I actually quite like Iron Man 2. Perhaps even more than I like Iron Man. It’s not a perfect film, but then I consider the original to have been more than slightly overhyped. And the second film in the series is admitted bloated with a whole heap of unnecessary world-building designed to lead into 2012′s big blockbuster The Avengers. However, I was watching the movie on television last week, and I couldn’t help but notice how Jon Favreau seems to have built his second superhero movie around the phenomenal and surprising success of his first effort.
If Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight works so well because they are built around the philosophical idea of Batman, Favreau seems to be attempting something similar. However, instead of directing his commentary at the long print-history of the character in question (although it does get numerous nods, not least of which in the suitcase armour, for example), the movie seems built around the huge and completely unforeseen success of this (relatively) unknown superhero on the big screen, thanks in no small part to the success of Favreau and his lead actor, Robert Downey Jr.
The movie opens with a scene of Tony and Pepper in a plane, preparing for something. This is the moment where a normal superhero movie would position a nice pre-credits action sequence, a confrontation between Stark and some random bad guys to demonstrate the awesome special-effects driven ride we’re preparing for. It would show Stark as a dilligent public servent and establish him as a successful superhero, setting up the conflict to come. Indeed, as Stark jumps out of the plane, he finds himself under fire from what initially appear to be bullets and flares, but are eventually revealed to be fireworks.
Instead of vanquishing a foe, Tony is preparing to meet his adoring fans, and endorse his own Expo, using the Iron Man not as a tool for peace, but as his own promotional tool. In fact, we’re informed through clunky exposition that Stark has pretty much accomplished his goal. Confronted by the damage his weapons had caused in the first film, the billionaire pledged, “There is nothing except this. There’s no art opening, no charity, nothing to sign. There’s the next mission, and nothing else.” The movie ended with Stark defeating the “iron monger” attempted to steal control of his company, and hinted at Stark’s continuing war against arms smugglers.
Iron Man 2 opens with the strong impression that “the next mission” is finally over. Stark is a hero. He’s a man with seemingly endless amounts of free time. He isn’t a superhero with a “to do list”, he’s a man who has surpassed his own expectations. He’s a success. He’s a hero. He’s a champion. “I have successfully privatised world peace!” he arrogantly boasts at one point. Iron Man doesn’t have an existential crisis like Batman. He doesn’t worry that his very presence inspires insanity in those around him. Even though Ivan Vanko goings on a killing spree directly provoked by Stark, there’s no sense of angst or responsibility on the part of Anthony Stark for what happened. I’m not saying that there should be, I’m just observing that the film’s central crisis isn’t so much to do with the “arms race” theme that the first suggested. Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell may play antagonists to Tony in the film, but they aren’t Tony’s archenemy or anything so fancy. Tony’s worst enemy is his own success.
“It’s good to be back!” Tony proclaims to the audience at the Stark Expo, and he could just as easily be speaking on behalf of the film to the millions of adoring fans in darkened cinemas. When Rhodey shows up with the face of Don Cheadle instead of Terrence Howard, his first line is, “Well, it’s me, and I’m here, so get over it and move on.” That is a line that could be easily directed at any number of fans wondering how the character’s appearance changed so dramatically between films. I honestly can’t think of another major superhero film in the past decade that has been as acutely aware of its audience as Favreau’s Iron Man 2.
Indeed, I think part of the reason the film struck such a chord, and has proved such a success for its lead actor, is because it so skilfully transposes Robert Downey Jr. with Tony Stark. Being honest, watching the film, one gets the sense that Downey isn’t so much “playing” Stark as he is using his own experiences to guide the character. Both were incredibly successful young men who made great impressions at a young age, before becoming somewhat derailed along the way. Stark’s journey in the first film was an attempt to find his footing again, and to do something decent with his life. Downey faced a similar problem going into the film, trying to rebuild a career that had been knock off-course by the actor’s implosion years earlier. The first movie is a saga of reinvention for both the lead character and his actor, as both try to prove that they are still truly remarkable individuals. And they both succeed.
