‘Iron Man 2’ pitches the Cold War and Oracle with a kino fist
First of all, Robert Downey, Jr. could read from the phone book and make it sound like Anton Chekov or Hunter S. Thompson wrote it. And his character Tony Stark in the second installment of this epic Marvel franchise is among the best-written in cinematic superheroism. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about what’s really underneath the man in the Iron mask this time around.
The enterprise starts with a bang: Tony descends (literally) upon the Stark Expo, which is basically a Trumped-up variation on the MacWorld conference crossed with a Richard Branson-style showcase. There are promises of new technological developments (because the Iron Man suit is really all there is, so building an entire expo around it baffles a bit) and Rockette-like dancers to generate the figurative sparks that complement our protagonist’s panache for generating literal ones. Why Stark Expo needs to feature an enormous Oracle banner wrapped around the biosphere at its epicenter is a mystery. Larry Ellison, the real-life CEO of the aforementioned corporation who bears many of the personal – and apparently physical – traits of the fictional CEO, makes a cameo. Cute cross-marketing campaign, I might add. The implication is that Oracle’s brand is enveloping the world like a great big hug.
Later on we get Tony roasting a televised Senate committee hearing, where he boasts that he has “successfully privatized world peace.” How Cheneyesque. And this ushers in the latest action movie archetype: the supermarkethero.
If Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was a modernist, chiaroscuro Gothicism—painted shadows, grotesquery and even a Picasso-esque demonic clown thrown in for good measure—the first Iron Man felt like animated contemporary Pop art, bright, spare and flippant. Credit the fleet (but never flashy) director, Jon Favreau, for the refreshing take. Much of the original film’s tone has been reinstated in the sequel, but in fits and starts.
Iron Man 2 isn’t a bad movie, if for no other reason than it defies the classification. It isn’t a movie at all, in fact, but rather a collection of Oracle commercials, military propagandist featurettes and upcoming summer blockbuster teasers, wrapped in soliloquies and packaged delectably. It feels alternately timely, prophetic and retrograde.
To wit: We are immersed in the Cold War once again, courtesy of a prologue that depicts the technology behind the Iron Man weapon as a collaborative effort between American and Soviet military physicists. The subject is drilled into our heads thanks to Mickey Rourke’s portrayal of the brilliant but blighted progeny of the seemingly betrayed Siberian who co-authored the project with Tony Stark’s father. His accent, so thick you could trip over it (though he never does) is abetted by the soundtrack’s thunderous Russian war dirges, and his name is (I swear) Ivan. He’s the new kid on the Soviet Bloc. Only adding to the bluntness is the movie’s addition of a time capsule filled with film reels narrated by Stark’s father. It doesn’t help that he’s played by the wonderful John Slattery, who will forever be recognized as a partner at Sterling Cooper in that trendy mock-time capsule Mad Men.
Then there’s Scarlett Johansson, whose scenes are edited to suggest a Clairol commercial directed by the Wachowski brothers. She seizes every opportunity to divorce herself from any interactions with the ensemble other than when she’s tossing them out of her way. (Her hair, it must be noted, is the movie’s single greatest special effect, with its coils of tendrils bouncing and twirling at will, like Medusa’s python follicles.)
Why she’s even in the picture is not important – it’s nice to see her teasing the upcoming Avengers movie with her future costar Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who shows up halfway through. It’s at this point that Tony references a shield found in his laboratory – which is coincidentally the name of the little club of do-gooders who plan to start Avenging in a future spin-off. He calls the shield the key to his survival, and all we can do is rap our fingers and wait. The brilliant Clark Gregg is tasked with providing the only bits of intrigue by telegraphing obvious movie tie-ins and foreshadowing immediate inevitable conflicts.
It’s all executed with aplomb – and it’s a good thing. Without the distractions, we’d be stuck in a storm of futuristic technology, a mire of Reagan-era politicizing and a tangle of product placements that further blur the lines between art and commerce today. It almost makes one pine for Bruce Waynian reticence.