Monday, May 17, 2010

Iron Man II

I saw Iron Man 2 this past weekend.

I must admit that I used to be much more nervous about seeing movies made out of comic books. Batman—and by which I mean the ORIGINAL Batman, with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson—was for many years the only decent example to come to mind. The latter few Batman movies, prior to the Christian Bale reboot, were just plain awful. The one-dimensional Eric Bana “Hulk” movie was one prolonged special effects fight scene orgy. Ghost Rider is best described in scatological terms. The two embarrassingly bad Fantastic Four movies had comic book fans and baby boomers furious at the pillaging of their childhood out for blood. The saccharine and trite Spider Man movies will not age well.

Iron Man is a little different. For one thing, even though he’s dying, Tony Stark comes across as anything but a sympathetic character. If anything, he’s the biggest asshole you’ve seen on the screen in a long time. Robert Downey Jr. has Tony Stark down pat—a hyperactive genius playboy with more tics and obsessions than he has substance abuse problems. The result is somewhere between Howard Hughes and Tom Swift. The movie version plays up Stark’s thinly-veiled contempt for most other human beings, while condensing his rather tiresome alcoholism problems into one scene at a birthday party. If you ever want to see Robert Downey Jr. mugging as a boorish drunk while wearing battle armor—this is the movie for you. Downey’s so good at playing a hyperactive, drunken asshole that I’m starting to wonder if he wasn’t typecast for the role.

Downey’s performance is, unfortunately not matched by all of the rest of the cast. Scarlett Johansson is irritatingly blank and robotic as an undercover intelligence operative, who very predictably massacres a platoon of hulking security guards in one of those precisely-choreographed bits of martial arts hyperbole of which Hollywood is so fond. Mickey Rourke hams it up, grunting and smirking as a metal-toothed and tattooed Russian expatriate with a vendetta against Stark and his family, and has maybe three coherent lines in the whole movie. Gary Shandling plays an oleaginous senator, a role for which he is uniquely suited. Samuel L. Jackson, recovering from his nadir in the Star Wars prequels, does a magnificently abrasive job of bringing Nick Fury to life. Sam Rockwell plays Justin Hammer, traditionally a malevolent also-ran to Stark, as almost a sort of comic relief. This is the part of the movie with which I had the most trouble. Even aside from the comic books’ depiction of Hammer as a sort of satanic Lee Iacocca, an eminence grise of the military-industrial complex, Rockwell’s Hammer is too young, pompously inept (the weapons he sells never work, in a gag that runs through the whole film), and stuffed with Wall Street buzzwords, malapropisms, and lame jokes to take seriously. This isn’t a nemesis, it’s a character from The Office.

The choice of villains may seem rather strange, particularly to those who know the comic books. For a character whose nature revolves entirely around technology, Iron Man has a remarkably diverse enemies list, running the gamut from industrial espionage through Cold War opposite numbers like the Soviet Crimson Dynamo to an ancient Chinese wizard. In this case, Rourke plays Ivan Vanko, a pastiche of Backlash and the Crimson Dynamo. Backlash generally floats in the lower regions of Stark’s enemies list, somewhere in the region of Count Nefaria, the Beetle, and Stilt-Man. Most of these guys date from Iron Man’s early days--by the time Stark had upgraded his armor to the point where he could give the Hulk a thumping or go toe-to-toe with an alien warlord, an organized crime enforcer with an electrically-charged whip hardly seemed a challenge.

Iron Man is and has always been an odd sort of hero— more than most, he has to change to keep up with the times. If anything, the problem for the Iron Man mystique over the last twenty years has been keeping far enough ahead of the Silicon Valley and Seattle avalanche to maintain the cutting-edge reputation. Tony Stark wouldn’t be caught dead running last year’s Linux (though, if so, why does the man who can build an armored suit that can fly across continents drive an Audi?)

The movie hits on a number of themes that not only resonate with the current state of the world, but which ran through most of Iron Man’s comic book life as well: the interdependence of humanity and technology in shaping the world; government paranoia, as equally present in the War on Terror years as it was in the Cold War; the unhealthily cozy relationship between the military-industrial complex and the federal government, the world of big business, and the moral tension between making money, and what the money comes from—in Stark’s case, he inherited a chunk of the military-industrial complex. It also deals, in one way or another, with many of the themes more particular to Stark himself—Stark is usually dying of one thing or another, he is a poor businessman who has gone bankrupt or faced hostile takeovers many times, and his inventions are constantly pilfered, copied, and pirated—in short, the “Demon in a Bottle” “Circuits Maximus,” and “Armor Wars” storylines from the comic.

The two Iron Man movies have also done an excellent job of planting Iron Man firmly in the here-and-now, which is a welcome challenge for a character created when solid-state electronics were mostly well in the future (yes kiddies, in 1963 Iron Man’s super-gimmicks were electromagnets and transistors). The movie itself is studded with modern pop culture references, from a cameo by Jack White to a Shepard Fairey painting of Iron Man. If this updating of the character means cleaning out the Augean stables filled to bursting with the leavings of almost fifty years’ of Marvel Comics, that may be a very good thing. It’s much like the recent Star Trek movie—if you bow and scrape to every precedent in a canon, eventually you so hem things in that Kirk has no room to be Kirk, or Stark has no more room to be Stark.

That aspect of storytelling hasn’t changed much since the Roman poet Horace published his Ars Poetica circa 18 BC. He advised:

Either follow tradition, or invent consistently.

If you happen to portray Achilles, honoured,

Pen him as energetic, irascible, ruthless,

Fierce, above the law, never downing weapons.

Make Medea wild, untameable, Ino tearful,

Ixion treacherous, Io wandering, Orestes sad.

If you’re staging something untried, and dare

To attempt fresh characters, keep them as first

Introduced, from start to end self-consistent.

What matters are not details so much as the essential nature of the character himself. Stark is a jerk and a genius. Superman is the ultimate boy scout. Batman is the brooding misanthrope. If you change that, you wind up with someone who isn’t Batman.

In the end…

…… there is an easter egg, about which I will not speak, save to say that it gave me a bad case of Kirby Dots.

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