I dutifully trekked to the movies last week to check out Iron Man 2. Following the runaway success of the first film, and it’s winning formula of laughs, action and a fittingly dramatic tale of an arms dealer’s epiphany and redemption, expectations for the new one were high. There have been some poor reviews, and general complaints that in this movie you didn’t get to see that much of the armour. It’s a fair point, given that this is the first of the tentpole big bang movies of 2010. But I really enjoyed the film, for precisely that reason. The enduring fascination for me lies in the flawed, self-destructive character of Anthony Stark.
He’s based, according to Stan Lee, on Howard Hughes, the playboy billionaire technocrat turned paranoid recluse. Like Hughes, Tony Stark is a glamourous, globe-trotting ne’er-do-well. Like Hughes, he’s also fundamentally broken at base level. He’s bi-polar, alcoholic, has serious daddy issues and seems unable to have any real friends outside his staff. He’s dating his secretary, fercryinoutloud…
With this in mind, it becomes much easier to sympathise with the bad guys in Iron Man 2. Vanko has a very clear and obvious grudge against Stark, whose father used and deported his dad for pretty nebulous reasons. “He was only in it for the money”, we’re told. How vile, an industrialist trying to make a profit, never heard of such a thing. Similarly, Justin Hammer and Senator Gary Shandling have justifiable grievances against this raving narcissist who somehow has access to bleeding edge tech, is using it in one-man vigilante operations without any sort of international sanction, and keeps it locked down and proprietary. I can’t help but imagine that this is like Steve Jobs moving into weapons design. The implications for someone with Iron Man tech using it for means that are not US friendly are never really explored in the film. Sure, Vanko will probably sell his designs on (to the usual bloody suspects, Iran, North Korea et al, when he’d be much better advised simply undercutting Stark and Hammer and making a mint out of the US military, who have no bones about dumping manufacturers if they can make a saving) but his primary motivation is revenge. I’m lost as to why he doesn’t just sue Stark Enterprises for a half share of the profits. It’s not like he doesn’t have any evidence. It’s all a bit – well basic and unimaginative, really.
As befits the industrial espionage theme at the story’s core, most of the villains or opponents Stark comes up against are after the Iron Man tech, and it’s his refusal to hand over or share that causes conflict. The principal villains in both movies are industrialists first and foremost, and more honked off about Stark’s assault on their profit lines than anything else. His petulant outburst at the Senate hearing “It’s mine, and you can’t have it!” tells us everything. The guy simply cannot play nice with others. When you consider that the arc reactor at it’s heart wasn’t his idea in the first place, and that it’s his father’s blueprints for the new element Starkonium (as I’ve decided it should be called) that save his life, that petulance is a bit rich. Ivan Vanko has just as legitimate a claim to the tech as Tony, and yet somehow he’s the bad guy? I walked away from the film feeling that Vanko had been spectacularly hard done by, simply because he chose to deal with the grief of losing his father in a more direct fashion than might have been advisable.
As ever with comic book adaptations, it’s better to go back to the source. Here we see some really interesting developments in Tony Stark’s character. For the last couple of years in the Marvel universe, he’s been effectively a villain. Heading up an initiative to unmask the superhero community that split them down the middle, taking over S.H.I.E.L.D. after an assassination attempt on Nick Fury, he has become an authoritarian stuffed-shirt with little of the joie-de-vivre that fans of Robert Downey Jr. would expect. He is trouble, pure and simple, melting down into a puddle of booze or paranoid delusion just when the planet needs him most.
He can be even more toxic to those around him. The moment when Tony, in an attempt to bring Pepper a gift to apologise, offers her strawberries, the one thing she is allergic to, says a lot about the character. The flippant comeback line, “I knew there was something connecting you and strawberries” is the capper. He doesn’t care about her. He only has a vague idea of her likes, dislikes and the fruits that could potentially kill her. I genuinely felt that he was closer to the robots in his lab than to Pepper, Happy or Rhodey.
But maybe there is another aspect to the character that needs to be tied into the mix. The Iron Man armour itself. A major part of the film is the hunt for a power source for the suit that won’t kill Stark (palladium poisoning won’t give you techno-emo tattoos, by the way. It’s nasty stuff). In the comics, Rhodey’s take-over of the War Machine armour nearly kills him too. The suit is dangerous. Stark has no qualms with flying unproven prototypes of the armour in to combat, regardless of the risks (and as the arc reactor generates almost absurd amounts of power, the catastrophic failure of that device could cause the end of everything. Imagine Iron Man losing containment over China, airbursting with a force equivalent to every nuclear weapon ever made at once. That, my friends, is an extinction level event. All because Tony-baby couldn’t wait to play with his latest toy.)
So, let’s sum up. Our hero is a narcissistic drunk, incapable of a meaningful relationship, and a hoarder of world-changing technology who has taken it upon himself to police the planet without any form of oversight or supervision. All it would take is one bout of alcoholic hallucinations leading him to believe that Kim Jong Il is actually a lizard from outer space and he could spark off World War 3.
I dunno about you, but Tony Stark flippin’ terrifies me.
(The Wizardworld photo is courtesy of Mike Bartolomeo.)