Has there ever been a more obvious pairing of superhero and actor than that of Tony Stark and Robert Downey Jr.? Here’s a character and a movie star who relish being the center of attention, who meld the poise of an intellect with the antics of a frat boy, who don’t so much walk into a room as strut in as star of their own scene. They like to brag and preen. They aren’t in it for noble intentions, but for the lights and glamour.
Granted, I might be simplifying things here, but I think this is why America fell head over heels for Stark in 2008, when we were all still months away from the bursting of the invincible American bubble: He’s the first big screen superhero-celebrity hybrid. By night, he cruises the skies and defeats evil; by day, he’s walking red carpets and posing for celebrity magazine shoots. Is he more famous (and entertaining) as man or machine? I think it’s that very question, and tension, that makes Iron Man – which could just as easily be titled Tony Stark – so gripping. Bruce Wayne was rich, but secretive; Clark Kent and Peter Parker were kind of lame in their daily lives. Most superhero movies simply string a plot between masked action sequences, but back in 2008 Iron Man was one of the few comic-action films to invert this formula. Things got more exciting when it was Stark at center stage, not his ironclad alter ego. In an era of Jersey Shore insta-fame, I think Stark’s rise to prominence at the very end of Iron Man, when he takes credit for the invention, is riveting.
If you could build the most powerful technological suit of all time, forget noble acts of courage; how would you cash in on that buzz as an overnight celebrity? (Iron Man 2 Primer: Check out our character guide)
But I digress. The new Iron Man 2 takes all the themes of the original and doubles down with the house money – delivering to an eager global audience a swirling, chaotic, hilarious jumble that rides high at 100 mph before careening off the road in a sensory-shattering third act. The fact that I left the theater just a little hesitant and disappointed is less a statement on the overall quality of the film than the high bar that was set by its predecessor – one of the very best movies of its year. Iron Man was a great movie, period; Iron Man 2 is an above-average superhero entry, leaning heavily on a tidal wave of ego, breakneck technology and an endlessly watchable ensemble of actors.
Stark is at once more invincible and vulnerable than before – complete with an enhanced mechanical exoskeleton, and some seriously screwed up internal organs. His grand entrance in Iron Man 2 is a tour de force – taking the form of not only a Top Gun flyby and Broadway kickline but also a shapeshifting scene straight out of Transformers. He jumps from a plane as Iron Man, flies through a maze of exploding fireworks in the sky, and then lands in a grand hall at the Stark Expo, robotic arms taking apart his suit to reveal a smirking Robery Downey Jr. underneath, preening in a tux, surrounded by dancing girls. It’s an eye-popping debut, and one done in the right order – Iron Man giving way to Stark, the man we really paid to see.
At the year-long Stark Expo, being held in the outer boroughs of New York City, our favorite engineer-savior is trying to use his fame to draw together the world’s leaders to fix Earth’s problems – think the Clinton Global Initiative, if Bill Clinton could fly – and to get a little face time with the press too. He may look tough, but in reality Stark’s moxy is just a mirage. The science that kept him alive in Iron Man, inserting some sort of reactor thingy into his chest to keep the shrapnel from coursing through his veins (I’m not an expert on the comics, mind you) is now poisoning his blood. Bit by bit, with each and every Iron Man mission, Tony Stark is getting closer to death. Not so surprisingly, his ailing mind starts to focus on the value of his life and the mysteries of his past, on memories of his brilliant father who always showed him the cold shoulder. Unpacking some archival film footage of daddy presenting at older Stark Expos, our fragile-hearted Iron Man leans closer, looking for secret answers in the past that may help him survive into the future. (More at Techland: Check out our guide to the Iron Man comics)
Now let’s pause for a second. What I have described right there could make for a fascinating, evocative film. A celebrity who, while growing ill, must continue his charade of self-aggrandizing even as he comes to realize the utter meaninglessness of his fame. A superhero who is being killed by the very equipment that makes him special. This is heavy stuff. And I would have much preferred an Iron Man 2 that was just this – a story about the many contradictions of Tony Stark.