Originally published May 12, 2010.
Iron Man 2 opens with a threat posed by a villain solving an engineering problem.
And the movie heads into its climax with the hero’s hope for saving the day depending on whether he can solve a physics problem in the nick of time.
In between there’s the usual contemporary action movie’s overdoing the exploding cars, sky high eruptions of flames, shattering plate glass, and screaming crowds stampeding the wrong way if the object is to escape the mayhem created by the clash of the heroes and villains.
But there’s enough fake science, fantasy engineering, real and someday soon to be real high tech wizardry to make Iron Man 2 one of the all time great nerd epics, ranking up there with Apollo 13, Enigma, and the first Iron Man, which was almost from start to finish a series of questions on a professional licensing exam with an ethics section that Tony Stark had to struggle to ace.
Back in college I had a friend who was training to become an engineer and as his senior year approached he was growing increasingly worried that all the best jobs in his field involved making what he called death machines. In the first Iron Man, Tony Stark is confronted by the the evil he’s unleashed by never having given making death machines for a living a thought, and in Iron Man 2 he’s suffering from the emotional and spiritual toll of having assigned himself sole responsibility for deciding who gets to own what death machines and how many they get to have. Stark brags to a Senate Committee that he’s privatized world peace, but what he’s really done is personalize it. He’s made it all about him.
He’s a powerbroker, not a peacemaker.
It turns out he’s just as self-centered, self-indulgent, self-satisfied, and self-destructive in his heroism as he was in all his behavior back when he was just a millionaire playboy. He’s made a vice out of his virtue and it’s literally killing him.
In a pair of movies about the moral crises of a brilliant but psychologically flawed scientist and engineer, the fact that he’s a superhero is incidental, that is, it’s the incident that solves the dilemma in the first movie and provokes the crises in the second. So it makes sense that, except for a brief sequence in the first film, we never see Iron Man in action as a superhero. In scenes where taken out of context it would look as though he’s engaging in superheroics, what we’re really seeing is Tony Stark using the suit as a weapon of self-defense.
Iron Man is not out saving the world. Tony Stark is desperately trying to save his own ass.
The villains---Obadiah Stane, the terrorist leader Raza, Ivan Vanko (I can’t recall if he’s ever identified as Whiplash even in the in-jokey way Stane gets to be Ironmonger), and Justin Hammer---aren’t nice people and they have committed crimes, but the crime they’re intent on throughout their movies is the murder of Tony Stark. The civilians who are threatened by their plots and schemes are pawns, bait, and collateral damage. The villains aren’t interested in them. And they don’t care about Iron Man as Iron Man.
Unlike the usual comic book villains, they don’t want to get the superhero out of the way in order to pursue their evil plans for world domination or whatever. They don’t even need to. They want to kill the spoiled son of a rich inventor for purely personal reasons. Iron Man is a problem---another engineering problem---that has to be dealt with before they can take out Tony Stark. Destroying---dismantling---Iron Man is just shooting the gun out of Tony’s hand when they’ve got him cornered at last.
This is how it’s supposed to be. Iron Man 2 isn’t so much a sequel. It’s the next chapter in a story that began with Iron Man. It’s the second of the Avengers movies. Or the third. Depends how The Incredible Hulk is figured in. I don’t think that’s been decided yet. The Incredible Hulk might be a side-story. The Two Iron Man movies are definitely part of the main storyline though and the story is the story of the formation of a team of superheroes led by Marvel’s noblest and most self-less hero.
Without Captain America there can be no Avengers, and one of the reasons for that, Iron Man 2 implies, is that without Cap there will be no Iron Man.
At the end of the first Iron Man Stark tells the world, “I am Iron Man.” But he’s not. Not yet. There is no Iron Man, not even by the end of Iron Man 2. “Iron Man” is just a weaponized suit of armor anybody can wear to almost the same effect, as Stark’s buddy James Rhodes proves when he suits up as War Machine.
In the first movie, Tony Stark realizes that he’s been less than a decent human being and decides to change his ways. But his solution turns out to have been to dress up and pretend to be a superhero. He’s changed his job description, changed directions, but he has not changed his ways. He’s still the same jerk he was at heart and that’s why being Iron Man is poisoning him.
It’s as if the suit, knowing it was made for someone better to wear, is rejecting the person inside it.
During the course of Iron Man 2, Stark begins to have an idea of what he needs to do to become a truly decent person---someone worthy of Pepper Potts’ love---but he’s a long way from having learned how to be a true superhero, a true conveyed by Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury’s good natured irritation with Stark and Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow’s deadpan moral disapprobation. She acknowledges Stark’s charm and sex appeal with the same coldly objective amusement a tough professor might show towards a brilliant but roguish student just before she turns him in to the dean for cheating on an exam.
