Thursday, May 20, 2010

Movie Review: Iron Man & Iron Man 2

Iron Man (2008)
Directed by Jon Favreau.

Spoilers of both Iron Man movies throughout.

In 2008 Iron Man burst into theaters seemingly from nowhere to substantial critical and popular success. It became surprisingly popular within the conservative and libertarian community, but with good reason? Let's take a look.

Undoubtedly what stands out most in Iron Man is Tony Stark himself: a former child prodigy, a genius, a billionaire playboy, and an unapologetic designer and seller of high tech weaponry for the United States military. He is charming, confident, and aggressive. When confronted by a reporter and accused of being a "merchant of death" he does not  recoil and mutter, "Gee, maybe you're right." He does not apologize for profiting from making weapons that defend Americans. He replies without pause that his father helped defeat the Nazis and his company's profits go into medical research.

Stark has no qualms about killing terrorists and making weapons used to advance America's interests. His only qualm is with his weapons being used against Americans and innocent parties. When he finds out they are being used so, he does not storm into the board room of Stark Industries. . . he flies across the globe and blows them up himself. This talent and agency is what endears Tony Stark and Iron Man to the individualist in the audience. He does not buy the suit, he does not even work with a team on it. He builds it. Moreover he builds it in his basement, a situation all but symbolic of the enthusiast and entrepreneurial spirit.

In specific contrast to Stark is Obadiah Stane, partner of Tony's late father (who founded the company after working on the Manhattan Project) and more or less the manager of Stark Industries since Tony is more interested in inventing and. . . other pursuits. Yet Obadiah is double-dealing, selling weapons to terrorists. Aside from attempting to have Tony killed and seize the Stark Industries fully for himself, he wants the Iron Man suit. Yet even with a prototype of the power source and a team of engineers Stane cannot reproduce the suit. In a great line late in the movie, Stane Says: "Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave. . . with a box of scraps!" and the hapless engineer replies, "Well I'm sorry. I'm not Tony Stark." The clarity of the sentiment is refreshing: Tony Stark is a genius. He invented this device and no one else can figure it out. That this is expressed as a positive and without ambiguity or apology is what struck individualists everywhere. Shortly later, when he finally resorts to stealing the source (and killing Tony) he tells the dying Stark, "You think all because you have an idea it belongs to you?" This was an even more surprising line. You mean Tony has a right to profit by his own effort and be secure in the property he uses to support himself? That this is expressed as a positive and without ambiguity or apology is what struck the libertarian crowd.

These contrasting pairs are the highlight of the movie. Other elements are ancillary and while competently handled, not terribly significant. Their careful balance is in part what makes Iron Man " the film equivalent of a Rorschach test" as Sonny Bunch noted in his review in 2008. On the one hand Rhodey (Colonel Rhodes, Tony's friend, head of military weapons development, and the apparent liaison between Stark Enterprises and the military) is a capable and responsible member of the military. On the other hand he does not even care to hear about Tony's "non-military" project. Similarly, while Stark Industries is the company responsible for making these weapons, when Tony wants to change the company's direction it is not the board who objects, only Stane.

Last we should note what is missing: any commentary on the wars in the Middle East at all. There are none, pro or con, overt or backhand. We do not know what Tony thought about going in the first place, but we can safely guess he supports winning.

Overall Bunch was right to call Iron Man "not a conservative movie per se." [1] It is not, but it lacks all of the usual backtracking, ham-fisted moralizing, finger-wagging, apologizing, and sucker punches that drive many conservative and libertarian movie-goers nuts. It is not brilliantly structured but the performances are strong, it is unapologetic about what is right and wrong, and the whole project has such a gusto you cannot help but get swept up. In short, Iron Man is blast.

Iron Man 2 (2010)

Iron Man 2 does not quite succeed as its predecessor. This is for a number of reasons and as such, I begin this review with a little list.

1) The writers were in a position to explore the dynamic of Tony Stark being known to be Iron Man. Sure, we see him as his usual playboy self having fun as Iron Man. Yet this does not really generate any conflict.

2) The character of Rhodey doesn't really come into any focus. He doesn't want to steal the suit from Tony, but he does. He doesn't want to let the military weaponize it, but he does.

