Apologia for Iron Man 2
If you want to understand the differences between Jon Favreau's Iron Man and its imaginatively titled follow-up, Iron Man 2, you need look no further than the respective historical moments from which each movie was borne. And I'm not talking about the sort of tabloid-news understanding of American politics that results in ham-handed representations of so-called "Tea-Baggers" as somehow equivalent with white supremacists. Like its predecessor, Iron Man 2 is interesting because it evinces a subtle and complex understanding of the particular forces at work in our country and the peculiar leadership challenges faced by those concerned with fixing our broken country.
But this subtlety might also be the biggest flaw of Iron Man 2, in the sense that much of the film's sophistication has been missed by critics and moviegoers. In a genuinely probing—not to mention almost wholly justified—critique of superhero movies, no less a critic than Matt Zoller Seitz credits Favreau's Iron Man franchise with "cool competence" . . . and little else. As Seitz formulates them, superhero movies "[crank] up directors' box office averages and [keep] offbeat actors fully employed for years at a stretch by dutifully replicating (with precious few exceptions) the least interesting, least exciting elements of its source material." The critique is perfectly apt, but I think it fails to register the sort of societal self-examination that Favreau effects through this replication.
Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark is a perfect stand-in for the sort of second-generation tycoon that typifies the deficit of integrity and self-effacement that have been the unfortunate legacy of America's post-World War II prosperity. Stark wants all that is glamorous and awesome about being a titan, without any of the mundane drudgery. Part of this, of course, has to do with the sort of media saturation and commodification of sexuality that is a relatively recent development in American culture. Americans do not want their titans to be mundane any more than the Tony Starks of the world themselves do. But this sort of unbridled vanity is not without its costs, not the least of which is represented by the blurring of the lines between economies of production and value creation, and those derived solely from a desire to get rich.
If it seems like I'm getting a bit doctrinaire, there is a point to it. Iron Man 2 picks up right where its predecessor left off, with Stark basking in the glory of his revelation that he is indeed Iron Man and parlaying the public's fervor into the multi-million dollar monkey-spank that is the Stark Expo. The film's message about hubris and unbridled ambition is obvious, but where things get really interesting is in the weird doubling/opposition of Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts and Scarlett Johansson's Natasha Romanoff.
As with the best mainstream comics, Favreau uses an obvious opposition, in this case Pepper's prim elegance against Romanoff's more overt sensuality, to do something surprisingly sophisticated. As Romanoff first enters the film, at this point as Stark Enterprises counsel Natalie Rushman, she projects a dark and dangerous influence over Tony's life. Over Pepper's—and the viewer's—objections, Rushman encourages Tony to give in to each of his self-indulgent whims. The results of this are rather predictable, with Tony self-destructing at his own birthday party, losing an Iron Man suit, as well as the respect of just about everyone in his life.
Had the movie played out predictably, Stark would have realized the error of his ways, rejected the sexual decadence of Rushman/Romanoff, in favor of Pepper's relentless responsibility, and ultimately defeated Ivan Vanko's robot army by tapping into the unique combination of organizational genius, bluff daring and technical wizardry that has pretty much defined his character over the years. But that isn't what happens—at least not exactly. The monkey wrench thrown into the works is at least nominally due to the film's relationship with the overall Marvel universe. The biggest surprise of the entrance of Samuel L. Jackson's entrance as Nick Fury—ignoring for a moment the incongruous casting—is the revelation that Natalie Rushman is actually S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff. Her turn as legal counsel Rushman is simply a cover that allows her to get close to Stark/Iron Man, whom Fury covets for his quasi-covert governmental goon squad.
But setting aside this sort of comics nerd esotericism, it becomes clear that the movie can be read as something of an allegory of the early years of Obama's presidency, with Pepper Potts and Natasha Romanoff representing two seemingly opposed personae that the president has struggled to reconcile. Johansson's luridly sexual Romanoff is the equivalent of Obama as messianic world savior whose very election seemed to suggest that all the world's problems were over, while Paltrow's Pepper smacks of the pragmatic Chicago dealmaker whom everyone refused to see. What becomes clear as the film enters its third act, is that it is necessary to reconcile and harness both of these personae in order to have any hope of dealing with the enormous threat posed by Vanko and his slimy benefactor Hammer. The same can also be said of Obama as president—messianism alone cannot fix the enormous problems America faces, and yet people are bored by problem-solving pragmatism and thus it must be sexed-up a bit to make it more palatable.
If it seems like I am stretching things a bit with this analogy, consider Mickey Rourke's delightfully threatening turn as Ivan Vanko. Vanko is essentially Stark's intellectual equal and yet he is far more dangerous precisely because he is not motivated by a desire for wealth or personal glory. As Vanko sees it, men like Stark and his father placed their own personal gain ahead of the sort of selfless dedication of men like his own father and, in doing so, not only robbed him of his own personal birthright, but ultimately made the world a much less salubrious place. There are many Americans now, misguided though some of them may be, who feel a similar disgust at the sort of unbridled greed and unprincipled ambition that have come rather close to bankrupting the country.
Iron Man was the product of an America in which the greatest threat to our prosperity continued to be the foreign conflicts in which we were involved for increasingly nebulous purposes. What is perhaps most surprising about Iron Man 2 is that it avoids the predictable representation of the industrialist as unalloyed villain. Like its predecessor, Iron Man 2 is sophisticated precisely because it rejects just that sort of easy polemicism that simplifies national problems into neatly categorizable distinctions between Right and Left or Liberal and Conservative, and presents events in terms of a broadly distinguishable struggle between good and evil. And that it does so at the same time as it delightfully entertains is certainly deserving of admiration.