Sense of Wonder: Iron Man 2 – Hollywood loves a Lone Gunslinger

IRON MAN 2 lionizes its rich billionaire’s lone gunslinger attitude. Is national security and/or world peace really better off in the hands of a private businessman?

Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is unable to prevent Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) from making a drunken fool of himself at a party
Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is unable to prevent Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) from making a drunken fool of himself at a party

Watching IRON MAN 2, I began to suspect that one reason for the recent success of Marvel Comic book adaptations is that their menagerie of superhero characters is less iconic than their DC counterparts, such as Superman and Batman, and this lesser status allows more play room for the filmmakers. As a special effects-filled action flick, IRON MAN 2 is passably good; what really makes it entertaining is the depiction of Tony Stark as a spoiled billionaire fathead who drinks too much and suffers from”textbook narcissism.” In spite of his failings, we like Stark because he’s a fun guy, he means well, and after all he is portrayed (brilliantly) by Robert Downey, Jr. The thing of it is, we can accept the hedonistic jerk we see up on the big screen because the depiction is not triggering any cognitive dissonance. Not to belittle the popularity of Iron Man and other Marvel characters among the comic fan base, but you can do this because the public at large does not holding dearly on to some sacred childhood memories of the character. If you tried something similar with Bruce Wayne, you could bet there would be an outcry.
Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury
Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury

I mention Batman’s alter ego because it helps me segue into another thought about IRON MAN 2: although it is fun to watch, it suffers in comparison to THE DARK KNIGHT, which deals with a similar theme, that of the lone gunslinger who must clean up a corrupt town (or in this case world). The idea is threaded throughout the IRON MAN 2, but it goes underdeveloped as other ideas elbow their way in. In fact, the script features several interesting plot threads, but it lacks a strong central plot that ties them altogether: Stark is drunk (literally and figuratively) on the fame of being Iron Man, but his health suffering from his use of the mechanical suit; he struggles with his feelings for Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Samuel L. Jackson shows up again as Nick Fury. Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) blames Stark’s father for his father death in poverty and wants revenge. Stark’s rival Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) wants to take Stark down.
What gets lost in all this is what should have been the core idea: Stark has supposedly single-handedly brought about world peace, but the U.S. government doesn’t trust him to continue doing so and wants to get its collective hands on the Iron Man technology. As embodied by Gary Shandling’s Senator Stern, the government is portrayed as a sorry bunch of grasping morons who will probably screw everything up, and we are invited to cheer as Stark makes fools of them at a Senate hearing.
It’s all very funny, but it plays into the fascist undertones often apparent in superhero stories, which suggest that certain people are just…well – better than everyone else, and if the weak majority of fools would just get out of the way and let the few wise ones work unfettered, then the world would be a better place.
For all Hollywood’s allegedly liberal bias, this is hardly a liberal sentiment; in the era of Blackwater, you would expect a little more skepticism about the wisdom of turning military matters over to private enterprise. But then Hollywood isn’t really liberal. It’s a company town run by rich people who want the government to stay out of their business. This may seem liberal to social conservatives, but it’s really more libertarian.
IRON MAN 2 doesn’t quite endorse this viewpoint. The plot, such as it develops, leads Stark to finally accept a sidekick (in the form of Don Cheadle’s Colonel Rhodes) and, by implication, assistance from the government, but the film cannot resist a parting (and admittedly funny) shot at Senator Stern. Maybe the Iron Man technology is too big for one person to be its sole proprietor, but the implication is that lesser men are riding on the coattails of their betters.
Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer
Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer

I wouldn’t object to IRON MAN 2’s dubious political stance except that it muddles what could have made a good sequel even better. Justin Theroux’s script offers some funny dialogue, and director Jon Favreau has the cast deliver it in overlapping bursts that sound like real people trying to get in on a conversation, as opposed to actors waiting for their cue lines. All the actors are good, and Sam Rockwell deserves a special nod: he may seem a little over-the-top as Hammer, but this is not a flaw in the performance; it’s part of his character, a (figuratively) small man trying too hard to be bigger than Tony Stark.
IRON MAN 2 also deserves credit for having the nerve to avoid beginning with Iron Man finishing up a previous mission – which is pretty much the easiest way to launch a sequel like this. It’s also nice that the Iron Man sequences are kept to a minimum while the script tries to service its various characters and plot threads. The use of action seems strategically calculated to offer big payoffs at specific intervals, instead of wearing the audience down through overuse (a la Michael Bay). I particularly liked that Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) has only one scene in which she shows off her martial arts skills – it added a different kind of action in the third act, and you were allowed to anticipate and enjoy the action without its unbalancing the rest of the film. And, frankly, it’s much more fun to watch her character kick ass than it was watching Chloe Moretz as Hit-Girl.
All of this combines to recreate the fun of the first film, but there’s something missing. What fueled IRON MAN was Stark’s transition from shallow playboy to unexpected hero (unexpected by himself as much as by anyone else). There is nothing as strong going on here, perhaps because of some reluctance on the part of the filmmakers. As I said above, we like Tony Stark; I get the feeling that the filmmakers like him even more – too much to take him down a peg or present him with any conflicts that would cause him to seriously reconsider his eco-centric attitude.

