Weekly meditations from your humble messenger

Just Another Iron on the Fire
(Iron Man 2, 5/17/10)
By Nicholas Nicastro

In the story from the Bible, King Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a statue with a head of gold, torso of silver, legs of iron, and feet of clay. The prophet Daniel interprets this as a vision of the descent of mankind, with each empire always inferior to its predecessor. Hollywood's Iron Man franchise isn't quite in "feet of clay" territory, but with Iron Man 2 we're not speaking of precious metal anymore. "Legs of iron" sounds just about right.
      Last we saw, billionaire Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) had made himself a superhero by fashioning an awesome armored suit that flies, shoots laser beams and—one supposes—opens garage doors and slices tomatoes paper-thin. Stark's technology is matched by his turbo-powered ego: eschewing the contrivance of a "secret identity," he simply declares himself to be Iron Man on national TV. Now his cheek has landed him in the crosshairs of the Feds. Citing national security concerns, Big Bad Government (personified here by Senator Garry Shandling) demands access to Stark's technology. Nor are things much better at Tony's Cliffside mansion: his girlfriend/Girl Friday Virginia "Pepper" Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is upset for some reason, over-use of the suit is slowly poisoning him, and a lunatic Russian physicist (Mickey Rourke) is about to unleash his low-rent version of Iron Man. What's a plutocrat playboy entrepreneur one-man strategic weapon system to do?
      2008's Iron Man was something of a surprise in that it came late to the party of big screen superheroes, but pretended the fun only really began when it arrived. Its appeal was rooted in Downey's curious mix of can-do optimism and sh*t-eating worldiness—you might call him "post-jaded." Indeed, Iron Man practically qualified as a metaphor for Downey's career, with so much promise for good hampered by the knot of unrestrained appetites within. It makes a degree of sense, then, that Justin Theroux's script for number 2 is a "price of celebrity" story, with all the elements in Tony's charmed life threatening to pull him apart. Just to make the parallel crystal clear, Theroux throws in a Hollywood party scene where Stark/Downey gets ugly drunk, pisses his super-suit, and wows the groupies by shooting watermelons with lasers from his palms.
      At this point, Downey's act still appeals, but is getting close to the line between "somewhat amusing" and "tiresome." Theroux and director Favreau also manage to get less than they could have from Mickey Rourke. Playing a typical Russian physicist (you know, the kind with ripped bod, blond highlights, and gold-capped teeth), Rourke gets a couple of fight scenes where he attacks Iron Man with a pair of nuclear-powered whips, but otherwise spends the movie muttering and tinkering in his lab. This is not much from an actor who oozes character just sitting in a chair. Alas, other than Downey, the only crumbs of fun come from Sam Rockwell's performance as Stark's half-facetious, half-crazy rival in the arms trade, and from seeing Scarlett Johansson— playing an otherwise superfluous character—don a skin-tight spandex cat suit.
      It feels like a lot of water has gone under the bridge since the first Iron Man. In the original, Tony Stark just seemed like the archetypal American maverick, daring to be brilliant if only the clods would get out of his way. Now, in Tea Party America, the scenes where Stark faces down a committee of Congressional hacks read a bit more ominously. The politicians naturally want to confiscate his weapons, but they'll only get them when they pry them out of Tony's cold, dead fingers. Indeed, Downey explicitly declares that the government can't be trusted with his technology, as it presumably can't be trusted with much else. "I've successfully privatized world peace!" he declares, thereby epitomizing the Tea Party line that big problems are never solved by government, but only by individuals tinkering in their home labs. Insofar as technical achievements like nuclear power, the moon landings, and the internet did benefit from government involvement, their history is faulty. The illusion becomes outright dangerous when this mistrust goes so far that truly big problems like the climate change and loose nukes—problems so big their solutions must involve government—go unaddressed.
      When a guy like Tony Stark fixes global warming, he'll richly deserve a superhero status and a personal assistant in a cat suit. Until then, I'll stick with Senator Shandling.

©2010 Nicholas Nicastro

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