Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Why Iron Man 2 Works

Why Iron Man 2 Works
Tony Stark Lacks Serenity

Iron Man 2 directed by Jon Favreau, written by Justin Theroux, based on the Marvel comic book created by Stan Lee, Don Heck, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby.

(N.B. In order to properly discuss Iron Man 2, I am forced to discuss the entire film. There will be spoilers.)

I have been having a mirror-reverse time of it at the movies lately. I walk into a film knowing the common take on it and I walk out wondering if everyone else saw a completely different version of the film that I just saw. The accepted wisdom was that Iron Man 2 was not as good a film as Iron Man, mainly because it had too many plots and too many characters. People didn't hate it, but where the first film scored 93% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, the sequel only scored 74% fresh and even the ones who rated it fresh seemed to do so grudgingly.

Too many characters? Compared to what: Nashville?

The only real distinction between the first film and the second is that generic characters are replaced with characters with meaning and personality. Jeff Bridges' Obadiah Stane is replaced with Jeff Rockwell's Justin Hammer - let's be nice to Bridges and call that a wash, although Rockwell's swarmy anti-Stark is a delight. Generic Afghani cave terrorists are replaced with Mickey Rourke's Whiplash/Ivan Venko - a major upgrade. Generic Variety Fair reporter - there for Tony to skirt chase - (Lesley Bibb's Christine Everhart) is replaced with Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff/Nathalie Rushman - an upgrade even with the (to me) unfair sniping about Scarlett's acting, when her spy character is supposed to be a bit of a cypher. Lesley Bibb actually makes a cameo in the Monaco scene as if to remind us that we should be happy that her narrative role has been filled by Scarlett's character.

The only character who fills a new narrative role is Garry Shandling's Senator Stern and even there you could argue that he simply replaces generic military types who gave Tony static in the first film.

Too much plot? There is only one plot! The entire film is about Tony fighting to stay Iron Man while facing challenges from the government (Stern), from his competitors (Hammer), from his family's past (Whiplash), from his own body and from his addictions. Reviewers mistook the chaos of Tony's life for chaos on the screen.

The most surprising criticism of the film came from the usually perceptive Evie of the Awesomed by Comic podcast who complained in this podcast that the second film made Pepper less heroic. WHUH?! That, sorry to say Evie, makes no sense for two reasons. First Pepper has more heroic scenes in the second film: when Tony hijacks his race car in Monaco, Pepper immediately senses disaster and grabs Tony's briefcase armor and Happy; when Tony makes Pepper C.E.O. of Stark she grabs the reins and rights the ship (if I can mix my metaphors); by clearing out Tony's office and refusing to put up with Tony's shit, Pepper forces Tony to fix his problem and inadvertently helps him find the solution; and most importantly, it is Pepper who has Justin Hammer arrested, in the process crushing him like a bug with nothing more than a glare. Pepper does have one forgivable moment of weakness where she threatens to quit as C.E.O., but of all the people in Tony's life, Pepper is the strongest.

(One of the strengths of the film is the way that it effortlessly allows each hero character at least one heroic moment.  Pepper's I listed above. Tony and Rhodey's heroic moments are obvious. Black Widow kicks ass and then saves Rhodey because she is the only person who can decipher and neutralize Whiplash's Cyrillic re-programming of the War Machine suit. Even Happy has a great heroic moment when he hits Whiplash with the car, a moment simultaneously heroic, funny and brilliant.)

What makes Pepper heroic - especially in Iron Man 2 - is that she is the only adult in Tony's life, the only adult in the entire film. Everyone else indulges in adolescent power-trip fantasies. In any story of addiction, it is the adult who is the most heroic.

That of course is the key to Iron Man: it is a parable of addiction. Tony Stark collects addictions the way that some collect comic books. He is most obviously addicted to alcohol, but he is also addicted to work, and to the siren call of celebrity. (Stark's decision at the end of the first film to reveal his identity as Iron Man is pure ego gratification.)

Above all, Tony Stark is addicted to technology - technology that is simultaneously keeping Tony alive and slowly killing him. In Matt Fraction's current run on the Invincible Iron Man, which informed this film, Tony is currently recovering from a (much misunderstood by the fans) memory blackout caused not by alcohol, but by technology.

