Like any story relying on the fantastic, the superhero film has a test: does the fantastic sharpen and enhance the theme and the conflicts, or is it an escape from rational reality? Is this about a man who can control fire, or about how he chooses to control fire? So many superhero films are boring because they’re nothing more than escapism, with human characters as puppets of the elemental forces they’re supposed to be commanding.
Iron Man 2 is different. Its characters determine events. In this, it is like Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, two other films where the hero’s talents are not gifts of chance or circumstance, but come from hard work and thought. Iron Man 2 is the story of a creator trying to ensure that the product of his mind remains under the only control he can trust: his own.
The hero recognizes no division between his person and the product of his mind.
Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), is an eccentric businessman, inventor, and playboy, who has made himself a combat exoskeleton, the “Iron Man.” When he admits this to the world, he faces adulation and resentment: adulation from the common men and women who see Stark’s fight against outlaw forces around the world as what it is; resentment from a trinity of villains, who equally see his achievement for what it is, but hate it.
“Subversion” has become self-parodying. If you see a work being praised as subversive, it almost always slavishly formulaic. Maybe because Iron Man 2 doesn’t advertise itself as this, it actually manages a real subversion in the case of the three villains. The one who most fits the classic supervillain cut-out is also the least detestable. This is Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a plutonium smuggler and physicist who is obsessed with vengeance for the wrongs committed by Stark’s father against his own. We can tick off some standard evildoer features—villainous dreadlocks, gold plated teeth, a knock-off imitation of Stark’s invention—but his motive is comprehensible and so he does not inspire any real loathing. That’s left to the other two, the unctuous Senator Stern and the corporatist racketeer Justin Hammer.
The Senator wants to seize Stark’s invention for the government, using the stale euphemism of it being owned “by the people,” and is willing to use any distortion or pretext for that end. Anyone who has ever seen science politicized recognizes the methods: citing one paragraph from a five hundred page report, showing video footage entirely devoid of context, etc. However, he’s picked the wrong target, a man who refuses to be bullied or subjected to unearned guilt. Just watching Stark take the Senator apart in the hearing is worth the ticket price. In response to the Senator’s assertion that he (somehow) “has in his possession” the Iron Man suit, Stark snaps back that there can be no division between his person and the product of his mind, and that only a slave is expected to work with no right to the product of his work. He adds that he does not trust the government’s desire to control such power, and winds up with: “You want my property? You can’t have it.”
The chief villain is an envy-ridden incompetent who panders to government to substitute for productive ability.
Yet even the senator takes second place in villain hell to Justin Hammer. Hammer is Stark’s true opposite, an envy-ridden incompetent who panders to government to substitute for productive ability. Like the senator, he believes it is possible to seize the powers of the mind by seizing the products of the mind, and so he first tries to bribe and then bully Ivan into help him. His character is a masterpiece of moral understanding: we see him alternately obsequious, domineering, ingratiating, insulting, flattering, and gloating, but never at ease, except in one ten-second scene, when he is contemplating an attack that appears to have laid Stark low. For those ten seconds you see something that approximates a smile of genuine pleasure, and you see real evil for the first time. Hammer’s desire is not really the stale security of a permanent government sinecure, or to make money, or to exceed Stark in invention and production. It is to see Stark fall, to cripple a talent that he cannot match. In comparison, Ivan’s vendetta is clean and honorable.
This extends to their respective interactions. Stark’s friends, harassed and exasperated though they are, are deeply loyal and devoted to him, as he is to them, though none ever say it. Conversely, Hammer constantly effuses about friendship and admiration, but is a man completely alone.
Hammer’s desire is to cripple a talent that he cannot match.
It is Tony Stark who powers the film the way his suit would be scrap metal without his unique generator. Apart from Leonardo DiCaprio’s Howard Hughes in The Aviator, I’ve never seen a better portrayal of the proud, self-confident producer and capitalist, unashamed of his ability and without any doubts of his moral right to pursue his own course (“I’m tired of this liberal agenda” he remarks in an unselfconscious aside “I’m bored with it”). Stark is a man of restless energy, in love with the possibilities of technology and will not stop once a goal has appeared to him (“Well, that was easy” he remarks, having just made a new atomic element). In contrast to Ivan’s obsession with the past, Stark sees the past only as fuel for the future (one scene has him use the shield of Captain America as nothing more than a way of propping up a newly built piece of technical equipment). He never allows his focus on reality to waver for a second: having completed a revolution in energy production (this may remind some readers of something) he keeps straight on working to achieve his goal. Even the prospect of mortality that haunts him for most of the film will not make him waver.
Structurally, the film is a joy: as fast paced as possible, but no faster, an achievement realized by deleting stock scenes in favor of ones that genuinely advance both plot and character development. The dialogue follows the same principle, focusing on the essentials of each interaction without any extraneous verbiage; even Stark’s stumbling attempts to fit words around his emotions serves a purpose.
There is only one useless stock addition to the film, in the form of the mysterious Colonel Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his operatives. Their presence does little to advance the plot, and it seems nothing more than a nod to fans of the Marvel universe.
That’s just a quibble. In all the film is an excellent dramatization of a theme that should concern everyone today: the threat of the power of science being placed at the service of brute force. By the nature of science, each discovery that can improve human life is also one that makes it easier to kill it. Knowing how to split the atom can make electric generators or nuclear bombs, knowing how to engineer a better vaccine also mean knowing how to make the disease far more dangerous. So, for all its exuberance and its joyous celebration of human ability, the film’s message is a sobering one.
We live in a time when a real-life Ivan Vanko named A.Q. Khan peddles his wares from North Korea to Iran, where fanatical Mullahs, who could not develop nuclear physics in ten thousand years, enrich uranium, and where the stone-age goons of Al Qaeda try to make bio-weapons. Where’s our Tony Stark?