Friday, May 28, 2010

Iron Man 2

I was initially very supportive of the original Iron Man film when I first saw it, but I flat out turned on it after The Dark Knight was released. In all honesty, this has more to do with how much I loved The Dark Knight as opposed to any real or imagined flaws in Iron Man. I'd even go as far as saying it was a definite contender for the best super-hero movie from the traditional mold that I've ever seen. It simply came up short compared to The Dark Knight, which did things within the super-hero genre that sometimes I'd convinced myself I was crazy to believe a super-hero movie could actually do.

While I was working on a story with Joe, he shared with me a parable from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, where the author discusses the the effectiveness of conveying a lesson by drinking from a clean glass, instead of berating someone for drinking from a dirty glass. The Dark Knight was that "clean glass" for me.

But how would a sequel hold up in a summer which contained no Chris Nolan magnum opus (current withholding of judgment on Inception not-withstanding)?

The answer I'd give is: quite well.

One of my biggest complaints about the first Iron Man film was that it tried to be all things to all people. An Objectivist could watch it and take away the idea that Stark accomplished everything he did because of his capitalist beliefs, beliefs that made him a great entrepreneur and inventor. But at the same time, a Chomskeyite could watch the movie and see that Stark accomplishes these things in spite of his capitalist nature, and that his character arc is in overcoming his exploitative, commercial nature and becoming a true altruistic hero for the first time.

Some people might disagree with me on how this is different in the new film, but there are just a few particular points which I did find refreshingly different. Stark goes around bragging in this movie quite a bit, and I'm sure it becomes grating to the anti-capitalist set, but all of his boasting is based in fact. Tony Stark did, in fact, "successfully privatize world peace."

I loved the back and forth with the senators. It reminded me of how I've recently heard Glen Beck's style described. Stark was all laughs and all jokes, but he could turn his words into into weapons as quick and deadly as his armored maneuvers. One minute, he's making personal jokes on his competitors and the senate; the next, he's making a bold defense of property rights. He gets a bit pragmatic at times, but there's no real back tracking, and I like that.

Also, I've noticed that a lot of people say that the "subcommittee" scenes slow the movie down, but, thinking back, they were some of my favorite parts of the movie. They were funny as hell and they put something on display that you don't see very often. One of the most frequently (I'm tempted to say intentionally) ignored parts of the novel
Atlas Shrugged is the moral hierarchy of a mixed government. This is built around three main parts: the honest businessmen, the corrupt businessmen, and the bureaucrats.

The problem is that Rand's assessment (those she judges as honest and those she judges as corrupt) is at odds with what the general population would consider as such. The standard view is that "evil businessmen" like this want the power to basically do anything they want to the public at large (if you ask some proponents of this idea), up to, and including, theft and murder. Meanwhile, the businessmen who are viewed as being "as good as possible" in this system are the ones who support heavy regulation and policies designed to "keep things fair" and "help the little guy."

The reason Rand's view comes into conflict with the standard view is because this is quite opposite from how things actually work. The businessmen who are actively compliant with heavy regulation and support heavy government intervention often do so with the idea of having a vested interest. You're far more likely to support a policy to "help the little guy" if you happen to be considered "the little guy." And so, laws are passed, forcing more competent competition out of certain markets for the sake of people who cannot actually do the job as well, but are well connected. And, sadly, this is the best possible alternative for someone being in this position. If a business interest is not trying to actively grow their own venture through force and coercion, they are supporting this happening arbitrarily. They are supporting the competent being forced out of the market by the incompetent but well-connected.

And, on the other end of the spectrum, if a person is truly against heavy government intervention, they do not truly want an "anything goes system." They want a code of laws in place where people can deal with each other on even terms. Contracts are enforceable, people are held to their word and acts of force, and fraud are punished. But beyond that, they simply want to run their business, not have to follow and bow to whatever arbitrary edicts happen to come down the pipe at any given moment.

(At this point, you may notice I did not offer an alternative for "honest bureaucrat." Because seriously, how honest could anyone be in a system such as this? But back onto the film itself...)

There are attempts at undercutting that go on in the film, but I agree with what Joe suggested to me, that they do seem "half-hearted" at best. When I did my "Hero Archetypes: the Selfish Capitalist Jerk"* article, former contributor Michael Vardoulis said that Stark belonged in this category. I didn't answer him at the time, but I will now, for the record. The archetype is built around the idea of this person's selfishness and commercialism is supposed to make the person unlikable. The problem is that for an Objectivist the opposite happens.

In the Fantastic Four film series, Johnny Storm is the only character I sympathized with because he's focused on paying the bills with actual work and money, while Reed Richards seems to think they'll be paid by some odd combination of floating abstractions and altruism. Or, in a slightly more mainstream example, the landowner Benjamin in the play/movie Rent, is sympathetic because it seems like he's bent over backwards to help his friends who seem to value nothing but sacrifice (whether others to self or self to others they don't seem picky) and naval gazing. In the film version, this even goes as far as him being the person who helps Mimi in her time of greatest need, while the character we're supposed to sympathize with simply abandons her.

Stark never seems to be presented as a person we're supposed to truly resent in either film, so I don't think he qualifies for this archetype, which I see as a good thing. This means that the things of value Objectivists see in him aren't just a sort of "secret handshake" we share with one another, but are truly transcendent and a bit more universal. As such, the undercutting never really works.

Tony starts drinking heavily in the movie. He was far worse in the comics, while he's presented in the film as having a very good reason to do so. His drinking makes him become careless with his armor in both the comic and the movie. In the movie, he shoots skeet inside his house and has an "armor war" with his best friend during a very bustling party...

And, in the comic, he's in full armor while giving a speech to congress when his repulsor beam misfires, killing a senator. Say what you will about undercutting in this film, but Favreau toned it down quite a bit from what it could've been.

I do have some complaints on the film, but they're more in the fanboy range. I really hate that the Black Widow didn't sound like she was "plotting big trouble for Moose and Squirrel." She's a beautiful, brilliant superspy, but she's also supposed to be a cold war stereotype, and we love her for it.

Also, I liked the nods to past-and-future Marvel films, but if they don't find a way to do it with a bit more subtlety in the future, it could start to get annoying.

But the film's theme of understanding your past in order to determine your future, and the fact that Iron Man is the closest thing this side of Rorscach to an honest-to-Galt Objectivist superhero on film were enough for me... This time.

*A while ago, I was still a series here called Hero Archetypes. I basically abandoned it after discovering the site Tv Tropes because the general ideas I was covering are covered there far better than I was doing. The only real exception I've decided to make going forward is in archetypes that seem very specific to Objectivism. Such as the above mentioned "Selfish Capitalist Jerk."