NASA image of BP oil spill
It is not too much of a stretch to see in Tony Stark, Western Civilization: addicted to technology and addicted to energy - especially to oil. As a civilization, we need oil to survive, but when we look at the Gulf of Mexico we can see the ultimate cost of that addiction. We can see the black tendrils of death that are slowly choking us, just as Tony can see the black veins of his own death approaching when he looks in the mirror.

Once we understand Iron Man as a story about addiction, it is easier to see why Iron Man 2 is a better, braver and more mature film than Iron Man and why people disliked it.

The first film is easier to get. It is the traditional narrative of alcoholism: Tony Stark, the drunken playboy, craters (literally) and ends up at the absolute bottom: a cave in Afghanistan surrounded by terrorists with shrapnel in his heart. He spends the rest of the film reforming his life and learning (again, literally) to fly.

Robert Downey Jr. is perfectly cast of course, if for no other reason than the obvious parallel to Robert Downey Jr's own fall, recovery and rise. What I think many people underestimate is how much built-up good will there was for Robert Downey Jr. when Iron Man was released. Through all his trials and tribulations, Robert Downey Jr. never blamed others and took responsibility for his own failings. We rooted for him to rebuild his life. We knew him to be one of our best actors, but wanted to cheer him in a blockbuster action film. Iron Man was the perfect combination of a chance for us to cheer Downey's recovery and cheer for his ability as an actor in a crowd-pleasing action film.

The sequel is more difficult to like because instead of following the easy trajectory of fall and rise, it shows the more difficult process of staying sober, a journey of constant vigilance and a multitude of tiny little struggles any one of which threatens to derail and destroy so much hard work.

The key to the film is Tony's party. In this I disagree with Kevin Marshall, whose review I otherwise endorse and agree with. (On the importance of the party he has agreed that we should disagree; I have agreed that he is WRONG.)


Tony Stark has a problem. He hasn't really accepted his imminent death being stuck in the bargaining stage of the five stages of grief. Part of bargaining is arranging for Pepper to take over as C.E.O. - cheating death by arranging his corporate heir, but Tony also needs a heir to his mantle as super-hero. (And oh the ego of the man, deciding that it takes two people to replace him.)

The obvious choice to wear Tony's Iron Man armor is Rhodey. The problem is that earlier in the film, Tony publicly declared that he would never give the Iron Man armor to the U.S. Government and the U.S. military, but giving Rhodey the armor would be the same as giving them the armor. Tony's ego will not allow for that. Tony could simply tell Rhodey the truth, but throughout the film, Tony finds excuse after excuse not to tell his two closest friends the truth.

That is Tony's problem as Tony sees it. His real problem is that Tony lacks serenity.
God, give us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
-Reinhold Niebuhr
Tony can not imagine a problem that can not be solved; a thing that can not be changed with sufficient application of technology. This is why in the comic books, Tony is always building new sets of armor, because he believes that technology can fix any problem. For an addict, this belief is madness.

Tony's solution to his Rhodey problem is to force his best friend to steal the Iron Man armor from him. The only way that Tony can think to arrange that is to get drunk while wearing his suit of Iron Man armor. This plan, like many of Tony's plans, achieves his goal, but with disastrous after-effects. Rhodey, disgusted by Tony's lack of responsibility, takes a suit of Iron Man armor. In the process, Tony and Rhodey's friendship (and more importantly mutual trust) is strained and perhaps permanently weakened. (And if I sound like I am describing Tony as a manipulative schmuck, well yeah, if the armor fits...)

The critical issue is that Tony created his own crisis to give himself permission to drink. But an addict, an alcoholic, can never give himself permission to drink, for any reason, no matter how compelling. The only way to stay sober is to not drink.

The message of Iron Man 2 is that sobriety is hard. Despite how gracefully Pepper Potts manages it, being an adult is hard. And sometimes even superheroes fail, even if they pick themselves back up again later.

No wonder so many reviewers balked at the message - choking on the reality in their wish-fulfillment.

(All images are copyright to their appropriate owners.)


  1. I'm baffled as to how Evie saw Pepper as less heroic, and thank you for pointing that out. They improved on that character by a factor of a hundred in this film.

  2. In depth article. We need the drinking Tony Stark for the story arch.