Or: An Abandoned Essay That Became a Review of Iron Man 2 (2010)
I’ve long suspected that audiences aren’t as sensation-‘splosion happy as both movie producers and they themselves presume them to be. Pauline Kael once wrote that the movies were so bad they didn’t attract audiences so much as inherit them, and I can’t for the life of me find someone who, to use recent examples, actually liked Transformers 2 or G.I. Joe or any number of other similarly-minded movies. Audiences go to these pictures to be in on Monday’s watercooler, and because the media saturation is so overwhelming that many of them – those who don’t read fifteen different critics, and who don’t maintain their own blog – presume those pictures to be the only ones playing, to be the only ones “worth seeing on the big screen”. It’s a pointlessly unpleasant chicken/egg circle jerk: audiences pay to see mindless, derivative, deadly dull formula movies because the producers essentially pay them to; and the producers make mindless, derivative, deadly dull formula movies because the audiences pay them to.
A response to the typical summer movie has been a specific wave of mixed-up summer movie: those made by talented directors wishing to make more money, but who’re trying, half-heartedly, to maintain their own personality and make the pictures their own. The “personality” portions of these movies usually constitute collections of frivolous touches of weirdness or a pronounced, strained attempt to imbue the broad obligations of the enterprise with some sort of “deeper meaning”. This trend – which is sort of the summer movie embodiment of Farber’s “gimp string” – probably goes further back in various permutations, but, for me, a primary starting point in this new sorta-blockbuster/sorta-intimate-movie movie is Tim Burton, who, in the 1980s, made a string of personal, idiosyncratic movies that happened to make a lot of money. One of them, you may remember, was a superhero movie. Ironically enough, Burton himself is now a practitioner of this self-deceiving fad, making not Tim Burton movies, but “Tim Burton” movies for those who want a blockbuster with the vague vogue that comes with being able to say you like a Tim Burton movie. Beyond the current Burton, there are numerous examples across all genres, but, in an attempt to maintain focus, we will limit it to the superhero picture, with the first two X-Men pictures, Superman Returns, The Dark Knight, Watchmen and Kick-Ass coming easily to mind.
The Iron Man pictures follow suit (couldn’t help myself): the first one was a partial relief for two reasons: it didn’t take itself too seriously, and it had a very appealing who-gives-a-shit performance by Robert Downey, Jr., who gave the movie, at its best, a lively screwball energy that felt new, because so many people had forgotten that entertainments weren’t always so dependent on white-noise. Iron Man, despite a somewhat tasteless subtext of morally unsullied American global domination, was mostly pointedly disinterested in being anything other than a picture with billionaires waking up with supernaturally beautiful women and suiting up in huge, clunky robots and punching it out. The picture is a comedy, and director Jon Favreau, who once made the funny and human Made, had the sense to insert a number of little “bits” to distinguish it, such as the guys partying in Iron Man’s jet. There is a third less explicit reason for the first Iron Man’s success: it was read as a symbolic “welcome back” for Downey, Jr – his character’s glowing white orb heart could’ve been taken, intuitively, as symbol of Downey reining his in personal impulses in.
We’ve acclimated to Downey’s success by now though: we’ve had the excellent Tropic Thunder; a dull Sherlock Holmes; and even, with The Soloist, the obligatorily naked post-blockbuster lunge for Oscar. By now, we can be forgiven for perhaps hoping that Downey return to the business of making real movies – which is why Iron Man 2, a second chapter in absolutely every way you expect it to be, seems anemic. Of course, there’s another girl, of course there’re more bad guys, and of course there are bigger bursts of bloodless violence every bit as boring as they were the first time out.
Favreau, to cover up his essentially by-the-book fantasy, again injects bits, such as a long party that turns into a drunken fight between Iron Man and a character eventually called War Machine (Don Cheadle) with purposefully inappropriate party music bracketing everything in quote marks. On its own, its one of the more original scenes in the movie, but it feels desperate, you can tell this isn’t where the picture needs, or really wants, to go. Sam Rockwell, as the other bad guy, reprises his Charlie’s Angels shtick with a quick little near break-dance as he tastes his public’s adoration. It’s nifty, but it doesn’t fit the character we’re given. Scarlett Johansson is game and certainly gorgeous enough, but she’s one of a thousand references tossed in to please those who would see the picture regardless of quality.
If Iron Man was read as a symbolic victory lap for Downey, then director Jon Favreau and screenwriter Justin Theroux would’ve been on stronger, more personal, more interesting ground to shape Iron Man 2 as a tribute to Mickey Rourke, here clearly enjoying a deserved paycheck job after good work in The Wrestler. Iron Man 2 toys with that idea (flirting with material borrowed from Dark Knight), as a self-absorbed hero’s thoughtless actions have once again wrought a more destructive monster bent on calling out his hypocrisy.
Rourke, bless him, has a hunger that’s impossible to fake and he occasionally shakes the picture out of its glib, this-is-a-bash-absolutely-nothing-counts backslapping. Downey’s Tony Stark is so plastic and self-satisfied, his character so unavoidably conjoined with our idea of the actor himself, that we latch onto Rourke in Downey’s place (this movie is the superhero equivalent to Rocky III); he’s the new once-banished bad boy with a potential second chance. Iron Man 2’s conflict, such as it is, is that Rourke’s character, eventually called Whiplash, is driven to punish the Starke family for corrupt American dealings superficially meant to recall current global-political anxiety. The scenario is predictable, but, with two so potent leading men at the ready, it could still potentially tap into a more original notion ripe for satirical exploration: our uneasy fascination with/resent of celebrities. But Whiplash is basically a guest-spot, and it tells you something about the filmmakers’ priorities that the big Rourke/Downey face-off is an afterthought – it would’ve interfered with yet another army of rampaging droids.