The second film continues the theme, as Stark struggles with the same trappings of fame that threatened to suffocate Downey. He parties too hard, is irresponsible and untrustworthy, and he lets down those around him while dealing with what is hinted to be a substance abuse problem. Tony Stark hits his low point urinating in public, doing party tricks in his suit and coming to blows with his oldest friend. Downey was arrested. Both men try to claw themselves back from the edge of that abyss, struggling to find something that works.
However, more than that, the second film offers a reflection not just on the life of its leading actor, but also on the surprising success of its predecessor. Nobody expected Iron Man to become the runaway hit that it was – not even, I suspect, Jon Favreau. I imagine the morning after release, watching those tallies come in, and seeing the delight in the faces of Favreau and the executives around him. However, I wonder if Favreau was also just a little bit scared. He hadn’t just scored a critical darling that would turn a profit, he’d made a bona fides box office blockbuster. How, on Earth, do you follow that up?
And that’s the vibe that I can’t help but get from the sequel, the sense that everyone involved is trying to come to terms with the fact that they are now names on a map, and that they don’t have the benefit this time of catching their audience (or their critics) completely unaware. Expectations for the first film weren’t really that high – word of mouth took off after the release – but expectations for the sequel were through the roof. That’s a lot of pressure, and a lot of people expecting a lot of things from you.
You can sense that in the film. As Stark lands, a fan shouts from the audience, “Blow something up!” There’s all those people in the audience just sitting there with their expectations just waiting to be satisfied. What if they don’t want the more sober meditation Favreau has in mind? After a big action sequence at the climax, Rhodey suggests, “I think you should lead with that one next time.”
Indeed, the movie is packed with people telling Tony what he should and shouldn’t be doing. Rumour has it that Favreau was less than impressed with volumes of executive meddling going on around the movie, including the clunky S.H.I.E.L.D. subplot, and perhaps that frustration comes out in subplots about the kind of people daring to tell Tony how he should do what he’s supposed to do – whether it’s his friend Rhodey, or an arrogant US Senator with his own ideas for the suit.
In fact, Tony’s primary acts of rebellion in the film consist of him trying to do what he wants to do, while those around him attempt to make him more serious or self-important. Tony honestly just wants to have a bit of fun (“what’s the point of owning a race car if you can’t drive it?”), and one could argue that his mental breakdown is only in response to those attempts to micro-manage him. perhaps it was Favreau reflecting on the studio’s attempts to micro-manage the film, and remove a lot of the looser free-form improvisation that characterised the original.
And one can also sense the movie’s unease at being a “big gun” franchise now. Rather than the underdog, Iron Man became the establishment, the kind that codified how a superhero film should be made – and it’s a comparison that you frequently hear about the films that followed. It’s not too hard to see the Favreau and his team sharing the movie’s identity crisis, as other productions tried their best to emulate the success of Iron Man – much as Hammer attempts to build his own Iron Man suit.
There’s also the intense scrutiny that the series finds itself under in the wake of that success. Being honest, I’d rather sneak up on critics, instead of being built up before release. The first film came out of nowhere to critical acclaim, while the sequel was arriving as just another large-scale action movie. I can understand that the team might have been worried about becoming an obvious critical target, with Vanko’s attack on Tony perhaps reflecting the anticipated mauling from critics. Tony Stark made himself a target through his success and high-profile. Nothing tends to provoke a negative aggressive reponse quite like success. “If you could make God bleed, people would cease to believe in him,” Vanko boasts, “there will be blood in the water, the sharks will come. All I have to do is sit back and watch as the world consumes you.” It’s not sporting to give a critical lashing to a smaller film that came out of nowhere, but a big budget blockbuster is fair game, and I can understand why the film might be nervous about it.
I have to say, I quite like this reading of the film, as one which adds a layer of meta-commentary on top of the massive superhero sequel. It adds character and, I’d argue, helps the film hang together a bit more – if it was intended as a free-form mediation on the success of the original film, a lot of the listlessness and the strange awkwardness becomes intentional, and seems like a desired effect. It’s a shame Favreau won’t be back, because I was wondering where he might take that metaphor next. It certainly might have been interesting to see Favreau’s response to the response to his response to the response to the original Iron Man, just to see how many layers we could add to this thing.