Iron Man 2

Although I never got around to seeing the original Iron Man (IMDB), I’ve been curious about the character and the Iron Man world for some time, in part because the Tony Stark/Iron Man doubling seems like a relatively timely figure for some of the contradictions associated with the post-9/11 twist on the military industrial complex, in which military contractors such as Halliburton have become so highly visible.  Many of these contradictions are expressed through Robert Downey, Jr’s portrayal of Tony as garish rock star, living in lavish style, even while that performance hides the fact that the substance that fuels his suit, a rare element, is also toxic.

The film glosses some of these social issues briefly, and like Lance Mannion, I’m intrigued by a summer blockbuster that has a science geek at its heart, even one who is a millionaire playboy).  Stark is subpoenaed to testify before Congress where he is interrogated by the opportunistic Senator Stern played by Garry Shandling.  During this testimony, Stark drops one of the film’s most iconic one-liners, proudly bragging, “I have privatized world peace.”  Given Stark’s mental and physical health, it’s not clear how we are supposed to feel about Stark’s quip.  Are we supposed to read it as false and potentially dangerous bravado? Or are we supposed to recognize that government intervention will somehow negate the deterrent to war that the Iron Man suit represents?

Pushing the ideological questions a little further: A rival military contractor, Justin Hammer (played with a slightly creepy bravado by Sam Rockwell), attempts to steal the suit, and barring that, hires Ivan Vanko (Mickey Roarke), the son of a Russian scientist betrayed by Tony’s father.  Even the “origins” of the military-industrial complex in the 1950s, an era that celebrated technocratic efficiency, which Tony watches using a 16mm movie projector, are suggested through educational films depicting Tony’s father talking about the wonders of technology.  But much of this story gets submerged in the revenge narrative associated with Vanko, in part I think due to Roarke’s charismatic performance (he clearly delights in playing a supervillain and even gives the role some surprising depth) and in part due to the fact that the film really isn’t all that interested in the politics of privatization.  It’s much more interested in the personal conflict faced by Tony and the personal rivalries associated with Vanko and Hammer (see Lance on this point as well).

More than that, it really just wants to blow stuff up.  And  more specifically it wants to ensure that the character and the Marvel comic book world will continue to be viable through future iterations of the franchise, whether games, comic books, films, or other media.  This focus on building the franchise, most visible in a subplot involving Nick Fury and Black Widow that seems essentially unnecessary, led Nick Pinkerton of The Village Voice to complain:

If you’re not a comic-book reader, these scenes may as well have been scripted in Wingdings, while initiates will understand that Fury is here, essentially, to do press for the upcoming Avengers movie. This sub-subplot is symptomatic of the franchise-first mindset in the era of the $200M “Episode,” where films are constructed less as freestanding edifices than as elements in superstructures (for example: the transposition of the entire Marvel Universe to film).

I think this is a pretty apt depiction of franchise-era Hollywood, but I wonder if the complaints about the episodic nature of these films aren’t a little misguided, and like Pinkerton, I felt like I was watching a preview of the inevitable video game during the final scene, but when it’s done well, the world-building of a media franchise can be fascinating (and quite often contradictory), especially given the input of different directors and different media.  But given that the film is laying the groundwork for other Marvel characters, I think that the cultivation of anticipation is simply an acknowledgment that a larger Marvel world exists.  The overall effect of Iron Man 2, for me at least, was essentially technological and narrative competence.  The fight scenes were dramatic and thrilling enough, especially the Grand Prix scene in which Vanko torments Stark during a Grand Prix race in Monaco with a set of light-sabery bullwhips.  The film pushed the Stark-Pepper Potts relationship a little further.  Stark offered just enough snarky one-liners to fill a movie trailer.  But like the technocratic logic that the film recalls, it left me feeling a little cold.

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