Iron Man: Episode 1
If promotional materials failed to sufficiently prep you for one of the most bizarre premieres to ever grace the airwaves, then take this as a cue to gird your loins—Iron Man, KBS’s newest addition to the sparse Wednesday-Thursday lineup, has a lot going on. And surprisingly, it’s not just that the hero of the story sprouts a lot of blades, but because his pain has the power to change the world. Literally. I couldn’t make this up if I tried, but now I really want to meet the person who did.
Ratings-wise, Iron Man premiered last with 6.6%. Competitor My Spring Days started out with 8.1%, while It’s Okay, It’s Love’s penultimate episode took the lead with 11.4%.
SONG OF THE DAY
Toxic – “페로몬 (Pheromone)” [ Download ]
EPISODE 1 RECAP
The sun rises on a lavish, modern mansion perched at the top of a well-manicured hill. Inside, a TV remote is beaten against a stair corner until it breaks, while other household furniture items are slashed in half by invisible blades.
Outside, it begins to rain. A tree is also neatly cut in half, as are the raindrops. We seem to be viewing the world from the perspective of someone unsteady on their feet, suddenly finding themselves lying on their back in the rain…
The next morning, the head maid of the household, MADAM YOON (Lee Mi-sook) curses her terrible luck—the “master” of the household has started having episodes again. Could this be related to the destruction from the night before?
She goes to the master bedroom, only to find SECRETARY GO (Han Jung-soo) leaving it. When it becomes clear that Secretary Go doesn’t want her to enter the room, Madam Yoon makes enough of a fuss about how the master wouldn’t want to miss his breakfast that he eventually moves out of her way.
When she reaches the inner door, she alerts the “Chairman” that she’ll be letting herself in. Inside, she finds our hero(?), JOO HONG-BIN (Lee Dong-wook) sprawled out on his bed. He doesn’t open his eyes at first, but sniffs the air like an animal.
Hong-bin suddenly rises and tells Madam Yoon to move back. She does, but he ends up in her personal space anyway to look her in the eyes and bluntly ask why she’s being extra subservient with her words this morning.
Clearly afraid of him, Madam Yoon swiftly apologizes for whatever she did to upset him and explains it away as being due to nervousness. But due to Hong-bin’s alarmingly keen sense of smell, he’s able to identify everything she put in her mouth that morning, down to the brand name of her toothpaste and flavor of her mouthwash.
And because of that same sense of smell, he already knows exactly what food his army of maids is preparing downstairs, and even one ingredient which has gone bad. Madam Yoon reacts with alarm and disbelief, at least until she herself can confirm that he was right about the closed jar of food being spoiled.
While looking for something to wear, Hong-bin keeps throwing shirts out that smell unappealing to him for this or that reason indiscernible to the normal nose, but Secretary Go displays some superhuman abilities himself when he catches a hanger Hong-bin tosses out.
After chewing Secretary Go out for his poor choice in skin products, Hong-bin later growls to himself about his sense of smell being super sensitive lately. He doesn’t seem to understand why.
Hong-bin proves to be just as rough-tempered at work, where he beats up a couple of employees for suggesting a change in their product line. He also seems quite happy with himself when he lobs a laptop at one of their heads (there goes the CG budget), and while their screams can be heard from inside, Secretary Go calmly makes a call to arrange for the room to be repaired and the broken electronics replaced. It’s almost like he’s done this all before.
To say that what follows is a trip to Crazytown with Hong-bin as the mayor would be an understatement, but here goes: After another beating is administered to his employees for their incompetence, Hong-bin makes a hurried speech about how he detests people who can’t do their jobs before switching the subject to his eyes, which suddenly feel like they’re burning out of his skull.
But then, psych! He threatens the employees that he’ll gouge his eyeballs out and use them as bowling balls against them unless they submit their letters of resignation immediately. The two employees commiserate after their boss leaves, swearing to themselves that they won’t be fired, because they’re quitting. For the record, I have no idea what’s going on.
