Is it a good thing or a bad thing to go with your daughter to see Iron Man 2 on Mother’s Day? The answer isn’t entirely clear. On its most obvious level, Iron Man 2 is a 13-year-old boy’s dream: weapons, explosions, and Scarlett Johansson. But at the same time, this is a movie that not only puts Robert Downey Jr. on screen in nicely tailored suits, but also musses up his hair from time to time and shows us plenty of close-ups of the big brown eyes. Who’s happy now? And let’s not forget that the almost-pointless plot offers us Gwyneth Paltrow as the CEO of an arms manufacturer. Glass ceiling, indeed.
Still, the movie begins with a striptease, albeit not your typical striptease. This striptease takes the Iron Man suit apart, to reveal RDJ fully clothed. Behind him, women dance around in Sexy Cheerleader costumes while fireworks explode. Yup, the man is the attraction, but he’s clearly the one in charge of the display, and he has no intention of taking his suit off.
Iron Man 2 is not exactly the most coherent of films, and perhaps that’s what makes it so entertaining. The actual plot is there only as a sort of pictorial background. The real interest in the movie is all the rest of it—the banter between Paltrow’s Pepper Potts and RDJ’s Tony Stark, the earnest and goofy robots, Jon Favreau bumbling his way through a nebbishy anti-director’s role, and Mickey Rourke reprising his Wrestler style, but looking somehow both disgusting and endearing at the same time. All of this is the filigree that decorates the plot about the Bad Guy who wants to Blow Things Up. It’s the icing on the Iron Man beefcake.
Among the many things that Iron Man 2 is is a riff on George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara. Think about it. Shaw gives us an arms manufacturer who believes that his work brings and keeps peace. The play avoids being a diatribe against war and weapons by both terrifying its audience with a grim vision of destruction as well as the hopefulness of the arms-maker’s vision. In the hands of skilled actors (like Simon Russell Beale who led the cast in London two springs ago), it’s an unsettling exploration of violence and creation.
Iron Man 2 doesn’t exactly unsettle, but it does raise the specter of an army of drones succeeding at something humans don’t want to do, and don’t always want to be good at. The movie serves, like it or not, as a position paper against drone use, endorsing an old-fashioned view of warfare as hand-to-hand (or electrified whip-to-iron hand) combat. Tony Stark in his red-and-gold suit, and Don Cheadle in his silver one, are far nobler creatures than the drones whose heads and faces have been replaced with guns by Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko.
But in the end, it’s not the Cold-War replay we’ll be thinking about when we leave the theater. Nor the movie’s staging of the current drone warfare issue. We’ll be thinking about how RDJ talks to the robots, and about the preposterousness of Sam Rockwell’s excellent slime-ball. And about the grace with which Downey stretches, bats, or swats away the electronic images that seem to be an extension of his imagination.