that The Irishman gangsters resort to contract murder because they’re astoundingly bad at talking to each other. In one scene where Jimmy Hoffa sits down with a rival boss, ostensibly for an important negotiation, they can’t get past petty quibbling about the weather and wardrobe choices. It’s as galling as Trump “proclaiming” policy on Twitter. Tony Stark has superior people skills, to be sure. He also has the absurd wealth to address problems of his own making (rogue arc reactors, Ultrons, etc).

Both films depict attempts at redemption after a lifetime formed in the business of violence. In The Irishman, the reflective moment comes as a coda, in Iron Man, it’s the motivating turn of the first act. Either way, it’s the same reach for an empathetic change of heart. Arguably, the Irishman is the more machine-like character, for a much longer stretch of his film; but also, his golden-years grandpa vibe is more relatable than Tony Stark’s hyper-GQ lifestyle, which definitely draws from the visual vocabulary of Goodfellas. 

Both are pretty focused on white males, The Irishman moreso. The Scorsese Cinematic Universe indulges in a lot of casual racial slurs and misogynist stereotypes, to the point where they’re a trope of the form. For a film with epic historical sweep, The Irishman’s America is conspicuously Eurocentric. Is there even a Chinese restaurant glimpsed, anywhere? Only in the last fifteen minutes are there scenes with a perspective change, from Frank’s adult daughter, from Frank’s nurse.

Neither film does anything at all “unexpected.” Circling back to the dinner menu analogy, they’re both like a good steak dinner you might’ve enjoyed a hundred times before. The Irishman is about a tough guy employed by a mob boss to shoot people, and also has feelings about it. Iron Man is about a superhero guy who fights some threats to the populace, and wins. Two minutes of research on Martin Scorsese gangster films or Marvel Comics will equip you with what happens — it’s supposed to be the way it happens that counts. So Scorsese’s perfectly good argument that “cinema is an art form that brings you the unexpected” is entirely missing from his homage-heavy film. For recent non-superhero cinema that truly surprises and innovates, there’s films like Sorry To Bother You, The Lobster, Hustlers, all unconventionally cast and constructed. In the case of these two Manly movies, as Joe Pesci/Russell Bufalino insistently says as if it explains something, “it is what it is.”