Sometimes, heroes are jerks.
The same person who would rescue baby kittens from a burning building might ignore you in the lunchroom. The same baseball player who hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth might loiter with a mistress at the top of the 11th. The same televangelist whose preaching has reached millions might not have the wherewithal to save himself from tabloid infamy.
And then there’s Tony Stark.
Stark, aka Iron Man, has a bigger brain than Einstein, a bigger bank account than Queen Elizabeth and a bigger ego than Def Jam’s combined roster of rappers. He’s superherodom’s enfant terrible—a guy as likely to land on Perez Hilton’s splash page as The Wall Street Journal’s front page, a man who makes the Kardashians look like the Waltons. His antics are so notorious that, when his appearance at a congressional hearing hits YouTube, one of his longsuffering computers tells him that it’s nice for once to see him in a video with his clothes on.
“I will serve this great nation at the pleasure of myself,” he says. “Because one thing you can count on from me is to pleasure myself.”
None of this is new. For years Tony has cultivated his bad-boy image with the care of an orchid gardener. He considers it part of his charm. But now there’s a hint of desperation in Tony’s party-hearty ways—perhaps because he senses the party’s just about over.
The arc reactor—that glowing techno-ticker installed in his chest—is now leeching toxic chemicals into his bloodstream, and he can’t make it stop. As his computer glumly notes, “The device keeping you alive is also killing you.” Like that televangelist, Tony’s been able to save lots of people but he can’t throw a lifeline to himself. And he begins to wonder whether he should scrap the heroism gig altogether and live out the rest of his days as he—before the suit—always expected he would: in lavish, hedonistic excess.
But while Tony cools his titanium heels and contemplates mortality, new threats have emerged on the world scene. A brilliant Russian physicist manages to replicate Tony’s technology, using it to build a nifty suit of his own with the express purpose of bringing Tony’s empire down. One of Tony’s business rivals wants to embarrass his flashy nemesis in the worst sorts of ways. And the U.S. government wants to take away Tony’s shiny armor.
What’s a hero—er, Tony—to do?
Despite that last quip, and for all of Tony’s indiscretions, he actually is a hero. He tells a congressional committee that he’s “successfully privatized world peace” and, at the time he says it, it’s no idle boast. When he thinks he may be dying, he throws himself into a do-gooding frenzy. He christens a year-long expo meant to gather the best, brightest scientists from around the world to help better mankind. He donates a pricey collection of art to the Boy Scouts of America. He makes his devoted assistant, Pepper Potts, CEO of Stark Industries—rewarding her loyalty, efficiency and underappreciated smarts.
“It’s not about me,” he tells an audience, tongue shoved only partway into his cheek. “It’s about what we choose to leave behind for future generations.”
But as much as Tony gives, the film is at its most touching when he receives an unexpected gift from his dead father: his posthumous love. We learn that Tony never thought his father particularly liked, much less loved him. (Perhaps the seeds of Tony’s precociousness were planted in this fractious relationship.) But while watching an old film reel, Tony learns that his pops—a renowned inventor himself—thought the world of his boy.
“My greatest creation,” Mr. Stark says, “is you.”
Certainly worth mentioning in this section is Lt. Col. Rhodes. Unlike Tony, he usually does his do-gooding by the book. He’s honest, forthright and tries to submit to those in authority. (Submission is something Tony has big issues with.) When Tony gets dangerously out of control, Rhodey forcibly reins him in, risking both life and friendship in the process.
A rival defense contractor says “God bless Iron Man, and God bless America” during a congressional hearing. Later, he tells Ivan (the Russian villain) how impressed he was that Ivan stood up to Iron Man in front of God and everyone else.
Beyond those superficial specifics, one can read into Iron Man 2 (as is the case with many superhero movies) some serious spiritual themes. In 2008’s Iron Man, Tony Stark was almost literally born again with the help of a new heart (his arc reactor). And the jets on his hands look suspiciously like stigmata. While those elements may not have been so intended by Iron Man’s original writers or the makers of this new series of movies, they’re oddly provocative elements for the watchful Christian. And it’s interesting that Tony’s new heart in this film bears, at its core, a glowing triangle—an echo (for me, anyway) of the Trinity.
Ivan also sees spiritual symbolism in Tony’s Iron Man. He attacks Tony with his electric whips and nearly defeats him. And even though he doesn’t finish the job, as it were, Ivan believes he achieved his purpose: showing that Iron Man is vulnerable. “If you can make God bleed, people will cease to believe in him,” he says. Obviously, the opposite happened when Jesus bled and died on the cross 2,000 years ago. But in this case it may be an intentional irony since the line comes from Tony’s arch-nemesis.
Tony is a womanizing playboy who makes mildly off-color and sometimes demeaning quips about his conquests. He references masturbation, and he hangs out with scantily clad women. He tosses out a joke about congressmen and their prostitutes.