While being chauffeured home by Secretary Go and another indentured servant, Hong-bin crabbily insinuates that the two are sleeping together because they both smell like the same, awful skin product he can’t stand. After he kicks the two of them out and opts to drive himself home, Secretary Go and the chauffeur bicker over him stealing Go’s expensive product.
Hong-bin listens to the news on the drive home, hearing a strange report about a bunch of trees being cut down the middle—and it’s not even an isolated incident, either. This same incident happened two weeks ago on a similarly rainy night like last night, leading the police to believe it’s the work of an insane person.
We meet our heroine, SON SE-DONG (Shin Se-kyung, reprising her role as Shin Se-kyung) as she physically blocks her angry landlord from entering her apartment while protesting her innocence regarding her definitely not allowing men to live in her apartment.
A slow pan of the interior reveals a literal harem of boys sneaking out of the window, while outside, Se-dong continues to argue that her mother didn’t raise her that way.
And maybe her landlord would’ve believed her, if not for the one harem boy who makes a ruckus when he tries to retrieve their shoes from the closet so they can all escape. Luckily for Se-dong, by the time her landlord bursts past her, the apartment is testosterone-free.
But when Se-dong can’t help but stare out the window after realizing the boys have hidden themselves on the ledge, her landlord runs to poke his head out in the hopes of catching them. The boys flatten themselves against the wall to remain unseen, while Se-dong quickly closes a cabinet door containing one of the boys crouched inside.
Once her landlord leaves, she ushers the harem boy under the cabinet to come out… only for him to cry that he can’t, because he’s physically stuck.
So she goes out to grab the rest of the boys, and collectively they all put their backs into freeing their comrade. Because of the noise, Se-dong fails to notice that her landlord has re-entered, and is caught red-handed.
While a man we’ll come to know as SEUNG-HWAN (played by Shin Seung-hwan, who I’m guessing lost the name lottery) runs to the hospital after missing the bus, Hong-bin is forced to visit the two employees he put there.
The smell of the room bothers him so much that he stands by the doorway while Secretary Go hands out promotion notices to the injured men in order to keep them quiet and happy. Ha, I do love Secretary Go’s deadpan congratulatory applause though.
Suddenly, Hong-bin hears voices from the next room, which oddly sound like Se-dong and her harem. He stops outside the curtain with tears in his eyes, just listening.
And it does turn out to be Se-dong and her harem behind the curtain, since the boy who was stuck under the kitchen sink is now sporting a back brace all of them are now scribbling on.
But Hong-bin thinks he hears someone else, a “Tae-hee” specifically, as he pulls back the curtain in emotionally-affecting slo-mo…
Seung-hwan shoves his way past Hong-bin, and no one else seems to notice he’s even there as Se-dong pushes her way past him to leave. Hong-bin’s eyes close as he detects Se-dong’s scent (never thought I’d write that sentence), which prompts a stock image montage of different flowers, fruit, sugar, spice, and everything nice.
On the flip side, when Seung-hwan runs after her, Hong-bin interprets his scent through images of garbage and filth.
Seung-hwan attempts to talk Se-dong out of going to the man who bought their company, even though she doesn’t want the actual company back, but the intellectual property he bought with it. I’m guessing this has something to do with her being an artist, since the “Monstro” thing she keeps mentioning sounds like a character or the title of a game.
Regardless, she thinks that getting whatever-it-is back will save the harem boys from being beaten up like they were today, even though Seung-hwan tries to tell her that the CEO who bought them out, Joo Hong-bin (ring a bell?) is known to be a devil—so much so that not even a picture of him can be found on the internet.
He can’t change her mind, but no sooner does Se-dong leave that Hong-bin is revealed to have been listening in on the entire conversation. He calls Secretary Go to ask if he really does look like a devil, before threatening his loyal manservant with death if he doesn’t pick him up and get him to the company before Se-dong arrives via bus.
