It was with some degree of anticipation that I recently went to see Paramount’s Iron Man 2 . I had enjoyed seeing the first film a couple of years ago – it was quirky, fresh, entertaining with some good special effects and action scenes. For many movie goers the second film lived up to their expectations, but I must confess to mixed feelings about it this time round.
Iron Man 2 opens 6 months after the events of the last film. Tony Stark, billionaire weapons industrialist has revealed himself to the world as the superhero Iron Man and has brokered world peace. While Tony basks in the spotlight, different forces are marshalling against him both from outside and from within. In the USA there is a growing pressure for him to surrender his Ironman suits to the US military, spearheaded by Senator Stem and encouraged by his ruthless rival, Justin Hammer (of Hammer industries). Meanwhile, brilliant Russian physicist Ivan Vanko uses arc technology to transform himself into Whiplash in an obsessive desire to exact revenge on Stark for his father’s deportation, years in Siberia, poverty and recent death. After a spectacular show down in Circuit de Monaco between Vanco and Stark, Hammer busts Vanco out of jail in order to secure his services so that Hammer industries can outbid Stark Industries in developing ironman type suits for the US military.
Meanwhile, Tony Stark is affected by the increasing Pallidum toxicity from the arc device implanted in his chest. This device not only powers his suits but protects his heart from inoperable shrapnel, thus keeping him alive. Stark’s behaviour, always idiosyncratic and quirky, becomes increasingly erratic, impulsive and risky, as he tells no one of his impending death. His erratic behaviour increasingly alienates his closest associates, Pepper Pots and “Rhodey” Rhodes, and provides an opening for the shadowy S.H.I.E.L.D agents. Events are thus sent in motion that culminated in the obligatory spectacular climax of the film.
Once again, Robert Downey Jr engagingly brings Tony Stark to life while Mickey Rourke provides a convincing portrayal of brooding, intimidating evil as Ivan Vanco. Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Pots), Don Cheadle (Colonel James Rhodes) and Sam Rockwell (Justin Hammer) give more than adequate performances in their supporting roles. Overall the film works, though as I said, I had some mixed reactions to it. On the negative side, early scenes of Stark’s narcissistic basking in the crazed adulation that comes his way for single handedly bringing about world peace grated. The film also dragged at the beginning as all the complex story threads were being established (including the lead-in to the planned Avengers movies as well as Iron Man III ), only to be succeeded for me by a surprisingly uncomfortable sense of impending doom as the multitude of threats to Tony began to stack up. On the positive side, by the Monaco race scene the narrative began to speed up and the special effects in this particular sequence were spectacular and definitely worth waiting for. The final climactic events, while perhaps predictable, were sufficiently satisfying including the lightly humorous romantic scene long deferred from the previous movie. By the end of the movie, I was satisfied.
Yet after all the dust had settled I was left wondering what it had all been about. What is it about Tony Stark that makes him a superhero worth barracking for and, perhaps, identifying with? As I pondered this I began to see parallels with three other famous movie characters.
At first, I was struck by the obvious parallels between another comic book billionaire, playboy industrialist who achieves his superhero status though his brilliant and innovative application of technology (rather than from innate or genetically altered abilities). I discovered that these similarities between Bruce Wayne/Batman (DC comics) and Tony Stark/Ironman (Marvel Comics) have been noted at least since the closely timed release of the first Iron Man film and Batman Begins in 2008. Yet Tony Stark is not your typical superhero. It is not just that he is more flippant than the angst ridden Wayne. True, Stark is not ruthlessly amoral like his arch-enemies Whiplash and Justin Hammer. He does care about his friends and country (if in a somewhat self-focused way) and he does not kill innocent bystanders to achieve his goals. Yet Stark makes no broad motherhood statements (fighting for justice, truth and the American way for instance – except some vague and almost facetious statements about protecting the future for our progeny), he is not too concerned about what responsibilities his super powers might demand of him and has no qualms about using his new found fame to stroke his personal ego.