3) The addition of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury and Black Widow adds next-to-nothing to the movie. They're just more characters walking around. In fact, Tony Stark's driver Happy Hogan (played by director Jon Favreau) is actually more fun to watch.

4) The fact that Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. literally drop a crate in front of Tony with all of the answers he needs and that key to perfecting his technology lies in a miniature-scale mock-up of the World's Fair his father designed when Tony was a child is simply too silly.

5) Similarly, Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. simply drop in and tell us the story of Ivan Vanko's and Tony's fathers. This would be more tolerable if the story were more satisfying. The rift between Howard Stark and Anton Vanko was caused by Vanko wanting to sell the technology, presumably to disreputable people. That's not bad, per se, but the story is delivered so quickly and with such sterility it fails to feel significant. Since it is so similar to other conflicts (between Tony and Stane, and Hammer and Stane) his scene needed to draw a sense of parallel and continuity among the situations. The similarity feels more like staleness than symmetry. This is particularly a shame because all of Tony's detractors could have been more significant in why they are his enemies, being symbolic of something specific: Stane of greed, Hammer of vanity, the government of collectivism, and Vanko of envy. All of this can sort of be read into the film to its advantage, but it clearly was not structured in.

Lastly, the film does not have any new conflicts of any kind. Tony's wannabe rival Justin Hammer is essentially Stane from the first film: he wants the technology but cannot make it himself, so he steals it. Yet he is such a weakling and a loser that he is less villain and more simply pest. His sub-par suits Tony and Rhodey will battle at the climax are just fodder for a more elaborate final action sequence.

Ivan Vanko feels like a suitable villain because he is strong and brilliant and he too makes a device based on the "arc-reactor technology" but his quick defeat and simplistic motivation are not compelling. He feels just like one of the many other characters trailing after Tony, which is unfortunate because Rourke is terrific. He is so good, in fact, one has more interest in Vanko than one ought too given the limits of the writing.

Yet Iron Man 2 has two saving graces. First is the repercussions from Tony believing he is dying because he cannot find a suitable non-poisonous metal for his hear-replacement. At first he decides to go out in a blaze of glory, throwing a big party for his birthday and wearing the Iron Man suit throughout. Nick Fury shows up, puts him under house arrest and tells him to figure it out. (Which he does.) This was a potentially interesting situation but it was not handled well in the writing. It could have explored, or at least mentioned or alluded to somehow, Tony's need to understand himself and his father. As it happens, Tony just watches some old movies, spots the map of the fair, and figures out what to do. The fact that his father left this puzzle for him to figure out is a good premise but what follows does not live up to it. We do not feel as if Tony is finally understanding something or taking up and fulfilling his true inheritance.

The second saving element is the clamor around the Iron Man suit. Everyone is scrambling for it. What Stane said to the terrorist Raza in the first movie, "Technology was always your weakness in this part of the world" is now true for everyone. The arms race here could have had a great symmetry between the arms race that followed his father's completion of the first nuclear bomb. Howard Stark's invention helped end a war and protect America, but a potentially catastrophic arms race ensued. Tony does something not dissimilar, but the similarities do not resonate strongly enough. This is particularly unfortunate and inexplicable given the significance of the contrasting pairs of the Starks and Vankos.

These two "saving graces" demonstrate that Iron Man 2 was indeed a more ambitious script than its predecessor. There are many good, or excellent, ideas and elements not sufficiently brought out in the final product. The finale could have been a glorious showdown between determined and brilliant men of different character and ideology struggling at their limits to live up to their fathers' legacies. It was, in a very limited sense and perhaps because we can sense how great the movie could have been we are especially disappointed.

Yet we are still left with an entertaining picture. The bits of the "inheritance" and "arms race" threads remain, however imperfect. Playboy "I'm tired of the liberal agenda" Tony Stark is back in full force and he is still a genius hounded by lesser men. Oh, and we have that great courtroom scene defense of property rights and nose-thumbing at big government bureaucrats.

You want my property? You can't have it. But I did you a favor:
I successfully privatized world peace.

[1] Bunch, Sonny. Iron Man 1, Terrorists 0. The Weekly Standard. May, 2008. 

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