Looking back on what I wrote about the first Iron Man, I feel a bit like a killjoy. Plenty of people whose opinions I respect greatly (Sean, for example) adored the movie, and although this might not always be apparent, I don’t enjoy stomping all over things that other people love, especially when I love those people.
I wouldn’t take a word back, though. For better or worse, that post honestly and accurately describes my experience with the blockbuster. Certain elements I enjoyed—Robert Downey Jr.’s performance chief among them—but other elements troubled me so much that the whole movie darkened with them. This is, no doubt, what my Uncle George would describe as my “overthinking things,” but I don’t concede the point. If something isn’t worth thinking about, why bother with it at all?
So here I am, sad but resolute, preparing to dive into Iron Man 2. Sean, I’m sorry. Uncle George, you may commence the eye-rolling.
As Iron Man 2 opens, Tony Stark (Downey) is reveling in superherohood with characteristic egoism and recklessness, though his rash behavior is motivated in part by the knowledge that he is dying: the high-tech fusion engine (or whatever) that keeps him alive and powers his Iron Man suit is also slowly poisoning him. He hasn’t shared this with anyone, however—least of all his long-suffering assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), or his long-suffering friend and military liaison, James Rhodey (Don Cheadle, stepping in for the insufferable Terrence Howard, whom I, for one, don’t miss in the slightest)—but soon Stark has problems even more pressing than his blood toxicity levels. A mysterious Russian named Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) crashes a high-profile event with whip-like, electrified appendages that actually pose some danger to Stark’s Iron Man. The realization that foreign nations or rogue agents might be able to challenge America’s self-appointed superhero gives more ammunition to the U.S. government’s insistence that Stark share his technology with the American military; meanwhile, disgraced weapons contractor Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), seeing an opportunity to dethrone his rival, breaks Vanko out of prison and puts him in charge of engineering an army of iron men to defeat and humiliate Stark.
First, what I liked: Downey is as charming as ever. Technically, Stark is an appallingly self-absorbed, self-aggrandizing asshole, but Downey plays him with such a light, playful touch that you kind of have to love him anyway. Stark’s banter with Pepper might not reach the His Girl Friday heights to which the screenwriters clearly aspire (it would help if Paltrow didn’t have to shriek quite so damn much), but it’s not bad, either. Downey and Paltrow have a fun, prickly rapport, making their scenes together some of the best in the movie.
On the bad guy side, Rourke gives Vanko an intensity and wicked chuckle that clash hilariously with the insecure bluster of Rockwell’s Hammer. Vanko and Hammer don’t banter exactly—Hammer prattles and sputters indignantly, and Vanko makes the occasional inscrutable grunt with airy, amused contempt, which, of course, only makes Hammer more squirrelly—but their brand of dialogue has its own screwball charm. Iron Man 2 is a pretty funny movie in its lighter moments.
Jon Favreau’s direction is OK, if nothing special, but the movie has been poorly served by its previews. Virtually every key moment has been given away, making the film itself feel anticlimactic. Worse, the Iron Man suit (and the various knockoffs) don’t lend themselves to exciting, immersive action scenes because the human beings are buried beneath inexpressive metal. Watching them face off is like watching someone else play a video game. The one action sequence with personality and spark is, not coincidentally, Scarlett Johansson’s (she plays a mysterious new Stark Industries flunky): her character isn’t encased in metal, so you can see the cool determination on her face and the physicality of her movements as she faces off against a wave of adversaries. Iron Man, War Machine, and Whiplash can’t match Scarlett doing old-fashioned (albeit computer-assisted) wire work in a catsuit.
But as with the original, what really gets me about 2 is the movie’s hopelessly screwed-up, self-contradictory politics. This is a movie that smugly makes a weapons contractor its villain, and then gives its hero the line “I have successfully privatized world peace,” and sees no cognitive dissonance there. It makes a sneering joke of a senator trying to find legal means of bringing Iron Man into the U.S. military command structure, and then gives us a scene with a drunken, out-of-control Iron Man very nearly killing all the guests at his birthday party, and sees no reason to revisit that senator’s prescient fears that Iron Man is too dangerous a weapon (yes, a weapon, Stark’s hair-splitting aside) to be held by just one man. Sure, Stark eventually Learns a Valuable Lesson and decides that allowing Rhodey to be War Machine works out well for him, but admitting a sidekick into his exclusive omnipotence club does not address the underlying issue here.
And that issue is this: Even if you can set aside the creepy Blackwater/Xe vibe to that whole congressional scene, “world peace” is not something that should be held and protected by a single company, much less a single fallible man. In writing about the first movie, I compared Iron Man to Batman, but in the sequel, a Superman comparison seems more apt—and not in a good way. I almost appreciate Iron Man 2 for demonstrating the utter perversity of the superman mythos. 2 asks us to applaud the idea of a lone man holding unimaginable power over the entire world—to celebrate that merely because the guy happens to make cute wisecracks and own a lot of cool toys. Even if the man in question wasn’t an unstable narcissist, the movie’s giddy embrace of its incredibly problematic hero would be discomfiting.
If Vanko weren’t quite so careless about the possibility of killing people other than Stark (and let’s face it: Stark can be awfully careless with the extras’ lives as well), I might even consider him the hero of the movie. From the very start, Vanko’s stated motive in everything is to dethrone an unworthy god, and hey, I don’t necessarily have a problem with that—though I can’t help but laugh at the portentous line “If you could make God bleed, people would cease to believe in him.” That might sound fabulously evil, but has Vanko ever entered a Catholic church? Visiting Mexico years ago, I saw crucifixes that would make Mel Gibson wince. Some people like to see their God bleed. But I digress, and honestly, I don’t need to see Tony bleed. I’m just not interested in the idea of him as our ever-so-benevolent protector, even in a silly action movie. Some things are far too precious and fragile to be privatized. Some goods—some responsibilities—rightfully belong to everyone. And I don’t give a damn if feeling that way means I’m “overthinking things.” The stories we tell ourselves matter—they reflect our values, our ideals, and what we take for granted—and this story is definitely not one I’d want to take to heart unexamined.