Tony Stark is going to have to learn how to be a hero before he can be part of the Avengers and there’s only one person Tony Stark has ever learned from. His father. Who is dead.
Ah…but what we learn in Iron Man 2 is that there is a connection between Howard Stark and Captain America.
Time for a confession.
I liked Spider-man and Daredevil, but when I was a kid my favorite Marvel superhero was Captain America. Some affections never die and I can’t tell you how much it means to me that Cap is the hero of Marvel’s Civil War or that he died making the sacrifice he made. I knew he wouldn’t stay dead, but I kind of wish he had because it would have been a fitting end for their noblest hero.
So maybe I’m projecting my wishful thinking, but I think that even more overtly than the coming of Superman was a subtext of The Dark Knight, the crucial subtext of Iron Man 2 is the coming of Captain America.
There’s a scene that is played as a throwaway I’d cite as my evidence but describing it would spoil it.
It will be interesting to see if it’s also a subtext of Thor. There’s another egomaniac who needs to learn a few things from Cap.
Chris Evans, who will be playing Captain America, is going to have his work cut out for him. He’s going to have to be as likable and compelling as Robert Downey Jr. but he won’t have the jokes, the toys, or the wildness to play with. Downey will probably help him out. As he showed in The Soloist, Downey knows how to step back and let another actor take the screen, and he also has the ability to add texture and depth to another actor’s performance---Jake Gyllenhaal’s best scenes in Zodiac are his scenes with Downey in which Downey somehow creates a circle of light around Gyllenhaal, surrounding him with his dark intelligence and eccentricity to make the bland naivte of Gyllenhaal’s boy-man character shine.
We’ll see. A lot is going to depend on what Evans does in The First Avenger.
Neither Iron Man movie is possible to think about apart from Downey’s performance. There’s too much that’s fine about his portrayal of Tony Stark to go into here but I want to note how beautifully he conveys Stark’s intelligence as always a matter of physical expression. Stark can’t stand or sit still because he thinks with his body and he is always thinking. In this Downey is more Sherlock Holmesian than he is when he plays Sherlock Holmes. Lesser actors would look like they’re merely fidgeting. Downey makes you see the information flowing through his skin to and from his brain even when he’s doing something as simple as reaching for a screwdriver. The other, complementary aspect of this is his focus. Everything moves when he’s thinking except his big dark eyes. Also, thanks to the wonders of CGI, Downey is able to show Stark at work as a scientist as if he was a painter and so scenes in which he isn’t really doing anything more physically interesting than using a calculator have a grace and a beauty that makes being the biggest geek in the world look as sexy as being Mikhail Barishnikov in his prime.
Mickey Rourke gets all of his acting out of the way in the first ten minutes of the film. Samuel L. Jackson is Samuel L. Jackson. Don Cheadle’s a fine actor but I didn’t buy him as Jim Rhodes. Then, I didn’t buy Terrence Howard in the part either. I think it’s just that the script didn’t give either actor much of a character to play. Gwyneth Paltrow is my girlfriend in an alternative universe so I’m not objective enough to judge her performance. Scarlett Johansson doesn’t add very much to a part that’s mainly just an opportunity for a stunt woman in a catsuit to show off. And Sam Rockwell struggles mightily and usually successfully to make funny a character who isn’t written as funny as he needed to have been in order to be as funny as director Jon Favreau seems to think we’ll find him.
What this gets down to is what is obvious. Iron Man 2 is Robert Downey’s movie even more than Iron Man was his movie. The best performance in Iron Man 2 that isn’t by Downey is delivered by Gary Shandling!
Shandling plays a United States Senator who is onto Stark. Senator Stern is oily, smug, conniving, probably corrupt, and amusing because he’s genuinely amused by Tony Stark. Shandling gives Stern a sense of humor that almost offsets all his less likable traits. Stern knows that he’s right about Stark’s selfishness but he also knows when he’s been bested and to admire Stark, a little, for besting him.
An aside that I couldn’t figure out how to work into the actual post: How geeky cool is it that four of Marvel’s signature superheroes got their powers or enhanced their abilities through their skill at using a slide rule? Besides Tony Stark, there’s Reed Richards, Bruce Banner, and, nerdiest of them all, Peter Parker.
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Avengers assemble! Of course the original post didn’t include this:
Or this one either:
By the way, why is Natalie Portman starring in every movie being made these days?