But Tony also suggests that with Pepper he may be entering into a more stable, monogamous relationship.
Elsewhere, we see shapely S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natalie Rushman pose in lingerie and change clothes in the backseat of a car. (The camera takes in her bra-clad torso.) Iron Man makes an appearance in front of a line of women dancing in short shorts and revealing tops. Somebody besides Tony references having sex. And Pepper warns her boss that he may be slapped with a sexual harassment suit if he doesn’t stop ogling Natalie.
War is inherently evolutionary. If you make a gun, your enemy will try to make a bigger one. Same principle goes for Iron Man suits. Now that Tony’s got his, everyone seems to want one.
Audiences see footage of several such suits self-destructing during testing. One armored ensemble twists 180 degrees at the waist—with a man inside. “I’d like to point out that that test pilot survived,” says the manufacturer’s CEO.
Ivan’s the only one who ends up making such a suit work. First he designs a stripped-down model … with the electric whips. He tries it out on a Monte Carlo race course—while Tony’s driving a car on it. His whips slam down on speeding cars—cutting them open, turning them into fireballs, making them crash.
Ivan and Iron Man end up duking it out with fists and whips, of course. And Tony’s chauffeur rams Ivan over and over again to try to subdue him. In prison, Ivan kills a prison mate and a guard, and he blows up his cell. He sics deadly drones on Tony, and innocent civilians get in the way. The humanoid-looking drones fire missiles, shoot guns, throw punches and eventually explode in a variety of ways. Ivan also claims control of an earlier generation Iron Man suit worn by Rhodey. The suit’s been armed to the gills with a variety of guns and missiles, making it a lethal adversary when Ivan and Tony clash again—with Rhodey held hostage in the middle of it all. Eventually, Ivan unveils his next-gen supersuit which is so formidable that Tony and Rhodey have to team up to fight against it.
Each battle is spectacularly loud, fiery and frenetic.
Natalie hits, kicks and chokes about a dozen guards into submission. Both Natalie and Tony fight an opponent in a boxing ring. Tony “wins” his match by cheating. (He starts kicking.) Natalie uses acrobatic fight maneuvers. A bodyguard has a long, drawn-out fight with a security guard. Ivan apparently kills two guards, leaving him with—literally—blood on his hands. (We see his victims dangle from the ceiling.)
In Tony’s house, he and Rhodey have a cataclysmic fight while wearing their respective suits.
The s-word is used three or four times. Two f-words are bleeped on a television program. Other curses include “a–,” “b‑‑ch” and “h‑‑‑.” “Pr–k” is used as a double entendre. There are about 10 misuses of God’s name, one of Jesus’.
During what he believes could be his final birthday party, Tony gets snockered—much to the delight of the party’s attendees, but the chagrin of his friends. (And the movie makes it clear that we’re not supposed to like it, either.) He carelessly shoots bottles and watermelons with his hand jets, tries to drunkenly kiss Pepper and antagonizes Rhodey. Elsewhere, Tony and others drink wine, martinis and vodka (some of which is given to a cockatoo). Tony and Pepper open a bottle of champagne to celebrate her promotion. We learn that Ivan’s father raised him in a “vodka-fueled rage.”
At the party, Tony wrinkles up his face and announces that he’s currently urinating inside his Iron Man suit. There’s are lines about “breaking balls,” “Hammeroids” and “taking a dump” in Tony’s backyard.
Good intentions lead Rhodey to steal one of Tony’s suits and turn it over to a military base, where he’s ordered to amp up its offensive firepower.
A hyper-destructive missile is dubbed the “ex-wife.” AC/DC’s music is included in the movie and fills the soundtrack.
Iron Man is, for better and worse, a superhero for our times. Played with charismatic aplomb once again by Robert Downey Jr., Tony Stark is a bundle of contradictions—narcissistic yet selfless, deeply flawed yet ultimately heroic. While some superheroes skirt the celebrity culture that surrounds them, Tony dives in and swims in it, constructing for himself an outrageous public persona that both reflects and protects his true self. He struggles with his flaws, trying to correct them even as he excuses them. So for a man of iron, Tony is the superhero who seems, paradoxically, the most familiar to us—the most like ourselves.
And that, I think, is where the power in the Iron Man series lurks. Tony is not a “too good to be true” halcyon like Superman, nor is he a tragically flawed antihero such as those found in Watchmen. He’s a frat house kind of guy who wants to do good, and often does so—in spite of himself.
Iron Man 2 has all the baggage you’d expect in a 2010 superhero film. While it’s a touch less problematic than its predecessor, it still fires up some foul language, some gratuitous sexuality, some heavy-duty (though not grotesque) violence.
But it also gives us a prism through which we can examine evil, ponder good and see someone who’s willing to face down the former to hold up the latter. Tony Stark should not be a role model. But he does suggest that furiously flawed folks—jerks like us—can be heroes.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.