Secretary Go proves that there was a use for that “Two trains, each having a speed of 30 km/h…” question we all endured in elementary math class when he calculates the speed they’d need to go to get there faster than Se-dong.
But in their hurry, they collide into another car, with an occupant Secretary Go not only recognizes but also respects by calling him “Elder.” The man walks over to Hong-bin, who’s all but hyperventilating in the backseat as he thinks of the ticking clock winding down, and knocks ominously on the glass.
Se-dong gets sidetracked from her journey when Seung-hwan calls her with bad news: Someone we don’t know called him about someone else we don’t know buying a plane ticket to flee to the States. Whoever it is, she has to stop him.
Hong-bin doesn’t want to acknowledge the elder they hit, even though they seem to have quite the history together—but when the elder wants an apology, Hong-bin vaults over the car in a feat of superhuman agility to kick his chauffeur square in the chest as punishment for him not doing the apologizing.
It becomes very clear that Hong-bin’s rage about apologies has little to do with the car accident and more to do with whatever-it-is between him and the elder.
But as he all but foams at the mouth about the situation, storm clouds begin to form, causing Secretary Go to urge him to calm down. Waitaminute… so rain in this show isn’t the full moon to Hong-bin’s werewolf, Hong-bin’s mood can actually control the weather? He’s Wolverine and Storm?
When Hong-bin only grows angrier that the elder isn’t apologizing to him, Secretary Go hoists him over his shoulder and begins running down the street. Storm clouds continue to brew overhead as Secretary Go falters to the sound of something-like-but-not-necessarily-bones-breaking.
He continues on regardless, and dumps Hong-bin in a wrestling ring. Knowing the ramifications if Hong-bin were to cause a storm, he asks Hong-bin to let his frustrations out on him, essentially becoming a punching bag for Hong-bin’s superhuman blows.
Real talk though, I don’t know if this is supposed to be a supernatural fight or if it’s just an exaggerated one. Right now I’m fairly convinced that Hong-bin is an amalgamation of every character from The Avengers, even though he’s got worse anger management issues than the character famous for having anger management issues.
While taking punch after punch, Secretary Go ekes out that Se-dong should be at the company by now, which at least causes Hong-bin to pause as he remembers her scent fondly. But then he goes right back to beating the crap out of his secretary.
Se-dong isn’t at the company though, since she intercepts her sunbae as he attempts to flee to the States. She’s hurt and betrayed by him running out on her, especially since it’d mean saddling her with paying back the loan they took out for their company.
According to her, they’re this close to success for whatever it is that they do (video games?), but her sunbae doesn’t care to hear the details and attempts to run past her. Se-dong’s loud, hysterical sobbing about how he’s running away after selling their company isn’t enough to stop him.
Hong-bin has another reason to be angry when he makes it to his company to find out that Se-dong never showed, since she’s busy chasing down her sunbae at the airport.
Since her sunbae is the one who sold them out to Hong-bin, Hong-bin calls him directly to ask about the circumstances surrounding the sale—he knows that the man didn’t consult with the rest of his employees before the deal was made.
Her sunbae, currently trapped in an airport bathroom with Seung-hwan right outside the stall, doesn’t care to talk about the shady deal since he already benefitted from it money-wise. But that makes Hong-bin angry, and he literally has a “You won’t like me when I’m angry” moment.
A dour-looking woman dressed in every piece of jewelry she owns disembarks with a young boy she seems to hate, and sends him into the men’s bathroom alone.
Seung-hwan notices that the boy doesn’t even know how to pull down his own zipper and helps, while outside, gangsters arrive to chase down the bedazzled ajumma.
