Small-Screen Hero

I’ll admit to needing some major tutelage in the category of summer blockbuster/ superhero movies. I guess I left off at Spider-Man or I’ve just been too busy watching Hoarders while buried under piles of stuff.  But I had no idea Iron Man 2 is expected to be the biggest grossing movie in history, and that the fanboy crowds at Comic-Con started throbbing in anticipation of the big-bucks sequel more than a year ago. OK, I’ll say it: I didn’t see the first one.

But I love Robert Downey Jr., not only for his acting, but for being smart, funny and painfully honest. And I’ve always had a soft spot for Marvel heroes because, like humans, they’re majorly flawed — not to mention they usually have some sort of manservant at their disposal, and I’ve always wanted one.

I particularly feel for the Incredible Hulk, that poor, humongous, green thing. He constantly has to restrain himself and figure out how to keep his aggression in check. (Just like an ex-boyfriend, ba-bum.)

The character Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, is not just dark, but (arguably!) the smartest Marvel hero, what with all them advanced degrees from MIT. He has also overcome an alcohol problem. Having Downey play him is a shrewd move. And while many people can identify with the Hulk, no character’s background is a more inspired human metaphor than ol’ IM’s — he literally has a buggy nervous system and a problem in his machine heart.

The prospect of loading what seems to be such a sharp-witted movie with a bazillion product placements sounded pretty awful. With more than 11 major sponsors on board for Iron Man 2, it’s a textbook set-up for an over-commercialized nightmare.

So it’s a pleasure and a relief to watch this Dr Pepper tie-in, the first for the soft drink maker, from Deutsch/LA. In only 30 seconds, the spot manages to be as charming, clever, layered in metaphor and technologically awesome as the Marvel character himself. (I like it, I really like it.)

Part of the reason the Dr Pepper spot looks so crisp and credible is that it features both the actual suit and set from the movie:  Working closely with Marvel (and starting on the project more than a year ago), the creative team reassembled some key pieces of the famed Stark laboratory.

Also, the same technical crew that worked on the all-important fancy-schmancy, techno-Marvel suit — which is all done in CGI — also worked on the ad.

Another authentic element (and bright spot) is the cameo appearance of a uniformed Stan Lee as the janitor polishing up a glass case that holds one of the suits. He’s the founder and creator (or co-creator) of all the Marvel characters, and a pretty marvelous character in his own right. He’s 87-years-old and, with his signature, oversized aviator glasses, he looks mighty suave, like he could be the world’s most interesting man. (OK, nobody’s perfect, and he really could calm down the back-combed bouffant aspects of his Larry King-style hair. Just sayin’.)

Lee is big on cameos — he appeared in 2008 in the original Iron Man escorting three blonde women, and the joke is that Stark, something of a ladies’ man himself, mistakes him for Hugh Hefner.

But just having Lee there acting all delightfully deadpan and winsome, and putting elbow grease into his dusting, lends extra polish to the spot. It gives it the kind of charming, self-aware tone that was so apparent even in the movie’s trailer. The fanboys must be over the moon about it.

The cleverest part, which also doesn’t take itself too seriously, is what happens to the other janitor in the Stark Industries coveralls. As he stands too close to the lab’s suit-up area, Stark’s computerized assistant (voiced by Paul Bettany, as in the movie) mistakes him for Tony himself and says, “Good evening, Mr. Stark. How may I assist you?”

The young actor, who has a really expressive face, looks shocked. Recovering, he responds, “Suit me up?” The voice says, “As you wish, sir.” The high-techno dressing that follows is thrilling. Then we hear, from inside the “suit,” “Aw, come on!” The janitor dude is trapped inside a big, solid, but cool- and futuristic-looking Dr Pepper vending machine in red, Iron Man’s signature color.

What a clever way to brand it as a Dr Pepper spot. Not only is it entertaining to watch the vending machine come to life (and it’s a real machine), but it fits in perfectly with the theme: the suit is a machine! (There are also special commemorative Iron Man cans, which are wonderfully designed.)

It’s one solid tie-in for the movie and one visual leap for Dr Pepper.