Robert Downey Jr.’s performance is the best thing to come out of Iron Man 2, the second in what looks to be a succession of comic book-based films we can expect to grace cinema screens this summer.
Downey stars as Tony Stark, a flamboyant multi-billionaire playboy type who is testifying before a US Senate hearing at the beginning of the film.
The occasion is his announcement to the world that he is, indeed, Iron Man, and that the technology embedded in his super hero suit of armour will now save the world from the threat of nuclear standoff.
The military brass at the hearing are insistent that he turn over the suit to the US government, thus restoring the balance of nuclear terror to its proper place.
What follows is a battle for power, with Iron Man/Stark in one corner, the formal US military in another, the global armaments industry that fuels it in another, and a shadowy undercover organization known as Shield in yet another.
From the outset, to the film’s end, we are regaled with the compulsory amount of explosions, shoot-’em-ups and mass destruction of property and people that is requisite to advance the action of this genre, and to keep its teen fans riveted in their seats.
I must confess to feeling way behind the curve when it comes to super hero action films. I usually avoid them, and have never been a fan or follower of the Marvel Comics pantheon that has spawned them. As such, there’s probably a whole set of cultural references that are totally lost on me, but I guess we’ll just have to live with that.
Aside from Downey, Iron Man 2 doesn’t have a lot going for it, besides the obligatory spectacular special effects and its array of hero and villain stereotypes.
Jon Favreau’s directing is quick-paced and energetic, but there’s no real message behind it. Screenwriter Justin Theroux overloads the film with an unnecessarily complex array of sub-plots, and seems to have saved all of the good lines for Downey, while hardly fleshing out the rest of the cast.
Gwyneth Paltrow is competent, and gets to play a super-organized, cool and seemingly emotionless character who takes over as CEO of Stark’s empire when it looks as if he’s about to check out from an overdose of palladium at his cyborg bodily core (don’t ask).
The Wrestler‘s Mickey Rourke is the film’s major villain element as Ivan Vanko, a snarling, nasty Russian wild man-looking kind of guy, who grunts and growls in his native language throughout most of the film, and has some sort of historic vendetta against Stark and his father, the origins of which are never made quite clear.
Scarlett Johanson’s talents are wasted as Natasha, a mole within Stark’s organization. Sam Rockwell plays Justin Harker, an armaments magnate who looks, sounds and acts like a Eugene Levy-inspired used car salesman type in a bow-tie, elevator shoes and three-piece suit.
In a word, most of the film’s protagonists are caricatures, with the exception of Stark, whose irreverent, don’t-care attitude is alive and refreshing, and who constitutes almost the only human-like character in the film.
Perhaps it’s this lack of humanity, and the worship of super technology, that I find the most disturbing aspects of Iron Man 2. Its portrayal of conflict as something that’s engaged in by troops of steel androids seems to be the ultimate justification and glorification of warfare.
Vast amounts of worldly resources and capital are spent on these amazing pieces of weaponry, and when one of them is disabled on the battlefront, it’s not really an occasion for weeping at the loss, because there’s lots more where that came from. Metal and wiring don’t bleed, after all.
The imagery of war fought with human surrogates that Iron Man 2 portrays is not that far off in the future at all, as the reality of pilotless airborne drones seeking out human targets in the Middle East attests.
Indeed, for a generation that’s already steeped in video culture, and who are already the cannon-fodder for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it seems films like this one are conditioning.
Audience’s willing acceptance of a world of technologically-generated warfare is key to their participation in future conflicts. As such, Iron Man 2 qualifies as highly-skilled, manipulative propaganda. No more, no less.
Brian Eaton is a cinema buff who reviews current films and writes on other film-related topics on a regular basis.