In the process—and hand to God, I’m not making this up—one of them trips over a piece of luggage and goes flying toward Se-dong with grabby hands outstretched toward her chest. Then they’re frozen in that position as the camera completes a full 360 degree slo-mo pan around them in this drama’s version of Sword and Flower’s version of the upside-down Spiderman kiss. (It’s the same PD. Unfortunately.)
The moment ends when Se-dong slaps the gangster before screaming bloody murder. Then she throws him to the ground before screaming some more.
Then, she tells Seung-hwan that the man touched her chest so Seung-hwan can launch himself on the man screaming, all while Se-dong continues her high-pitched wailing. Okay, that’s it. I tried. This show is too f*cking insane, even for me.
Se-dong, Seung-hwan, and the random gangster get taken to the airport police station where she pleads her sexual harassment case until the gangster is carted off. Only then does she remember she was chasing her sunbae, but it’s too late—he’s probably well on his way to America by now.
Just as they’re leaving, a woman reports the boy Seung-hwan helped in the bathroom as being lost. The boy isn’t comforted by the sight of the officer and cries, because it reminds him of a seizure-inducing series of flashbacks involving police officers and abandonment issues.
Se-dong steps in to calm the boy down, but no sooner does she try to leave him with the officer once he’s stopped crying does he start right back up again.
In an orb-shaped room suspended from the ceiling, Hong-bin flips through pictures of the woman he thought he smelled earlier. (Ah, so that’s why he followed Se-dong.) He flashes back to being with her when his father/the elder from the car crash, JOO JANG-WON (Kim Gab-soo) confronted her about being too poor for his high-born son.
The memory makes Hong-bin angry, and the angrier he gets, the more the lights start to flicker as a storm begins to brew outside. Secretary Go has only to hear one crack of thunder to know something’s terribly wrong with Hong-bin, and rushes to get to him.
Hong-bin grits his teeth as blades—legitimate, metal blades of different lengths—sprout from his back like a porcupine. And as he stalks outside in the rain with his new weaponized backside, whole sections of the city lose power from the force of his rage.
But then he suddenly loses consciousness and drops like a sack of potatoes onto someone’s roof somewhere.
Madam Yoon gets a call from the bedazzled woman from the airport claiming that the six-year-old boy she brought with her is Hong-bin’s son. The lover he can’t forget, Kim Tae-hee, is the boy’s mother. But the woman can’t stay on the line to say more, since she’s being hunted down for [insert reason here].
Hong-bin wakes up in his own bed, blade-free, thanks to Secretary Go. It seems like he may not know about being a Tim Burton nightmare since he believes the lie Secretary Go tells him about how he fell asleep at the office with a light fever.
The first thing he asks about is Se-dong, who has somehow been allowed to take the unclaimed boy (possibly his son) home from the airport. As she carries the sleeping child on her back, her sunbae calls to tell her that Hong-bin wants to meet with her.
Since she doesn’t know what Hong-bin looks like, she doesn’t recognize him standing outside of her house. He recognizes her less by sight and more by smell, which is so intoxicating to him that he closes his eyes and cups the air closer to his nose to breathe it in. Because what he’s smelling isn’t just her natural pheromones, it’s her breath, as evidenced by the multiple close-ups of her mouth breathing.
Se-dong just stares at the man who asked for her by name, now poised on one leg—all the better to smell her with.
Normally when I feel like I haven’t watched something so much as experienced it, the connotation is usually positive. To experience a thing instead of just bearing witness to it must mean that whatever that thing is carries some kind of inherent worth as compared to something easily digested and forgotten.
And while I still believe that, I also came to realize that one can “experience” playing with a litter of puppies the way one can “experience” being robbed at gunpoint, in that both events are bound to leave an imprint. Which is pretty much where I’m at with Iron Man—in no universe would I argue that it was time well-spent, but a show that’s this out of its mind from the starting gate? A show that looked at the already ground-level bar for insanity set by Dr. Jin, said to itself “I can do better,” and dug a it-puts-the-lotion-on-its-skin-or-else-it-gets-the-hose-again hole solely for the purpose of lowering said bar? That just has to be worth something. We have to learn from this.
