I don’t read many movie reviews any more, but I assume the libertarian embrace of Iron Man 2 (2010) is in full swing. Insofar as it has a message, it was lifted by screenwriter Justin Theroux from Ayn Rand. “I have successfully privatized world peace!” says Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), dressing down a panel of weaselly senators who want to take his technology away from him. “I’m tired of the liberal agenda,” says Stark to his assistant Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow), in a line that doesn’t make a lot of sense (he’s tired of spending money on projects that look good for his company) except as a dog whistle to tea partyers. Stark’s biggest foil is Justin Hammer, a government contractor/moron played by Sam Rockwell as the best reason to cut federal spending since Ronald Reagan bashed “welfare queens.”
The problem, as with so many attempts to inject real world relevance and politics into a super hero movie,* is that the message doesn’t really make sense. There’s no sense that Stark’s agenda is any different than Uncle Sam’s — he’s not, as Warren Ellis’s or Mark Millar’s heroes sometimes do, neutering the United States and leveling the playing field between the first and third worlds. And as stupid as Hammer is, his downfall comes not from punishing the innovation of private operators as it comes from hiring as his lead developer a Russian psychopath (Mickey Rourke) who uses his government contract to carry out a vendetta against Stark.
I had fun during Iron Man 2. Downey and Rockwell are given lots and lots of scenery to chew, and they take to it like termites. Director Jon Favreau does some wonderful work with the cliches of the genre and the series, like an angry video chat (in the heat of battle) between Stark and Potts, a 3-D supercomputer projection whose images can be crunched up and tossed into (also imaged) basketball hoops, a souped-up version of the Iron Man armor that folds into a suitcase.
But in Iron Man (2008), Stark is forced, again and again, to invent his way out of a crisis. He puts together his original, clunky Iron Man armor in a frantic race to save his life from terrorists. He develops his improved armor as he experiments on ways to keep his nuclear-powered heart alive — one of my favorite scenes in the film was the screwball “fix my heart, fast!” surgery with Potts. We know that the armor he’s inventing would never really work, but it’s fun watching how long it takes to figure out each kink.
There’s significantly less of this in Iron Man 2 — inventing new armor becomes an easy action movie task along the lines of making an 18-wheeler explode with a well-timed shotgun blast. It takes Rourke’s Ivan Valko six months to create his first bootleg arc generator and energy whip, which he uses to face down Iron Man at a racetrack. (As my friend Phil Klein asked in the dark theater, how is Valko the only person in Monaco who knows that Stark will race his company’s car? Not even the TV station knows.) It takes him approximately three days to create 18 armored droids and a suit of armor that improves on many of Stark’s designs. It takes Stark around a day — in a really moronic sequence — to realize his father hid the chemical code for a new element in a diorama, build a rube goldberg machine that synthesizes elements, and add the new element to his suit. (This element is necessary, by the way, because of a previously unspoken flaw with Stark’s arc generator that is poisoning him, and for some reason toxifies his blood by 24% in 6 months and by another 27% in the two days from the start of the film’s narrative.) Oh, and this — how does Pepper Potts spend her entire career working around sci-fi robots and NOT KNOW WHAT IT MEANS WHEN A RED BUTTON STARTS BEEPING LOUDER AND LOUDER. It means explosions.
Like I said — funny movie, two actors that produce one-liners like Rob Pollard produces lo-fi rock tracks, some memorable scenes of robots going shithouse on other robots. But fairly stupid, a little disappointing.
Also, Scarlett Johansen is in it.
*One exception here is the sonic spying technology invented by Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight (2008), which actually makes a point about civil liberties, especially when it’s deactivated at the end of the film. And the X-Men films aren’t bad at this either.