Sunday 17 October 2010

I didn't watch the first movie in the Iron Man franchise so I cannot make any comment about the message it delivered, although going by Iron Man 2 (dir Jon Favreau, 2010), which I watched last night, it must have been aimed squarely at young men because this one ... Boy, oh boy does it feature some dreamy hardware! The crazy volume of ersatz killing that takes place amid an ethos of violent problem-solving in this film is enough to make nice little Timmy from across the street dive off the roof of the family home out of sheer excitement. The film does no favours for Timmy's older cousins, either, because by crikey it was easy for the screenwriters and the director to conjure up in imagination a world that is led by a power-hungry ruling class that takes its profits from the manufacture and marketing of merchandise designed to kill.

For Timmy's father there is plenty to admire, also. We're transported into a world of exalted material privilege and brutal financial cachet. In this A-list world of exotic pleasures you can decide to visit Monaco for the Grand Prix and, once there, disdain the overtures of a reporter from Vanity Fair, the ritzy New York magazine, for the preferred option: the driver's seat of an F1 car. Or select, on a whim, the most desirable table in the most central location of the town where the motor race takes place. And since power corrupts, too, it's a world where the vengeance-fuelled evil-doer (Mickey Rourke is fabulous as the sinister Ivan Vanko, our hero's nemesis, a man of such questionable values that he makes do with clapped-out boots while dreamily coveting a sulphur-crested cockatoo for company) can be "rendered" out of prison by the main competition so that it can secure a technological advantage in the race for lucrative government weapons contracts.

For Timmy's college-educated cousin there are plenty of options to quizzically savour in the orgy of greed and one-upmanship as billionaire Tony Stark (Iron Man unmasked, played by Robert Downey Jr) refuses to bow to congressional pressure to hand over his Iron Man suit, and then proceeds to invent, under the aegis of a shadowy federal law agency (represented by Nick Fury, who is played by Samuel L Jackson), an even more lethal power source for his already-deadly armour in an effort to counter the gizmotic advances achieved in a seedy Mascow apartment by Vanko.

And Timmy's mum? Well, there's a choice. On one hand there's the plain-but-capable Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) who Stark whimsically chooses one day as his replacement at the helm of the company, selecting her to take over day-to-day control of Stark Enterprises, the technology empire founded by Tony's dad and the source of his fabulous wealth. And then there's Natalie Rushman (or Natasha Romanov in her life as a secret-agent, played by Scarlett Johanssen), an enigmatic, sassy and powerful over-achiever who has the svelte body and dreamy mandibular pout of a screen siren but the ivy-league training of a true blue-stocking (she speaks Latin!).

But where is the goodness in this fever-fuelled world of sensational product releases, Rolls Royce prestige, sleazy realpolitik and Lear Jet convenience? It's within the opulent mansion Stark has built on a penninsula overlooking the ocean. Here, safely ensconced away from danger and distraction, the ideosynchratic tech baron can play with a whole gamut of expensive toys and invent - over the weekend, it seems - a rare fuel by following plans ingeniously encoded in a marketing display of a futuristic town by his wise father, Howard (John Slattery). By employing his powerful virtual reality tools, Stark finds that the panorama holds secrets that only he could be privy to and, burning the midnight oil, he erects a jury-rigged particle accelerator in his basement. Then with a wrench and a grunt of satisfaction the inventor deploys a light beam so that the sensational power he has generated can be captured in a small, glowing triangle that he proceeds to insert in the fatal cavity sunk in his chest. He is ready to face the hordes of drones Vanko produced with the help of competitor Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell).

Cue epic battle with dozens of menacing, faceless drones controlled by Vanko at his computer keyboard. There he sits, tapping away with intense focus aimed at obliterating the last traces of Iron Man and the goodness he represents: free enterprise, individual endeavour and quirky humanity.

Cut to Iron Man swooping down to snatch Pepper Potts from the jaws of death, spiriting her away to an isolated rooftop and safety where they can, finally, seal the long-time romance they have come to embody with a passionate kiss as the defeated drones self-destruct with splashes of light all over the town.

Scene: a frosy bunker furnished only with a table, two chairs, and Rushman's report on Stark's performance throughout the drama that has unfolded. Verdict? Stark is not to be trusted with the nation's safety, although he can be taken on as a consultant providing high-tech nous to those more suited to teamwork and the earnest demands of national security.

Then it's over to the award ceremony where the venal senator is compelled to pin a medal of honour on Stark's well-tailoured lapel as a grateful nation applauds its odd-ball saviour.

This predictable film offers much to admire in terms of its visuals, but finally I have to say that it's an exploitative wash-job. Sure, rogue nations and rogue inventors can be bad for us when they enjoy success. But the West's "system" of wealth and power is also a threat, and it's never challenged here. It's a force that the movie brings into some sort of focus, but ultimately the film forgives Capital as the lesser of two evils. And that's the main message little Timmy's hard-working and tax-paying extended family must take away from this production. A production which is, as a joint venture of Marvel Comics and Paramount Pictures, just as much a part of whatever "system" of self-justifying profit-seeking the screenwriters have chosen to portray.

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