That being said, and knowing that this episode was produced, directed, and acted after multiple people had multiple chances to sit down with the script, I’m willing to accept that there might totally be an audience for this show and I’m just not it. But there’s also the chance that there really isn’t a perfect audience just waiting to consume twenty hours of Iron Man, not because the premise is as outlandish as it is, but because a great majority of the moments that begged to be taken seriously were unintentionally humorous instead.
It doesn’t help that there clearly were supposed to be comedic beats interspersed throughout, since that just blurs the line between when we’re supposed to be laughing from when we’re not. I definitely don’t think it’s a good sign when I know I’m having the opposite reaction to the intended effect, since the broad, slapstick-y moments fell flat compared to some of the moments which tried for poignancy and failed so very, very spectacularly.
To be fair, while I’d normally try to break down what worked from what didn’t, this premiere misstepped so early and so frequently that I wouldn’t even know where to begin. It’s a shame when you consider PD Kim Yong-soo’s body of work—which, while progressively going from the unforgettably brilliant White Christmas to the unforgettably confused Sword and Flower, has always had a distinct visual style I’ve always had a soft spot for. Yes, Sword and Flower was also a failure of conception, but it at least attempted to compensate for its lack of substance with style.
Which isn’t to say that was in any way a good thing, because it wasn’t. But since I’ve seen and recapped the last three dramas from this director, I can say that Iron Man feels the most toned-down visually, so much so that it’s lacking a distinctive flavor. Well, aside from the fact that it has a hero who grows metal blades from his back when he’s angry. And one who apparently controls the weather with his mood. And disrupts entire sections of Seoul’s power grid. And smells people’s breath to learn their life stories. And has no idea he can do most of those things.
I feel like it’s such a belabored point by now, but it bears repeating when shows like this happen: If you’re going to set up a world even remotely more mystical than the one we currently live in, you have to establish rules. Without them, we’re as good as lost, and it isn’t even like this show is based off some pre-established fantasy lore like we could expect from vampires, ghosts, or even time travel. The premise for this show is just too specific to the only story in pop culture where a man has the power to grow metal blades from his body, and I just really, really hope that there’s going to be a reason for Hong-bin’s blade-growing abilities that isn’t just based on the writer’s affinity toward Hugh Jackman. Really.
So when you have a hero with all of these untold magical powers (is there a drought whenever he’s distracted?), it makes logical sense to have the heroine be the straight man, the Lois Lane to the hero’s alarmingly-maladjusted Clark Kent. What happened instead was the feeling that I was watching two different dramas—a melodrama with Hong-bin and his Thor/Hulk/Wolverine/Storm abilities, and a romcom starring Se-dong and the lovably scruffy flower boys she lives with. Both could be complete dramas in their own right, especially since the latter is overstuffed with pre-existing character pasts and issues we were only barely let in on. For Christ’s sake, Se-dong just unofficially adopted a tiny human. If that’s not a sixteen episode drama made for tvN, I don’t know what is.
But trying to cohesively combine those two vastly different worlds into a believable whole begs the question: Why? And also: No, seriously, why? At the end of the day I guess it’s better to have too much to explore than too little, even if I can’t say this first outing has been the best confidence-booster. I’ll be watching out of sheer curiosity for such an unusual premise, so if Iron Man somehow pulls itself together and gets to that point where it can be taken seriously, it will have earned any praise that comes its way. I just wouldn’t hold my breath on that one.
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- Han Jung-soo cast as Iron Man’s loyal bodyguard
- Lee Dong-wook becomes Iron Man
- Park Shin-yang offered lead in Iron Man
- Ji Sung decides not to become Iron Man
- New KBS drama Iron Man casts Ji Sung, Shin Se-kyung
- New drama Iron Man to follow Joseon Gunman on KBS this fall