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.


Unknown said...

i think you described the appeal of the film conceptually, and certainly make some great points about the subtlety (though potentially unintentional on the part of the storytellers) of its themes. but, personally, i found that in execution, Iron Man 2 was rarely satisfying because it introduced too many plot elements and failed to find a reasonable conclusion for the majority of them. i think the first film was more successful in its execution because, at the end of the day, it had a single goal -- to make Tony Stark Iron Man. sub-goals would include to prove why he deserves to be Iron Man and to show why his world would benefit from Iron Man's presence. however, with this sequel, i didn't feel like there was the same immediacy or sense of purpose with the story. what was its clearly defined goal? i couldn't tell you without some extensive analysis and thought. so while the story of IM2 may have hints of intelligence. i certainly don't think that the storytelling delivered on potential which themes and concepts introduced. i actually found the conclusion to be rather wrote and predictable -- the opposite of what you say the film did for the main character's archetype.

david e. ford, jr said...


I basically think you are completely right about the overall lack of focus of this latter film--Iron Man was definitely more streamlined from a narrative point of view. I didn't really get into it because it was sort of ancillary to my main point, but I definitely felt like the biggest flaw of the whole Nick Fury/SHIELD subplot is that it sacrificed just the sort of clarity of purpose that you are talking about.

It is interesting that you talk about immediacy, though, because I think that this is one thing that you almost never get in this sort of big budget, special-effects driven action movie. But there was a lot of it in the first Iron Man, particularly in the scenes when Stark is imprisoned in afghanistan. From that point of view, I thought the scene in Iron Man 2 when Vanko first shows up in his suit at Monte Carlo is one of the most gratifying in the film. This was also a point in which I think that the review by Matt Seitz fell a bit short in its description of the film, in this case where he talks about Favreau's "lack of interest in cinematic values, by which I mean imaginative editing, drastic and daring tonal shifts, and shots that do more than "cover" action and record the actors' performances." I think this might apply to much of the film, but not so much that sequence. There is an enormous amount of tension in this scene, much of it coming from the artful editing and quasi-verité shot constructions. There is also something about the fact that Vanko creates this suit, and the weapon that he comes up with is a pair of electrified jump ropes? completely impractical and yet somehow really terrifying.

But yeah, ultimately this is one scene and it's not followed up so much in the rest of the film. i almost think that much of what you complain about here comes from the tension that exists between a filmmaker trying to use this material to tell an interesting and genuinely probing story and the constraints of the form and the material. as seitz i think correctly points out, superman returns and Ang Lee's hulk are probably the two most interesting superhero movies of our time and yet audiences didn't really like them and one guesses that the Marvel or DC would be more circumspect about allowing a filmmaker to similar risks with their material


Samax said...

I just wasn't impressed enough with Iron Man 2 to really say anything about it. There were so many things happening that it never got to affect me.

The relationships were choked off by rattling lines too fast. There was never a sense of danger or suspense because things happened too fast. All this rushing around was necessary or course, because they jammed 3 or 4 TPBs worth of plot points into one sitting.

I didn't feel welcome to engage emotionally, so I held the film at arms' length, lest I miss any details.

lots of cool visuals and stuff... but I missed all the cultural significance.

Rourke was awesome for the most part, but the ending was goofy (i hate it when Whiplash removes his helmet during the fight... SO illogical). The scene where Whiplash and Stark meet in prison is probably my favorite part.