I’ve learned my lesson. After tabulating total views from my reviews of older films to those of newer films, I realized that the only time any but a small loyal group of readers (comprised mostly of my immediate family) read my blog is when I do something current. The Google Search hits have spoken, and I am selling out and giving into my inner comic book geek. At least for now.
In order to get ready for “The Avengers” (premiering May 4th), I decided to watch all five canonical super hero movies leading up to it. If I had done this correctly I would have watched in chronological order, but instead I grouped them by superhero, which means that first up was “Iron Man” (2008) and “Iron Man 2” (2010), both starring the fantastic Robert Downey Jr as the titular hero. Actually, Tony Stark is closer in some ways to an anti-hero, especially as RDJ plays him. Stark drinks too much, parties too hard, lacks the deep character-driving angst of his DC counterpart Batman, and prefers to publicly revel in his superstar status as Iron Man, rather than cover his identity for the sake of loved ones. All told, he’s kind of a jerk.
Fortunately, RDJ is insanely charismatic. By sheer force of personality he elevates the first film above typical superhero movie status and manages to make the second one watchable, if not as enjoyable. He is helped in great part by his chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays his constantly-frustrated love-interest-slash-secretary Pepper Potts. Paltrow and RDJ have a fantastic “His Girl Friday” dynamic that reminded me of Grant and Russell so much that I was actually disappointed when things started blowing up, because it meant that they would stop interacting. But let’s get a little more in-depth.
“Iron Man” (2008) was the breakout movie that solidified the Marvel gamble and launched the dream that eventually became “The Avengers.” It takes Iron Man’s origin story and moves it from Vietnam to Afghanistan (to make it topical). Stark is captured by terrorists, when he creates a miniature arc reactor to keep the shrapnel from his chest and builds a suit based on the arc reactor to escape. Afterwards, he vows to change his warmongering ways and builds the Iron Man suit to dole out some vigilante justice. The best scenes of the film are really the little ones, like RDJ testing the suit out and arguing with his robots.
The bad guy Tony goes toe-to-mechanical-toe with is his father’s former business partner, Obadiah Stane, played very un-Dude-like by Jeff Bridges. Stane only wants to sell the Iron Man suits for profit, and tries to blow up Tony in a final super-suit battle. After Tony defeats Stane, Stark reveals himself as Iron Man. Overall, the story is pretty predictable, but the fights are enjoyable and RDJ is brilliant.
“Iron Man 2” (2010) takes place almost immediately after “Iron Man” and spends most of its time setting up the subsequent Avengers universe. This means populating the movie with lots of tertiary characters and plotlines that draw attention away from Iron Man (and RDJ) and thus weaken the film overall. In this sequel, the government and a rival arms manufacturer are both after Tony trying to get their hands on the suit, while a Russian maniac played by Mickey Rourke decides to exact his revenge on Tony for the sins of his father. The fights are still good, and I was surprised to see the love story actually get resolved, but this might just be so Joss Whedon can kill Pepper Potts in The Avengers. (Oh please, you know he’s going to kill someone.) Otherwise, it just really can’t hold a candle to its predecessor.
Here’s my problem with the second movie (and a little bit with the first): the underlying not-so-subtle message is that big business and the military are bad. Now I’m not Fox News so I’m not going to rail about Liberal Media Bias because they can argue whatever they want, but I will say that the filmmakers chose the worst possible character with whom to make this argument. Tony Stark, as previously mentioned, is a hard-drinking, irresponsible, amoral asshole. This is not the person you want in charge of national security.
Besides this, for all that Tony Stark claims that he has built World Peace by being the biggest gun that nobody wants to mess with, what he’s actually done is single-handedly started an arms race. So far, every villain he’s faced has used arc-reactor technology – the technology that Tony Stark created – to power their diabolical invention. Stark hasn’t solidified world peace; he’s opened a battlefield Pandora’s box. When Bruce Wayne creates Batman to rid Gotham City of low-level crime, his actions lead to the rise of the super villain. Similarly, Tony Stark inadvertently raises the stakes and creates an arguably worse threat to peace when he dons the Iron Man persona because he puts justice in the hands of the tech-savvy individual. The films brush on this point briefly. Tony is eventually recruited to the Avengers project exactly because he’s a loose cannon they can’t afford to have running around on his own. So I guess the films’ message isn’t so much “big business and government are bad” as much as “big business and government are bad (unless part of a super-secret organization run by Samuel L. Jackson).” And that is a message I think we can all get behind.
On the whole, I did enjoy re-watching Iron Man 1 & 2, which I hadn’t seen since they were in theaters. But how will I feel about the rest of the Avengers team? Check in next weekend when I review The Incredible Hulk and Thor!