This week, I won't open with a caveat. I'm just going to be rebellious, bucking the critical consensus, and pretend to be the kind of fangirl who favors comic book canon over all else. Oh wait, that's a caveat isn't it? Darn. Well, opening paragraphs were never my strong suit -- thesis statements were. So, here's my thesis statement: I really liked the element of Iron Man 2 that everyone hated. I liked his inactivity.
The hero's journey is so old, so prestigious, and so creepily omnipresent that it's had hundreds of books, articles, and lectures written about it. Part of that journey is always a stumble or two (or three . . .) but the hero always emerges triumphant. Tony Stark is no exception to this rule. What makes him a little more fun than most heroes, though, is that he is constantly stumbling. Whenever he's on top of the world, he loses it all -- his company, his technology, his health, his sanity. It happens again and again. His greatest villain has always been himself. Batman has the Joker, Superman has Lex Luthor, and Tony Stark has the demon liquor. I don't think there's a single comic book character whose greatest and most famous battle was with a human disease over a supervillain. Iron Man remains a unique figure for that very reason. Plenty of heroes make careers out of their mental issues. Tony's superhero career has been troubled because of them.
That's why I found the second half of Iron Man 2 so interesting. Every comic book movie follows that hero's journey; every superhero has that moment of doubt where they hang up their mask and cape. Even The Dark Knight went through a shrug-and-give-up period. Tony's complete breakdown was something rarer though, because it came on the heels of being a cocky ass. I don't need to reiterate the pre-marketing of Iron Man 2 – this is the movie where he will have to face the consequences of "I am Iron Man!" – but I was impressed that Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. were willing to bring him so low. They humiliated Stark. Tony was left clutching shreds of his true armor (the playboy "Fetch me a coffee!" quips) that even Agent Coulson could see through. It was pathetic. It wasn't particularly entertaining, but I liked it. And while the SHIELD stuff felt shoved in, I think it will (or could) pay off in the greater scheme of Tony's character.
You see, there's not really a moment where Tony saves himself; this is a hero's journey where the hero is bailed out by a deceased man and SHIELD. The answers to his problems practically fall in his lap. Sure, he has to find a way to develop the technology, but that's peanuts to a guy who built an arc reactor out of scraps.
But don't tell that to his pride. Tony thinks he's found his path and purpose by movie's end. He's so puffed up with his own heroism that he can't wait to join The Avengers Initiative. But it's a patch-up job. It only will take a little shove to make him collapse again. What will that be? The Mandarin? Whatever he faces in The Avengers? Throwing a bigger and meaner world of magic and mayhem at Tony could send him into another spiral, because this is a man who doesn't really deal with the unknown very well. This movie proved that. Once someone else had his technology, he was done. He was out of the game. His physical condition was a neat excuse for his mental one. It was something pretty unique and special in terms of comic book movies. It wasn't handled as well as I would have liked, but it was a pretty good attempt. And, perhaps more importantly, the audience fell with him.
How? Well, let's explore that. The reactions to Iron Man 2 have been an interesting mix of extreme high and lows. Now, I don't disagree with all of the criticism that's been thrown at the film, but I find the reactions to Act 2 quite curious. I think audiences embraced Iron Man without really knowing the cracked man at the core, which is fascinating since so many gleefully compared the character to Downey Jr. himself. I suspect audiences prefer to see a G-rated addict, and want to worship a superhero who flirts with demons, but doesn't succumb to them. Iron Man 2 showed him teetering on the edge, and people aren't crazy about it.
When I walked out of the theater, I thought this was as close as we'd get to Demon in a Bottle. The thrust of Demon was there (Tony drinking, doing heinous things in his suit, shunning all around him, Justin Hammer eating away at Tony's confidence) but it wasn't overt. I suspect that Iron Man 2 wasn't just a patched-up introduction to the outer menaces of the Marvel Universe, but a sly set-up to the meaner and uglier inner battles of Tony Stark.
What if the great villain of Iron Man 3 is the Mandarin -- but isn't really. What if it's actually Tony's alcoholism? The franchise that made superheroes fun and generally popular may do what Zack Snyder's Watchmen failed to – destroy the glamour, subvert the hero, and show Iron Man to be just a man. Frankly, I can't think of a better way to follow up The Avengers than that, but I wonder what the reaction will be. If Iron Man 2 took all the "fun" out of the character, what will happen if Favreau really decimates him? Will the audience follow?