I am appointing myself the WaCK movie reviewer, mainly because I have had a lot of thoughts about Iron Man 2 floating around my head since I saw it Friday. If you haven’t seen it, skip this post as there will be spoilers. Also, be warned that there will be extreme geekdom on display…
For starters, I read Chris Orr’s review of the movie Friday before I saw it. I am a big fan of Orr’s reviews and he’s is usually pretty sharp about nailing a film’s mood as well as its strengths and weaknesses. Here, though I think he was pretty wide of the mark.
Orr contends that 2 pales against the original, because it fails to deliver sufficient amounts of Robert Downey, Jr. chewing the scenery with the same aplomb as in the first act of 1. That critique is fair enough as it goes, but I think Orr failed to recognize the twist that Jon Favreau (director) and Justin Theroux (writer) put on Downey’s Tony Stark in 2. The Tony Stark of 2 still outwardly lives with the joie de vivre as in 1, but the burden of being the international enforcer of world peace is literally killing him. As such, Stark is living a double life different from all other superheroes (the mutants of the X-Men universe excluded). While they painstakingly protect their real identities, Stark openly claims his metallic doppelganger. Instead, Stark hides the physical toll the arc reactor in his chest is waging, even to his closest confidantes, as his blood toxicity climbs through the first 2 acts of the film. That secret is why Stark’s swagger seems burdened, because he is.
Orr seems to believe that Tony Stark character is more of a caricature of the industrialist playboy (when in reality that would be Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer). I think 2 shows Stark to be much more nuanced and Favreau gives Downey the artistic license to explore what would happen when the golden boy begins to crack under the pressure of a burden he may not be able to handle. The result, I think, is on par with Christian Bale in Batman Begins; Downey oscillates seamlessly from the bravado of the Senate hearing (highlighted by Garry Shandling’s smarmy Arlen Specter impression) to the vulnerability of his first encounter with Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko to the emotional breakdown of the birthday party scene. But whereas other superheroes like Bale’s Batman or Tobey Maguire’s Spiderman have an intensely personal vendetta that drives their alter egos, Stark’s alter ego is really just his id turned up to 11. His inability to separate those two identities, an ostensible benefit compared to duplicitous natures of his superhero peers, is what really makes him vulnerable. As Vanko says, if you make God bleed, people will stop believing in him, including Stark himself.
For a good comparison, look at the idea of Batman as a symbol in The Dark Knight. In The Dark Knight, Batman’s symbolic importance as the peacekeeper of Gotham interferes with the proper workings of the justice system, allowing Heath Ledger’s Joker to strategically exploit its weaknesses, even as it ostensibly still operates with the assist from Batman. Even the elaborate attempt to have Harvey Dent take the fall for Batman only further weakens the system, because they were trying to prop up the illusion of Batman as protector. Only when faced with no other option at the end does Batman become the fall guy for the failure of the system he was propping up, and thus allow the system to potentially renew itself. Conversely, the system of justice in the Iron Man films is the man himself; as Stark says at the Senate hearing, he has privatized world peace. But because Iron Man is placed on the pedestal in ways that Batman is not, the repercussions of making him bleed are greater than in the Batman universe, where he is still a shadowy figure.
Walking out of the theatre, I was inclined to agree with Orr, but the more I meditated on the film I came to agree more with Capone’s review at Ain’t It Cool News. Usually the AICN reviews for comic flicks are more on the fanboy side, but I think Capone grasped the psychological complexity that Favreau and Downey were going for better than Orr (who it should be said, loved the first one). I really hope Marvel Studios figures out a way to afford Downey going forward, because he owns the Stark character as much as actor has recently owned a role.
As for the not so subtle hints at the coming Thor and Avengers flicks, I am more agnostic. I am not sold on Chris Evans as Captain America (he was snarky and fun in The Losers, but Captain America needs a presence that the erstwhile Human Torch can’t muster), and not particularly familiar with the Thor story. And, heresy, but I have never gotten what the big deal was about Joss Whedon, who is helming the Avengers film.