Superhero films are here to stay. The cheeky mastery Sam Raimi showed with the Spider-Man franchise made them the most exciting films around for popcorn movie lovers, some of whom have never picked up a comic book. Christopher Nolan, meanwhile, has transformed Batman into a social archetype that reflects our anxieties about urban life, terrorism and the fate of democratic ideals in a violent world.
Tights and capes flicks have also had their low moments, even for some of the best franchise characters of DC and Marvel comics. Daredevil, Elektra, and two efforts at the Incredible Hulk were creative and box office disappointments. And let’s not even talk about Halle Berry’s turn as Catwoman.
The year 2008 brought both Nolan’s Dark Knight and Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, rejuvenating the genre. In both cases, audiences that thought they hated superhero movies showed up in droves. Iron Man 2 built on the success of that first film, blending hi-tech adventure with characters you actually care about.
Iron Man 2 is a movie of explosions that follow explosions, making the Blu-Ray release a delight for action fans. But even as your face is melting off from this assault on the senses, you are really pulled in by some fine performances of an amazing cast. Don Cheadle as Roady, Gwenyth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow and Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer add excellent support, successfully turning iconic comic archetypes into actual people.
Robert Downey Jr., meanwhile, owns Iron Man in a way that few actors have ever fully embodied a genre character. He succeeds in this so well because he can play Tony Stark as the comics have tended to present him: a lovable d-bag with a drinking problem, immense wealth, a conscience he doesn’t always take too seriously and a weaponized suit of armor.
Mickey Rourke also deserves some special mention. While someone, somewhere, right now, is making fun of Rourke’s Russian accent, its worth reflecting on the fact that within a short time Rourke turned in an Academy Award nominated performance as a redneck wrestler and went on to play a convincing Russian supervillain, Whiplash. A c-list villain in the comic franchise, Whiplash became in Rourke’s hands a twisted reflection of Stark’s own self-regard, a living example of the dark side of the billionaire playboy’s ludicrous lifestyle. Jon Favreau notes in the “Making of” featurette that Rourke, on his own volition, paid a visit to some Russian prisons to pick up accents and phrasing. He brings an authenticity to a role that could have been just plain silly.
Much has been written and said about how non-comic fans (and even audiences who actively disdain cinematic super-heroics) find pleasure in the Iron Man franchise. It is also worth considering what Iron Man 2 does for the fan base. The good news for them is that Favreau, a comic geek himself, knows the mythology of ol’ shellhead and fully imbues his films with it.
Tony Stark as unlikely hero is part of this mythos. The film franchises’ portrayal of Stark as a poor little rich boy with a penchant for booze fully matches up with his reputation in the comics, as does his arrogance and charming boorishness. Allusions to his drinking problem will remind fans of the classic “Demon in a Bottle” narrative arc from the ‘70s. Unfortunately, Favreau cut an alternate opening, now available as a special feature, that further accentuates Stark’s deeply flawed heroism.
Iron Man 2 also sets the stage for creating a truly interlinked Marvel Universe on film. In the ‘60s, Marvel began the process of creating a meta-narrative of superheroics in which hundreds and hundreds of characters all inhabited the same universe. Samuel L. Jackson’s prominent role in Iron Man 2 as Nick Fury, head of the international, covert, peace-keeping force known as S.H.I.E.L.D, has provided the link between Iron Man and the larger Marvel Universe, with allusions to the “Avengers Initiative” and the Hulk. And, if you didn’t sit in your theatre seat waiting for the credits to roll, here’s your chance to see the scene where the hammer of Thor appears embedded in the New Mexico desert.
Iron Man 2 also begins the preparation for Joss Whedon’s Avengers that will bring together the major heroes of the Marvel Universe. The upcoming 20ll Captain America: The First Avenger directed by Joe Johnston and Kenneth Branaugh’s Thor will further set the stage for this fanboy’s dream.
The special features for the Blu-Ray release are a treasure trove for Marvel fans. The “Illustrated Origins” feature offers featurettes on Nick Fury, Black Widow and War Machine that include interviews with Marvel creators as well as with the actor who brought them to life. The Blu-Ray edition also comes with the “SHIELD data vault” that hints at some themes that will appear in future Marvel releases. This turned out not to be as exciting as it sounded, with much of this feature simply being clips from the film that accentuated its connections to the larger Marvel Universe. Worst of all, the menus are more than a little clunky and hard to navigate.
Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise has shown us everything superhero films can be. Favreau’s Iron Man doesn’t quite hit the transcendent notes of the Dark Knight but manages to be both a damn good time and a reflection on technology, democracy and, as always with the world of superpowers, the nature of the hero itself.