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Iron Men

Last weekend we watched the two Iron Man films that came out. They’re both enjoyable films, with the first one being the better of the two, and the second maybe a couple of ticks above The Avengers.

Iron Man (2008) benefits greatly from having a simple (and focused) character-driven story: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a billionaire playboy who inherited a weapons manufacturing company from his father, Howard. Orphaned as a boy, he’s raised by his father’s friend Obadiah Stane (a nearly-unrecognizable Jeff Bridges) who runs the company until he’s old enough to take it over. But as a man – despite being a genius – Tony is more interested in being a playboy until he’s captured by rebels in Afghanistan with a piece of shrapnel lodged in his chest. Only quick thinking by fellow captured scientist Yinsen (Shaun Toub) saves him, and their pair construct a power source to sit in his chest to keep the shrapnel away from killing him. The power supply also happens to be able to power a suit of armor, and after escaping captivity, Tony refines the armor into a suit that can fly and shoot energy beams, thus becoming Iron Man.

Although Tony is in his 30s (or 40s) when the movie starts, the story is basically about him growing up and taking responsibility for himself and his company. Horrified by what his company’s weapons are used for, he pulls it out of the weapons business and refocuses it on other areas. He struggles with Stane for control of the company as well. He also comes to learn that he has friends who care about him and who can help him, if he reciprocates their loyalty and deals with them as adults rather than as children who aren’t as smart as him.

This is one of the things I like about the better superhero films of the past decade: They’ve moved beyond being about the superpowers and what you can do with them and are rooted in the challenges that the characters face. While the characters are larger-than-life, their challenges are relatable: Both Batman and Iron Man deal with alienation and guilt, while Captain America deals with the conflict of duty vs. love. While the adventure story is of course de rigueur in these films, weaving it and the character drama together is what makes a good film of this sort.

Iron Man 2 (2010) is an enjoyable action film, but is much less interesting than its predecessor. The government is pressing Stark to turn over the “Iron Man weapon” to it, which he resists, claiming it’s not a weapon. His competitor, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell, playing a thanklessly goofy role), wants to supplant Stark as a supplier to the government. And a Russian scientist, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), has adapted Stark’s technology and tries to kill him as revenge for the perceived slight Tony’s father perpetrated on Vanko’s father. This story is basically divorced from the character drama, which involves Tony unlearning many of the lessons he learned in the first film, behaving drunkenly irresponsibly as Iron Man, and being stopped by his friend Rhodey (Don Cheadle) who takes another set of armor and then delivers it to the government. Tony also alienates his friends Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Happy Hogan (played by the directory, Jon Favreau). Tony’s backsliding is ostensibly because the device in his chest is gradually killing him, he can’t figure out a solution, and so he gets depressed. SHIELD director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) kicks him in the ass with a video of Tony’s father Howard, but the resolution of these threads all feels slipshod, and utterly divorced from the climactic battle (which itself seems haphazardly staged).

The film might have done better to avoid Tony’s backsliding (though I appreciates that it didn’t fall into the too-often-used-in-the-comics plot device of making him an alcoholic) and instead focused on the father/son relationships which are explored somewhat in Tony’s case, but only superficially in Vanko’s case. The best parts of the film involve Howard Stark – cleverly portrayed in flashback sequences as being a Walt Disney type figure – and Tony’s reactions to the footage he’s shown. But seeing him shut out his friends felt like a betrayal of the first film’s triumphs; it would have been better had Tony brought Pepper and Happy into the fold rather than withdrawing into himself, even if the ultimate solution came from his father.

Though the action sequences are fun, ultimately the film can’t lift itself above the level of an action movie, though it does try.

In both films, though, it’s easy to see why Robert Downey Jr.’s career has lifted off as a result: He plays Tony as a rather manic genius prone to a variety of mood swings, and he pulls it off quite well.

Iron Man 3 is slated for 2013 release, and hopefully it will move the characters forward rather than treading over the same ground a third time.