7/16/2010

Why Iron Man 2 Is Better Than The Dark Knight

It's curious how The Dark Knight became canonical while Iron Man 2--which is starting its slow death to DVD at the dollar theater right now--got the shaft. Both attempt an "In These Times" contextualization of their heroes, but only the latter does so with the understanding that social commentary is nothing new to comics, or life in general, and thus carries it off with genial aplomb.

Tony Stark, like Bruce Wayne, loosely fits the Randian hero framework. He’s a billionaire industrialist whose technology is seen as unwieldy in private hands, is considered a menace to societal stability and faces the threat of collectivization by deadweight bureaucrats who can’t appreciate or understand his will to power.

The Dark Knight, though, has superficial insight into ineffectual bureaucracy and its vulnerability to corruption, chalking it up to either one large buyout by the mob or, later, an inability to deal with unconventional, ahistorical terror (kind of like how Blue Velvet’s critique of the White Picket Fence’s placid illusion relies entirely on the outta nowhere psychotic city mobster Frank), inadvertently leaving essential questions about representative government and what it takes to build a passably democratic system entirely out of the picture.

Iron Man 2, on the other hand, is grounded in the real world complications of the military-industrial complex, where Tony Stark, claiming to have “successfully privatized world peace,” is really just compromising to avert what essentially would be a governmental monopoly on the same thing. At the hearing over what should be done with Stark’s invention, Senator Stern hollowly invokes “the American people” even though both of them work outside the public interest (with Stern using rival corporate figurehead Justin Hammer to co-opt Stark’s technology on behalf of the US military, and Stark coasting on the benefits of being a public superhero with private property).

The Dark Knight takes most of that for granted. Where most of the moral dilemma in The Dark Knight turns on the question of who should be allowed to regulate crime: vigilante Wayne or the government as epitomized by “White Knight” Harvey Dent, the arsenal provided by military hardware specialist Lucius Fox is only considered nominally transgressive in the film’s final moral dilemma over the use of mass-wiretapping to catch the Joker.

From the start of the first film in the Iron Man franchise, cause and effect in relation to military technology is the core of the moral dilemma, taking it from a realistically unprogressive epiphany on Stark’s part that “it’s hurting our boys” to a whole plot point resting on the connection between the arms industry, the military and international weapons trafficking, with Stark’s plans to shut down the arms wing of Stark enterprises and focus on alternative energy invoking shareholder wrath. In no way does it exclude the glitzy, pyrotechnic allure of the technology and its seductive prowess, making the Iron Man franchise a wholly subversive deconstruction of the military’s technologically advanced weaponry wrapped in a self-aware plug for it.

Iron Man 2 is also firmly rooted in history, assessing Stark’s “will to power” in the context of the Cold War, subverting the heroic theory of invention by showing the privilege afforded Stark in having been on the winning side. The villain, Ivan Vanko, is the son of Stark’s father’s partner-in-development, a similarly brilliant but unfortunately Russian scientist cast out by the U.S. government on suspicion of character. Dying without the means to realize his vision, poor and unacknowledged for his contributions, the legacy left to his son is a brilliant scientific mind wasted by an arbitrary political turnout.

The Joker, meanwhile, has no back-story, which is flaunted by the filmmakers as some transcendent bird-flipping in the form of pat explanations (an insult to the audience who sat through the two hours of exposition that was Batman Begins). Basically, he’s an enigmatic evil whose Deus ex Machina lunacy becomes a ticking time bomb exercise in “the ends justify the means.”

The Joker has a cynical view of mankind that has led him to transcend societal norms but not at the expense of making sure everyone knows that they’re capable of being forced to break those norms, too. His preferred method involves placing random kidnapped targets in compromising situations that will force them to act out of base self-interest and in spite of ethical standards. And so begins a debate whose answer is little surprise to anyone familiar with literature documenting human behavior in concentration camps, or the Milgram or Stanford Prison experiments, even just those Saw movies.

Vanko’s villainy is an identifiable, sympathetic vengeance that carries with it a pointed critique of public relations techniques used to rehabilitate the pasts of shady personages, companies and countries in the public mind, powerfully corroborated by the sequel starting off with Stark having learned nothing, going back to his old ways after capitalizing on the public’s affection for his alter ego. Though the film kind of whitewashes Stark’s father’s past as a World of Tomorrow beacon for alternative energy, in the context of the preceding exposition it’s reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s turn in Julien Donkey-Boy, where just because he’s philosophically astute doesn’t exculpate him from being an asshole.

