Forewarning: Despite being a geek and a bit of a comic book nerd I’ve never really sunk myself into Iron Man all that much. I’m somewhat familiar with the character, most of it dealing with the 80s version of Tony Stark/Iron Man. So if my understanding is fundamentally flawed, sorry. Also, I do have a Canucks post in the pipeline. I’d just like to take a little while to get away from the sting of having been eliminated. Probably a little later tonight, okay?
So I had caught Iron Man 2 the other day and it was an interesting flick. How interesting could a run of the mill summer action flick based on a comic book title actually be? Well, given that I am a gigantic fan of The Dark Knight and everything Christopher Nolan did with that particular film and the first Iron Man flick, I had to say that I was hoping for more good things.
The question for me, though, after watching Iron Man 2 was whether the film was a poorly constructed neoconservative’s wetdream or a clever satire on American foreign policy/militaristic attitudes that was limited due to the film’s subject matter.
There is a third option, of course: I’m fucking overanalyzing the hell out of the film, so keep that one in mind as I go through this review.
It’s hard not to try and ascribe any sort of political meaning to Iron Man 2. The inclusion of a subplot involving the American government makes it really hard for a viewer not to try and create any sort of political entanglements, whether they were intended by director Jon Favreau or not. And, okay, fine, I can appreciate that the involvement of the US government is a plot device with regards to the Iron Man suit and the potential threat it poses to world safety but there are two problems specifically with that.
The first is the inclusion and involvement of SHIELD in the film, who are operating with their own separate interests in mind. I thought that perhaps SHIELD’s involvement with the US government would have explained some of what they were doing in relation to Tony Stark and Stark Industries (specifically the insertion of Scarlett Johansson’s character into the company), but nope. As a result, the viewer is forced to assign more importance to the government’s role in the film, personified with the (appropriately?) named Senator Stern.
The second reason, though, is the incorporation of political symbols in the film. The most blatant comes early on in the film with the subversion of Obama’s ‘Hope’ campaign poster: As Tony Stark, Robert Downey Jr. has a rather lengthy scene where he carries around a take off to the ‘Hope’ poster. Instead of Obama’s portrait it is Iron Man’s visage, with Iron Man replaced below it as the text. Cute.
There are other instances, as well, although none as blatant. I particularly liked the scene where Stark uses what looks like a prototype of Captain America’s shield to prop up some machinery of his in his workspace. More on that in a second.
Which makes me wonder what is going on in the film. On the one hand, you could see the Iron Man ‘Obama’ poster as being a gleeful potshot at Obama. Folks aren’t interested in wishy washy things like ‘hope’ or ‘change’ or ‘healthcare.’ They are more interested in a nuclear deterrent. A strong, powerful (and, American!) figure who can keep the world in check and maintain peace. They need him and the Stars and Stripes (this is where Captain America’s shield comes in) rely on this mythical being. This is a subject that is repeatedly hammered into the viewer’s head throughout the film: Iron Man is a symbol of peace. By being incredibly powerful and capable of instilling fear in nations throughout the world he is capable of maintaining the status quo. Powerful stuff and all the justification for the continuation of America’s military industrial complex, right?
Well, maybe not. Take Stark’s insistence that the Iron Man suit ‘isn’t a weapon.’ Despite it being a completely laughable statement, you have to wonder if perhaps there is a more altruistic approach being taken here in the film. Perhaps the film is trying to challenge the military-industrial complex that plagues American politics, most specifically the Iron Triangles that exist in the American system and is examined within the context of the film vis-à-vis Justin Hammer and the Department of Defense. Perhaps the subversion of the Obama poster that I referred to earlier is a cheeky way of arguing that things do need to change. Perhaps not by letting one guy walk around in a walking nuclear reactor and dictate foreign policy, but perhaps there is a need for change from the dangerous and clearly villainous practices of Justin Hammer et al.
Then again, perhaps the film is trying to state that the efforts of the peace loving left and folks like Obama attempting to try and bring about real change and reformation within America is as hopeless as trying to break the Iron(man?) Triangle, so sod off.
See what I mean about this film being potentially undecided about what it is trying to say?
It gets further complicated when you look at some of the other stuff that was going on in the film. The biggest thing for me was the sheer amount of glass breaking going on. Many, many sheets of glass are shattered without thought through pretty much all of the film’s battle sequences. I understand that, LOL, comic book movie and that there has to be some suspension of disbelief going on in a film. I’m really not trying to be the guy that nitpicks the hell out of a movie (probably too late for that, right?) but when there’s something that, to me, is so blatant it does interfere with my enjoyment of the film and makes me wonder: is this sloppy film making or was there a reason behind it.
And I mean, yeah, okay. Name a comic book film where property values aren’t driven through the floor due to some titanic slugfest. There’s not too many. However, I will state that most of these comic book films either carefully manage the potential risk that is posed to innocent civilians where it becomes a non-issue. I like to call this the Power Rangers/Godzilla Effect where, despite innumerable skyscrapers and tall buildings getting pounded into dust literally no one dies and given the nature of what you’re watching it’s acceptable because that disconnect has already been made.
