Behind The Iron Mask

Way back when, a decade or so ago, I received as a gift a Daredevil action figure. It was impressive for the time, with some crazy number of points of articulation. I was used to, at best, G.I. Joe figures that moved not only at the shoulders and hips and neck, but also at the elbows and knees and waist. But Daredevil — he had moving wrists and ankles and hands and all sorts of stuff, allowing you to contort him into all sorts of poses. Fun stuff.

At the time, the person who gave me Daredevil also talked about getting the one other figure at the time made the same way, a Spider-Man. “Then, you could make them fight.” Now, as fun as that would have been, like a true nerd, I immediately balked — “What’s their motivation?” Daredevil and Spider-Man are both good guys. No matter how cool it would be to watch, they’re not just going to fight for no reason.

Welcome to Iron Man 2.

The sad thing is, I enjoyed this movie, and yet I’m about to proceed to bash it. Go. Watch it. Enjoy. It’s good stuff. It’s just not nearly what it could have been. And that was disappointing. Particularly because they should have known better. The original Iron Man was brilliant in the ways it avoided being a cliché superhero movie. In the wake of that success, Iron Man 2 flies full-speed into the same clichés and geek fan service that the first one avoided. And that’s a little sad.

I was intrigued back when I first read that they were casting Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark for the first movie. In a way, it was perfect — Downey, in so many ways, IS Stark; it was almost stunt casting. In a different way, it seemed odd. Downey is a serious actor, not a popcorn draw. If it seemed like he was slumming in the movie, it would be worse than having a more traditional action star. But the movie rose to his level. It was a superhero movie with real acting, with real characters, with depth.

I wish I’d been keeping this blog back then; I had pretty substantial thoughts about the first movie that I don’t fully remember now. I do recall that I saw a pretty compelling spiritual allegory in it, centering around the brokenness that leads to a heart replacement that leads to personal change and new strength. I wish I had written something at the time about it, so that I could go back and read it now. In my journal, I noted that the movie “made me want to be a better person.”

I can’t say the same for the second movie. It made me want to eat popcorn. It was fun and big and loud and pretty and exciting and enjoyable. But ultimately flat.

The first movie is about Tony Stark. The second movie is about Iron Man. Or, more accurate, it’s about Marvel Entertainment, LLC’s Iron Man™. Less even about the character than the property. The movie has to make action movie fans happy by including bigger battle scenes. It has to make the comic book fans happy by including more of the character roster. And, of course, it has to pave the way for Marvel Entertainment’s Avengers franchise, coming over the next few summers to a theater near you.

And doing all of those things takes time. Time that could have been spent on what the first movie spent time on — developing the character of Tony Stark. Letting us be invested in him. Letting us care.

The second movie took a step in the right direction by bringing in Mickey Rourke as the big bad, Whiplash. Rourke is the sort of actor who could hold his own opposite Downey in a dramatic conflict. But he’s completely wasted in this movie. His story, his character, his motivation are given no time.

Rourke’s character and his conflict with Stark are pretty close to the heart of the film. Conversely, the War Machine and Black Widow characters are completely extraneous. Remove them from the movie, and the plot is no different. None. But instead of following in the footsteps of the first Iron Man and giving Tony Stark’s struggles and issues room to breathe, the second movie shoves them aside to make room for exciting Iron-Man-suit-on-Iron-Man-suit action and Scarlett Johansson in a bra. At that point, everything that made the first movie special is abandoned in order to dive headfirst into Michael Bay territory.

Iron Man 2 sold itself out the moment it decided to do with its heroes what I wouldn’t do with Daredevil and Spider-Man a decade ago.

If you’re going to make your action figures fight, you need to give them a motivation.