Both films make statements about the post-9/11 “war on terror” with its changing rules of engagement, but whereas The Dark Knight’s villain is symbolic to the point of being problematic, Iron Man 2 has a sense of history that pushes the truth of how wars or adversarial stances don’t end but are put off, merely setting up the lingering after-effects. 9/11 and the “war on terror” deal with agents of chaos whose historical narratives and philosophies are inextricably tied with the society they target, creating an overlap of implication that equalizes culpability in violence, not postmodern menaces whose actions accidentally overlap with those of the governments they target.

Iron Man 2 also has subtle insight into sex and race in the upper echelons of power. Whereas The Dark Knight casts Morgan Freeman in his usual supplementary role as a wise, useful hand and Rachel Dawes is merely a volleyball between two dynamic males, Iron Man 2 comments on the precarious positions both Rhodey and Pepper Potts face as black and female officials, respectively, in high-ranking positions. While Tony Stark is allowed to be a wild card, indulge in swaggering debauchery, and play highly destructive games of cops and robbers, Pepper Potts has to take care of the paperwork while Rhodey has to handle the PR.

Both films have a spare but pointed usage of pop music highlighting the discrepancy between Stark and Rhodey’s boundaries. In the first film, on a private jet, Rhodey attempts injecting a level of gravity into Stark’s experimental shenanigans while Stark puts on a Ghostface Killah video, gets some Sake and orders his flight attendant to strip for him, Rhodey losing it in the process (perhaps a joke on Terence Howard’s professed disavowal of rap music). In the sequel Rhodey crashes a private party at Stark’s mansion. Stark, drunk in full Iron Man regalia, tells his Jewish DJ (the late Crazy Town member Adam Goldstein) to put on a rap and pop medley, while Rhodey, putting on a prototype and excluding himself from “getting down,” locks Stark in a game of battle bots in order to knock some sense into him.

Stark (and importantly, not the director) filters Pepper through the Madonna/Whore complex, seeing her as a symbol of purity, a saving grace and real love interest he can set aside his womanizing of floozies for. She, meanwhile, has to assess public perception knowing that her genuine hard work keeping Tony in line and generally functional while also running his company for him could be compromising. If she gets entangled in what could possibly just be an impulsive, if slightly matured, libidinal urge, she could get branded a gold digger who slept her way to the top in the process.

Iron Man 2, importantly, has a sense of humor, like Sam Rockwell’s turn as Stark wannabe Justin Hammer, a hilariously meta in-joke referencing the initial consideration of Rockwell for the part of Stark before it was handed to Downey, Jr. It doesn’t forget that it’s Hollywood entertainment but is smart enough to realize that it’s not an either-or dichotomy, instead expressing a wide variety of emotions more reflective on human discourse than Batman’s one-note plodding.

Unlike the mostly humorless Wayne, Stark doesn’t brood depressively underneath the weight of the world, instead sardonically playing the greased machinations of politics for the farce it is, trading scathing ripostes with everyone from the still funny underneath that Botox Gary Shandling to really anyone he comes into contact with. That The Dark Knight was polarizing in a way that had critics making stances means that it won in another way. It's a product whose import begs to be taken seriously via a bombardment of unleavened grimness, working on the assumption that utter devastation is the only way to make an impression (regardless of whether there’s a coherent point to be made) and thus is itself akin to an act of terrorism.

9 comments:

Brendan K said...

I completely and totally disagree with you (I utterly loathed Iron Man 2 after being genuinely sort of shocked by how decent- not great, but good- the first Iron Man film was), but you're at least thoughtful enough to have a point of view in this post. Let's face it, the vast majority of comics fans, film buffs, and critics in both media would disagree with you, but I appreciate that your take backs up a potentially flimsy and inflammatory title statement with some thoughtful effort. Good on ya.

david e. ford, jr said...

Brendan,

I'm not speaking for Adam here, but I do happen to share his point of view. While I think you are right about comics fans and film buffs--that last word is important--I don't know that the vast majority of film critics think that TDK is the superior film. Besides, the whole everybody thinks its better defense is a red herring. TDK was a crowd pleaser by and large because it is well paced, slickly designed (setting aside for the moment where many of the designs came from) and superficially 'challenging.' Its kinda like the Fight Club movie, though whereas that movie (to borrow Roger Ebert's assessment) reads like it was written by a dude who tripped over the Nietzsche display on his way to the coffee shop at the back of barnes and noble, The Dark Knight reads like a movie written by a guy who read Frank Miller's Batman and 'Foucault in 90 Minutes' in one night and then decided to make a comic book movie.