A second parallel was deliberately drawn. Original writer of comic book series, Stan Lee stated that he moulded Stark on Howard Hughes – a real life eccentric, playboy, industrialist billionaire at the innovative edge of movie making and aviation. And the parallels are certainly there – especially in the senate enquiry proceedings. Though I must admit that I found Aviator a far more satisfying film in its exploration of the tragic ironies and tensions of a man seemingly with it all – good looks, genius, riches, fame, power, indomitable will and unlimited sexual partners – who wrestles with a overwhelming and seemingly inexorable condition (mental illness rather than heavy metal toxicity and a threatened heart). In Ironman 2, Tony comes straight to the senate inquiry from the opening of the Stark Industries Expo were he has been greeted like a rock or movie super star while Hughes has, with great mental effect, pulled himself out of weeks of self imposed isolation and descent into neuroticism, to (like Stark) turn the tables on his detractors with biting humour, a uncanny grasp of the situation and a cucumber cool aplomb. And for all Hughes’ brilliance, wealth and power, (unlike Stark) there is no genie in the bottle, no voice from the past, no incredible scientific discovery that can in the end save him.
And then again, I wonder, tongue in cheek, whether there may also be similarities between Iron man and Tinman from The Wizard of Oz. Does the powerful, unbreakable, outer metal shell house an aching emptiness, an absent (or in Tony’s case broken) heart that needs filling or mending? Neither Stark or Hughes have fathered children which they might acknowledge as their own. In Aviator, Hughes’ father is a literally absent figure while in Ironman 2, Tony’s father is figuratively absent or distant during his childhood. In a revealing scene, Stark doubts that his busy and preoccupied father, had any great opinion of or love for his son. As he watches a movie clip from the past his father speaks directly to him, giving him the solution to his insolvable problem. It is only as Tony is brought to the very edge of his mortality and his debt to the past that he can begin to acknowledge his feelings and attachments to others such as Pepper and Rhodey.
So which is he – superhero, alpha male struggling with his inevitable humanity or tinman in search of a heart? In a world in which superpowers, amoral multinational corporations and suicidal terrorists and extremists seem to control world events while ordinary people are relegated to the sidelines, it is satisfying to believe one maverick individual can transform himself into a superhero and make all the difference. And the fact that he seems to have it all, makes it even more satisfying to imagine ourselves in his Iron suit though we know that is the stuff daydreams are made of. On the other hand, we can also identify with his struggle against detractors, jealous rivals and his own mortality. Like phoenix and Howard Hughes (for a time), he rises from the ashes to snatch victory from seeming defeat which gives us hope that we might do the same, despite what the future may hold. But quintessentially, Tony Stark embodies at least one form of 21st century, secular “man” with his easy use of and great dependence on technology, his narcisstic enjoyment of material pleasures of the now, his refusal to make a pretence of moral seriousness or ideals, his troubled and tenuous connection to his past and his friends and supporters. Having the freedom to pursue happiness on his own terms, to make himself in his own image, unfettered by the past, he finds himself lost, adrift and struggling to find meaning and purpose.
There is one other parallel that springs to my mind – one who instead of inventing and constructing his “super” powers, lays them and his high position aside in order to identify with our lives full of joys, triumphs, struggles, pains, and challenges. Without flinching, he faces the worst that death could do though that, of course, is not the end of the story. This is a story too that gives hope – not that we can overcome all the super powers, opposition and stuff life throws at us by some technological marvellous iron suit – but that in his dying, death and evil was defeated and new full life offered to anyone willing to take it.
But then after all, I have more than likely read far too much into a movie that is meant to entertain and thrill. And despite the slow start, in this it was largely successful. Had it kept me engaged and breathless with exciting twists and turns from the very beginning I might never have wondered what it was all about. For me, it is Tony Stark’s very flaws, his humanity – engagingly and humorously portrayed – that makes this movie more than a mere combination of special effects and a fairly predictable thriller.
For a humerous look at the parallels between Batman and Iron man checkout: