Tony Stark, Clean and Sober: A Review of Iron Man 2

I saw Iron Man 2 last weekend, after carefully dodging the opening weekend to avoid the crowds. In a nutshell, it’s a great film. It does everything a good sequel should do: It advances the plot from the first movie, while at the same time adding new elements to the story to keep things interesting. The script is witty and fun, the direction by Jon Favreau bounces seamlessly between snappy character interactions and explosive set pieces, and the cast delivers good--and in the case of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, GREAT--performances. Furthermore, the special effects are top-notch, featuring the best scenes of military machinery run amuck since last summer’s Terminator Salvation.

Superhero stores are at their most compelling when they act as parables of power--both its use for good and its misuse for evil--and its effects on the human condition. Thus, what makes Iron Man 2 really stand out among recent superhero movies is that it directly overlaps the super powers of superheroes with the fire power of the contemporary military industrial complex, allowing for commentary on the relationship between technological development and international conflict. Read on . . .

As the first Iron Man movie understood, there is no shortage of ironic humor and plot developments when one takes a story that fits into the superhero genre, a genre rife with villains who commit acts of evil genius, and make its protagonist a leading figure in weapons technology development, a field that (for a lack of a better description) heavily relies upon evil genius to earn its money. For example, in Iron Man 2, Stark interrupts a Congressional hearing regarding his Iron Man technology with video footage of attempts by weapon researchers in other counties to copy Stark’s technology. The footage is filled with sudden, brutal failures, failures reminiscent of the ED-209 demonstration scene from Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop (1987), the spiritual predecessor of the Iron Man movies.

As a rule of the genre, the most compelling, memorable villains in a superhero’s rogues gallery are the ones who are reflections of the superhero. For example, Batman’s most notable villains are brilliant loners with costume fetishes (Joker, Scarecrow, Bane), while Spider-Man’s most notable villains are the end result of science gone wrong (Dr. Octopus, The Lizard, Sandman). The enemies of Tony Stark in Iron Man 2 are Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), a duplicitous military contractor, and Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a brilliant weapons specialist who has an obsessive, rage-filled grudge against Stark and his late father, Howard Stark (John Slattery). This duality--the Starks being shown as idealistic dreamers and charismatic showmen who happen to deal in the technology of war, and Hammer and Vanko being shown as savvy, amoral weapon experts who are driven by greed, envy and revenge--reflects America’s own contradictory, ambiguous relationship with military technology.

This contradictive, conflicted relationship is reflected in many areas within Iron Man 2, particularly within the Stark family itself. Early in the sequel, Tony Stark learns that the technology he developed in the first film is slowly killing him in the second. In scenes where Tony Stark watches his father in film footage promoting Stark Expo ’74, the footage parallels Walt Disney’s promotional film of EPCOT in 1966. This film within a film, Howard Stark talks about technology’s role in achieving utopia while standing in front of a miniature model of an ideal, futuristic city. These scenes serve as a reminder of what Stark Industries was originally supposed to be, which grimly contrasts what Stark Industries has become in the time of Tony Stark: a maker of multiple weapons that leave nothing but ugly dystopias in their wake.

The first Iron Man movie showed Stark coming to grips with the legacy he inherited and his determination to move Stark Industries away from weapons development through his development of Iron Man technology. The dramatic weight of the sequel focuses on Stark’s realization that by creating Iron Man, he has opened a figurative Pandora’s Box that could lead to new kinds of war. This realization, along with the health problems he suffers from the technology he created, puts Stark into an emotional freefall that he attempts to compensate for through a number of megalomaniacal acts of bravado, each more reckless and self-destructive than the last. Stark eventually regains stability in the face of these personal challenges, and Iron Man 2’s exploration of Tony Stark’s growth as a character in relation to his actions, his situation, and the world in which he lives is enough for me to highly recommend this film.

It’s uncertain whether Stark’s character trajectory will be continued in Iron Man 3 or scrubbed completely for the upcoming Avengers movie. Furthermore, Iron Man 2 glamorizes technology as much as it casts doubt on its reliability and potential (much like its predecessor), so it can be hard to discern exactly what the makers of this film are trying to say about technology and war. Yet any film that encourages people to consider that what we’re promised regarding technological advancement (by industry and government alike) isn’t always what we get, as well as the physical, emotional toll such shifting expectations takes on many, is a welcome addition in my book.


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