Photos courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Review by Ryan Wilson

To say that comic books aren’t just for kids anymore is to completely misunderstand the genre. The situations and themes have always been socially and politically relevant, from fighting the Nazis in the Golden Age to fighting our own hypocrisy in the 1980s. The best comic writers like Dennis O’Neil, Alan Moore, and Frank Miller put the times ahead of the heroes. Marvel Comics, largely guided by Stan Lee, has always created its characters this way. The X-Men, beginning in the 1960s, is really just a meditation on the various types of segregation. The Hulk meanwhile represents the dangers of the Atomic Age, while Daredevil can be viewed as a necessity given our broken legal system.

But no character perhaps best embodies our current age like Iron Man. He's, of course, Tony Stark, a weapons contractor who develops a metal suit so advanced that he becomes a superhero to “privatize world peace.” He’s like the security firm Blackwater, if Blackwater were more competent or ethical.

In the Iron Man movies he’s, of course, played by the very charming, very funny, Robert Downey Jr. Yet beneath all that charm is something much more complex. Here’s a hero so individualistic, so independent, that he won’t hide behind a secret identity, and he won’t share his resources with a government he sees as often abusive and corrupt. Also, he’s a born capitalist and has no qualms about getting rich off of marketing his heroic deeds. Ayn Rand would have loved Tony Stark. He’s sort of the Howard Roark of superheroes.

In the comics books this often puts him at odds with other heroes who are more purely altruistic. Indeed, Iron Man is often the “jerk” of the Marvel Universe, especially when he expects other heroes to reveal their secret identities, as was the case in Marvel’s “Civil War” mini-series, where it took Captain America to fight Stark’s power-grab.

If I’m revealing myself to be a true comic book geek, I’m doing this because I wanted more of the real Tony Stark to come across in Iron Man 2. The first movie two years ago did an excellent job of telling Iron Man’s origin story, as well as show Stark to be an uncompromising loner with a wild streak and an ego to match his genius. Downey Jr. won us over as a self-made man who earned the right to be immature in his personal life. I wanted there to be more character growth in the sequel, as well as more moral complexity.

Instead, what we get is a retread of the first film without the exhilaration of origin story. The best moments come early when we see Stark testifying before congress, lead by a snarky Garry Shandling, who accuses Stark of withholding his weapon from the government. Downey Jr. bobs and weaves delightfully in this scene, but more, we get a sense of just how formidable Tony Stark can be. He vainly wants to keep the credit for stabilizing the world to himself.

One major problem with Iron Man is that he doesn’t have any decent villains. Not compared to Spider-Man, who has too many, or the X-Men, who can rely on mutations to keep the bad guys interesting. Iron Man only gets enemy scientists, this time a Russian terrorist with a grudge, played by Mickey Rourke with a terrible accent. He’s called Whiplash because he can manipulate electrical currents from his arms, but other than that he’s never any real threat. There’s also Sam Rockwell as a rival arms dealer, who wants to wreck Tony Stark’s legacy.

Tony Stark’s real enemy is actually Tony Stark. In the comic book, besides being something of an autocrat, he’s also an alcoholic. This never gets enough mention in the film franchise, probably because it’s too ugly and real for a summer blockbuster. Stark does get drunk in Iron Man 2, but the scene is played more like frat-boy humor than like anything character-based, and so we forgive and forget it as if it were an indiscretion rather than a character flaw.

The biggest complaint for those not looking for character development or a decent story might be the lack of screen-time for the metal suit. For an action film, Iron Man 2 only provides two action scenes. The first one is better, as it introduces the villain Whiplash, but the climactic battle feels tacked on and underwhelming. As great as Downey Jr. is in the role, his bantering with secretary Pepper Pots, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, also gets tiresome. Just show us Iron Man and crank up the AC/DC already. That way I’ll know it’s summer.

What Iron Man 2 feels like it really wants to be is an Avengers movie. Samuel L. Jackson appears as eye-patch wearing Shield Agent Nick Fury, and Scarlett Johansson dons a jumpsuit as Shield Agent Black Widow. Neither is given much to do but lecture Stark on taking his responsibilities seriously. This is a wasted opportunity. How much better and more complex would the story have been to make the central conflict between Shield and Stark, between a secret government operation and the transparent capitalistic hero who won’t work with them?

But maybe I’m asking too much as a fan. Recent reports have comic book guru Joss Whedon helming the upcoming Avengers film. Maybe he can make more out of Tony Stark and of Shield. Before that, however, Marvel studios will give us another Hulk movie, as well as Captain America and Thor adaptations.

We’ve learned to expect some higher art and critical thinking in our comic books. Some of that has already transferred to film, as seen in the X-Men franchise and The Dark Knight. Let’s hope that more of it can be translated to upcoming comic book movies, especially to the Iron Man franchise.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College's WUCX Q 90.1, airing every Saturday at 8:35 a.m. and again at 9:35 a.m. and produced by Jennifer Vande Zande. For more information, visit deltabroadcasting.org.