Conversely, the threat to innocent people is made a part of the plot. Take, for instance, the Spiderman films. The first two have innocents getting threatened with serious harm as a result of the fight going on between Peter Parker and the villain du jour and Spidey has to do that whole great power/great responsibility thing that is a part of his character. This concept gets partially subverted in Spiderman 3, as the bulk of the fights occur in uninhabited places (sewers/subway tunnels and an abandoned construction site late at night.) It makes sense with Spiderman: protecting innocents is sort of his thing and is a part of the character. Same deal with The Dark Knight: the whole film is about the consequences of Bruce Wayne’s/Batman’s actions and the impact they have in Gotham. There are the copycat Batmen as well as folks like the Joker arriving on scene and upping the ante. Given how Favreau set the table at the beginning of the film, I was expecting to see a similar exploration in Iron Man 2
It doesn’t make as much sense as in, say, the Incredible Hulk, where he’s running around tearing apart tanks like they’re made out of tissue paper and hurling them around. People are probably fucking dying horribly here but it’s glossed over. Fair enough.
So in Iron Man 2, where Tony Stark is served with a subpoena and has to show up at a Senate hearing regarding his armor suit and the moral implications of letting one guy run around with this dangerous weapon/non-weapon. You start to think that perhaps morality and consequences of Tony Stark’s actions may enter into the equation. That there is a very real risk that he could be putting tons of lives at risk because of his shortsighted and reckless behavior. I mean, Stark is portrayed as being nothing but reckless, impulsive and stubborn. That’s essentially who he is in these films and, like most good films, you’re probably going to see a character arc going on with the main protagonist and lead character.
Instead, we see a drunk Iron Man skeet shooting at his birthday party, shooting glass and metal plates from what looks like 10 feet away from his unprotected guests. I’ve worked in restaurants and bars before and breaking a glass simply by dropping it can have all sorts of disastrous results: glass is one of those mythical substances that can get just about anywhere and can be really dangerous. Yet here we see Iron Man pulverizing some dangerous materials literally right in front of a crowd of people. I was really expecting someone to get it in their eye or get hurt somehow and have this be a pivotal moment for Stark’s character, but nope.
Which makes you wonder if there’s a greater meaning to all of these scenes that have wholesale destruction (and a lot of glass getting broken) and the political undercurrents of the film. Is Favreau poking fun at the war hawks who are all ‘WAR IS GOOD, KILL ‘EM ALL’ by saying that they’re like Stark and don’t think of the consequences…or is he just going ‘this will look really cool, roll it.’ It’s probably the latter, but still.
And, okay, let’s assume that there was some sort of message getting inserted into the film, a very basic WAR IS BAD/GUBBMINT SHOULD STOP KILLIN PEOPLE message, as evidenced with Justin Hammer (the film’s main villain) being a scummy military contractor who doesn’t place a great deal of importance on things like safety (evidenced with the shoddy design of the suits he’s trying to produce) and has shacked up with a Russian (Boo! Hiss! Evil Commie!) It’s hard to reconcile the shocking amount of blatant misogyny going on in the film.
Hoo boy, yeah, I went there. But I mean, when you have lines like:
“I call it ‘the Ex-Wife.'” (Regarding a bullet that seemingly destroys everything in its wake…but is then proven to be utterly impotent and useless when finally deployed against a…strong masculine target.)
“Did I lose both kids in the divorce?”
Whatever Bill O’Reilly was going on about regarding Pepper Potts, A WOMAN, being made CEO of Stark Enterprises.
In addition to a ton of male gaze (the camera shifts downwards numerous times, both when utilizing Stark’s point of view, but also in more neutral shots) it’s really weird to reconcile what’s going on. And, okay, if the use of misogyny is meant to portray Hammer in a negative light, why is it that characters on both sides are falling into this? Is it done merely to titillate (yes, probably) and am I again overreaching here? I don’t know, but the decision to have lingering shots focusing on the T&A of the female characters was a conscious one and I think does a disservice to not just the females in the film, but also Stark, who has always struck me as being more of a ladykiller and less of a mega-rich frat boy.
Now, all that said? I did enjoy the movie very much. I did think the action sequences were a little ‘meh’, which I think is problematic of having 2 characters in superpowered invincible suits slug away at each other, so hopefully the hints of seeing the Mandarin in Iron Man 3 will be realized. Loved the acting from just about all of the characters. RDJ kills it at Stark, Sam Rockwell is amazing as Justin Hammer and I really like the take on him compared to the 80s version I know (which is basically stereotypical 80s executive: a mashup of a Captain Planet villain and Michael Douglas’ character from Wall Street.) Gwyneth Paltrow, who I usually cannot stand as an actress (no real discernible reason) was great as Pepper and Mickey Rourke was convincing as The Evil Russian.
And of course Scarlet Johansson. While I thought she specifically suffered a lot from the male gaze I was speaking of earlier, I loved her character and thought she did a great job as Black Widow. I thought her action sequence right near the end was awesome. She’s not going to win any Academy Awards for her performance, but I thought she did a great job. Would’ve been even better had SHIELD’s involvement been fleshed out a bit more and if she hadn’t suffered from such blatant objectification (subtle objectification is fine, hurrrrrr), but I’ll take what I can get.
Good film, but if you’re overly analytical or prone to noticing things like me, it’ll probably leave your brain going into overdrive.