Anonymous said...

Wow.
That was just... bad.
I hope you didn't feel smart while writing this.

No amount of supercilious and *cough* pretentious *cough* whining can change the fact that Iron Man 2 was a boring, awkward, and shoddily paced movie.

You are one dense motherfucker if you seriously think the imaginary depth and historical relevance you pointed out offsets Iron Man 2's mess of a script and makes it "better" than The Dark Knight.

I wouldn't be surprised if this comment were muted because I imagine dissenting opinions are unwelcome in this little circle-jerk of a blog,
amirite kids?

david e. ford, jr said...

Anonymous here obviously hasn't been reading here very long, but what I will point out is that neither he nor Brendan, whose comment was indeed more intelligent and civil, actually mount a defense of TDK

Anonymous said...

LOL
Unwarranted self-importance much?

Do you really expect anyone to come here and "mount a defense" of TDK just because some nobody from a zero-reputation blog made a poorly written, long winded, trying-too-hard article?

Hilarious!

brandon said...

Anonymous-
That's sort of the point of blogging, no? Someone says something, you as a commenter add something besides a weak cry of "bullshit" to the discussion?

I think what all of y'all are saying when you say DK is better, is that it's "cooler".

GTFOH with the muting conversation shit too. Who are you?

Adam Katzman said...

Thanks, David, for finding something to respond to. I think Brendan was being fairly benign, giving me a head's up if not much to actually work with, though completely and totally disagreeing would suggest an exact opposite opinion that writes itself out.

Brendan, i'd still read it if you wrote something as to why. Also, David's right. Universal acclaim on metacritic doesn't account for the swath of dissenting opinions, there were publications both printed and blogged that grappled with the presumptuous nature of the film's importance even when it came out.

re: anonymous - you'll have to defend a whole lot more than the dark knight if you keep on popping up with a vengeance at a place apparently no one should be expected to bother themselves with being at. Also, there's a name/url feature right on top of the anonymous button, i know we're talking about superheros and masked justice, but you're right, this is pretty low stakes...

re: David
this is totally digressive but I was talking to someone about Fight Club yesterday, i haven't seen it since high school but ebert's point about it being absorbed at the expense of its alleged moral is pretty accurate reflection on how it was talked about among friends then. I don't really remember it too well but I have a soft spot for how I think it would work in the context of, say, wealthy college students shedding materialism and adopting revolutionary rhetoric (perhaps there's a bit of self-purging there) or the whole crimethinc movement, the way, say, certain movements alienate themselves from society but actively seek to have some kind of mark on it, supposedly to liberate 9 to 5'ers but without any actual consent or consideration of them. Maybe like a dumbed down version of godard's already kind of dumb la chinoise, but kinda necessarily dumb. I may check it out of the library.

Adam Katzman said...

oh hai, brandon! *circle-jerk commencing*
the other thing i was confused about was, what kids? "amirite" sounds positively jonestown in that context.

brandon said...

Adam-
RE: Fight Club (and in a way, Anonymous' dopey comments)

What's fascinating about 'Fight Club', but also 'Dark Knight' is that it's embraced by a lot of people whose feelings that movie(s) mirror--Mildly intelligent, mid-20s-late 30s bros--but also a *supposedly* more discerning, "intellectual" group that if they applied their undergrad or grad school skills on politics, semiotics, etc. would be plain horrified by these movies or at the least, vehemently in opposition to each movie's politics.

What makes your post vital Adam--also Anonymous, pay attention--is that you approach DK and IM2 for their message/politics, which is important because indeed, these movies are products, big Hollywood products that also, have some smart auteur-types behind them.

DK sells cynicism and a kind of knee-jerk moderate-ism that's really pretty toxic. IM2 sells goofy, hesitant Patriotism. I prefer the latter.

To Anonymous, not comparing Adam here, but this "never forget this movie is a product" style is J Hoberman's bread and butter--and often, Armond White's--and your weak accusations of pretension etc. are really just a boneheaded anti-intellectualism. Sorry we're taking this pop culture seriously.

Why do you read a fucking long-winded comics blog that apparently has zero reputation (its maybe like 43% true we have no reputation) and then bitch-out about it, then?