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Saturday, May 8, 2010

Iron Man Returns


Reader Jayne Cobb chimed in with his opposing views on Iron Man 2. An excellent, thought-provoking critique discussing his problems with Iron Man 2 in detail. I still liked Iron Man 2 and was very entertained by it, but when Jayne Cobb is right, he's right.


I didn't care for Iron Man 2.  There.  I said it.  I thought long and hard about it for a day, but that's the bottom line.  I didn't hate Iron Man 2.  It's not Ghost Rider, or one of the Fantastic Four movies, or Daredevil or Elektra or Wolverine (man, Marvel sure can make a shitty movie when it wants).  What I really mean by "I didn't care for Iron Man 2" is that I didn't care about Iron Man 2.  I didn't care about any of the characters or any of the events that took place in the movie.  Ultimately, it felt like I paid $15 (damn faux-IMAX fee) to see a two hour trailer for The Avengers, and at the end of the day I wasn't sure I wanted to see The Avengers.  Allow me to elaborate.

Let's start with the Main (Iron) Man himself, Tony Stark.  In the original Iron Man, we were introduced to a playboy war profiteer with little regard for the consequences of his actions.  He enjoyed being smarter and richer than everyone else and it never occurred to him that just because one can do something doesn't mean one should do something.  He is then knocked off his pedestal, confronted with the ramifications of being a manufacturer of weapons of mass destruction, and dedicates his second chance at life to righting his past wrongs and bringing peace to the world.  That is a character arc.  

In Iron Man 2, Tony is once again a self-obsessed a-hole who seems to have learned nothing from his experiences in Iron Man.  What has changed is that Tony is dying.  He is constantly checking the toxicity level in his blood.  Jarvis makes it clear that his continued use of the Iron Man suit is accelerating this problem.  Now that would be compelling if Tony was turning a blind eye to the harm he was doing himself because he could not turn his back on all of the good he was doing as Iron Man; but in two hours we did not see a single proactive thing Iron Man did for the benefit of humanity.  Iron Man was either showing off at the Stark Expo, partying down, fighting his best friend, or fighting the villains who only existed to destroy him (more on that point later).  Tony tells us that he privatized world peace, but we never actually see that.  We just see the drunken billionaire playboy who would rather drive fast cars and piss in his super suit than deal with actual problems, either in the world or in his chest.  I have no problem with Tony Stark enjoying being Iron Man; but he should ultimately be a hero, not a jackass.

Pepper Potts?  First off, Bill O'Reilly was right.  Who the fuck makes their personal assistant CEO of a multi-national, multi-billion dollar company?  What would happen if Steve Jobs made his personal assistant CEO of Apple?  First, the stock would drop through the floor.  Second, the board of directors would stop him.  It was established in Iron Man that the board of directors of Stark Industries can disempower Tony when he behaves erratically, and making Pepper CEO was way more erratic than anything he did in Iron Man.  Second, I think the film missed an opportunity by keeping Pepper in the dark about Tony's medical condition.  She could have shown some real emotion watching the man she loves slowly (actually, not that slowly) kill himself.  Instead, she just (understandably) was mortified by Tony driving in a grand prix and drunkenly pissing in his suit.

Now let me turn to our three new characters.  In doing so, I'm going to draw heavily on a certain super hero sequel that we all know and love which also introduced three strikingly similar new characters: Batman Returns.  I do so because Batman Returns gave us three well-developed characters with clear back-stories and motivations that allowed me to relate to those characters and care about what they were doing.  In Iron Man 2, none of that held true.

First, we have Justin Hammer, the Max Shreck of our tale.  Just as Max was the evil billionaire counterpart to Bruce Wayne, so too was Hammer the billionaire counterpart to Stark.  I must say that Sam Rockwell did a fine job with what he had to work with.  I understood that he was playing a man who was trying to be Tony Stark but due to his own lack of skills could not pull it off.  As a great man once said, however, just because I don't care doesn't mean I don't understand.

The key difference between Hammer and Shreck was that Shreck's agenda was completely divorced from Batman/Bruce Wayne.  If Batman/Bruce didn't exist, Shreck would still have wanted to build his power capacitor.  It was his legacy, what he left behind, for Chip.  Thus, Gotham was fortunate to have Batman to stop Max's villainous plans.  (Although, in retrospect, I'm not sure why it would have been such a bad thing for Max to have succeeded.)  In contrast, if Iron Man didn't exist to give Hammer something to compete with, he would have been content to continue to make his crappy guns and defective Ex-Wives.  And, ultimately, what did Hammer do to warrant getting arrested?  He didn't steal the Iron Man armor; the U.S. government gave it to him.  Sure he built killer drones, but that is what the government wanted.  Sure the drones went evil, but he had nothing to do with that.  OK, maybe he broke Whiplash out of prison, but really, what's the big deal?  It's not like he recruited Whiplash to run for mayor.  I just didn't care.