Stark is not suffering any blow-back from his actions in the previous film or atoning for any past mistakes. Yes, Vanko accuses Stark’s father of being a thief, but the accusation turns out to be a false charge. (One of the more cloying elements of IRON MAN 2 is that Tony reconciles himself to his dead father, who turns out to be a nice visionary guy, with more than a touch of Walt Disney about him, rather than the mercenary arms dealer one would have suspected.) The only real personal crisis impinging on Stark (outside of his failing health) is the government attempt to coerce him into surrendering his Iron Man technology.
This is where IRON MAN 2 and THE DARK KNIGHT intersect. As I pointed out in “Dark Knight’s Politics of Noir,” the Batman sequel presents a modern variation on an old Western theme: that of the lone gunslinger who is rendered obsolete when justice becomes institutionalized, administered by courts and duly appointed officers of the law. In THE DARK KNIGHT, Bruce Wayne knew there was only so much he could achieve as Batman: Gotham needed more than a lone vigilante; it needed someone with a public face who could administer justice in the daylight, in the courts, not only in a dark alley at night.
IRON MAN 2 seems to admit of no such limitations. We are told – and expected to believe – that Stark has successfully “privatized world peace.” His impact on the world is literally more profound than the H-bomb. But peace isn’t just a matter of military strength (as Bush’s Iraq adventure should have taught us). Sure, Iron Man may be effective at putting down an uprising or battling off an enemy, but what happens after he leaves? Are we supposed to assume everyone joins hands and sings a round of Kumbaya? Isn’t there any collateral damage or lingering resentment among the defeated (or their heirs)? This may sound a little heavy-duty for what is clearly meant to be an entertainment film, but IRON MAN managed to invest its superhero story with some solid drama, so why not the sequel?

Stark (Robert Downey Jr) realizes he needs assistance from Rhodes (Don Cheadle)
Stark (Robert Downey Jr) realizes he needs assistance from Rhodes (Don Cheadle)

In its effort to squeeze in Whiplash and Black Widow, while simultaneously setting up the in-production THOR and the expected AVENGERS movie, IRON MAN 2 loses sight of the prize. It should have been about Tony Stark’s realization that there are some things he cannot achieve alone – and this realization should have involved more than being able to put down Vanko or outshine Hammer. It should have been the same sort of sobering realization that affected him so deeply in the first film, when he experienced the metaphoric fruits of his labors first-hand vis-a-vis being on the receiving end of the kind of weapons technology on which he had so thoughtlessly had made his fortune. That kind of character development would have tied IRON MAN 2’s plot threads together into something more than just an entertaining sequel; it could have elevated the film to the level of its predecessor.

4 Replies to “Sense of Wonder: Iron Man 2 – Hollywood loves a Lone Gunslinger”

  1. It’s funny that you say Hollywood isn’t liberal but then you actually make a big part of your criticism that the movie wasn’t liberal enough.

  2. I don’t see the humor: Hollywood isn’t particularly liberal; the film isn’t particularly liberal. That’s consistent, not funny.
    I did not criticize the film for not being liberal enough. My criticism is that the film’s (admittedly tongue-in-cheek) political stance hurt the drama, because the filmmakers were reluctant to create a third-act crisis that would lead the hero to question his attitudes or values. Sure, Tony Stark accepts help from a sidekick at the end, but that’s not a particularly big dramatic payoff.

  3. You are not the first critic to mention “fascist undertones”, but like most people that throw that word around you have no idea what it means. Fascist does not mean “evil corporations”. Fascism means total government control.
    Italy’s fascist dictator, Mussolini, said that fascism means, “Everything inside the state, nothing outside the state.” Nazism meant absolute and total government control. These are nearly the exact opposite of free private enterprise.
    The main difference between Communism and Fascism is whether they allow private organizations to exist, but both ideologies believe in absolute government control. They are just two means to the same end. Germany and Italy controlled every facet of their businesses – the exact opposite of free enterprise as embodied by Stark Industries, libertarianism, or the American Founding Fathers.
    So you cannot tar the free market and free individuals with the epithet of “fascism”. Fascism means total government control.

  4. I never said that fascism means evil corporations or the free market. I said that there were “fascist undertones” in comic book superhero stories. “Undertones” indicates an undercurrent rather than a full-blown eruption; I was not trying to indicate a one-to-one equivalence.
    You are correct about the definition of fascism in an old-fashioned historical sense, but definitions evolve over time.Fascist regimes were characterized by charismatic leaders in showy uniforms who used mass events to rally their followers. Sounds similar to any early scene in IRON MAN 2?
    In theory, this “cult of personality” is a key difference between fascism and communism (although North Korea’s nationwide mandated adoration of their “Fearless Leader” shows that theory and practice can diverge). From the context of my use of the word “fascism” in the article, I thought it was clear that I was referring to this aspect – of leaders or individuals considered somehow above the rest, even above the law. When we talk about “free individuals,” it is well to remember that Mussolini and Hitler were also free to do whatever they wanted.

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