Which brings us to Whiplash.  Once again, this villain exists only because of a personal blood feud with Tony Stark.  Contrast this with Oswald Cobblepot.  Both Vanko and Cobblepot were set up as mirror images to their respective heroes.  Vanko and Stark both the sons of brilliant physicists, Wayne and Cobblepot both the sons of Gotham's privileged elite.  While Wayne and Stark became wildly successful playboys who fight crime in super suits, Vanko and Cobblepot were outcasts living in the shadows.  Cobblepot, however, was not driven by a need to seek revenge against Bruce Wayne.  Like Shreck, had Bruce Wayne not existed Cobblepot would have had the same villainous plan.  Once again, Gotham was luck to have Batman to stop him; and unlike Max's benevolent gift of a power plant, it's pretty clear that it would not have been a good thing if Oswald had succeeded in killing off all of Gotham's first born children.  

On the other hand, if Tony had never become Iron Man, Vanko would have continued to live in poverty in Russian never causing the world any harm.  The other key difference between Cobblepot and Vanko is that the former was legitimately wronged; his parents dumped his deformed ass into a freakin' sewer.  Early on in Iron Man 2, we are led to believe that Vanko too was wronged; that Howard Stark had stolen his father's technology and (metaphorically) dumped the Vanko's in a sewer while becoming a billionaire.  That would have made Ivan a bit more identifiable.  Nick Fury, however, made it perfectly clear that Vanko Senior was a traitor and a failure and that the shinning pillar that was Howard Stark acted completely honorably in having Vanko deported while founding S.H.I.E.L.D.  So much for moral ambiguities.

And finally we have the woman who shall not be called The Black Widow.  So what was her deal?  Where did she come from?  Why and how did she join S.H.I.E.L.D.?  What kind of missions did she have in the past?  I'll assume that the entire bio that Stark pulled up on her was forged by S.H.I.E.L.D. to get her close to Tony, so none of that was true (they probably even photoshopped her modeling portfolio, those bastards).  I won't even bother comparing her to the full character arc of Selina Kyle, whom we get to see transform into Catwoman and are easily able to identify with her clear motive in Batman Returns: kill Max Shreck.  Sure, the row of 13-year-old boys behind me flipped out at her one action scene -- and I'll admit she wasn't hard on the eyes -- but, once again, I just didn't care about her "character."

There was actually a pretty interesting intellectual question underlying Iron Man 2: what does it mean to have one man privatize world peace?  Is it a good thing that the Iron Man tech remains in one man's hands?  What happens when that one man is a self-destructive narcissist who is slowly dying?  To his credit, Rhodey seemed to grasp this ("You don't deserve to wear one of these!"), and to the extent there was a character I could relate to in the movie, it was Rhodes.  But the film was not set up to embrace and fully explore that theme.  Had the villain been an independent threat to the world (and not just to Iron Man himself) that Tony could not defeat alone because the same tech that made Iron Man possible was killing him, we could have explored that theme.  But, alas, that was not the case.

Actually, the one character I did like was John Slattery as Howard Stark as Walt Disney.  But it's probably not a good thing that the character I liked the most only appeared in old film reels promoting the Stark Epcot . . . I mean Expo.  But even then, let's look at Howard's function in the film.  He bestows upon Tony the model of the Expo that is an encoded key to the element that will allow him to survive.  First off, what the fuck were the odds that that model was going to survive several decades so that it would be of any use to Tony?  Second, what were the odds that this mystery element would be just what the doctor ordered to safely power the arc rector in Tony's chest that was keeping him alive?  Third, does that element have any other functions?  Will it somehow revolutionize the world?  If so, how?  I also kept waiting for them to call the element vibrainium, but I guess the prototype Cap Shield was all we were going to get on that front.  The whole thing just came off as way too much of a deus ex machina.

At the end of the movie, Senator Garry Shandling pins medals on the chests of Stark and Rhodes, and all I could think was, what the hell did they do to deserve those medals?  Much like the Fantastic Four, all they did for two hours was create their own messes and then clean them up.  When all was said and done, I had no reason to believe that the world was better for having Iron Man in it.  To the contrary, all of the mayhem, chaos and death in Iron Man 2 would not have happened had Tony Stark been killed in Afghanistan.  

Leaving the theater I thought about the other "second" Batman movie, The Dark Knight Iron Man and The Dark Knight were both critical and financial successes when they were both released, in 2008.  Two years ago.  The Dark Knight was actually far more successful, both critically and financially, than Iron Man, but we won't be sitting down to watch its sequel this summer, or even next summer.  Warner Brothers is allowing a full four years to pass between Batflims because they want to get it right.  In stark contrast (pun intended), Marvel put out Iron Man 2 in half that time, and the whole thing felt rushed; like it was more important to get this movie in theaters to make some money and set up The Avengers than to make a fully-developed Iron Man movie that stands on its own.  That's just a shame.