The biggest movie of the summer may already be in theaters. It's Iron Man 2, of course, sequel to 2008's surprise smash hit starring Robert Downey, Jr. as that billionaire technologist/arms dealer-turned-peaceloving action hero Tony Stark. (Be aware that there are a few spoilers.)
Iron Man has cultural and political roots that elevate it beyond a simple action flick, and in Downey, a seemingly quirky choice, it has the post-modern Howard Hughes it needs. Downey's old friend Warren Beatty has always said that casting is the key, and nowhere is that more obvious than with Downey. In the hands of a conventional action star or leading man, Tony Stark would not be nearly so interesting a character.
Iron Man 2, widely expected to be the biggest summer movie, opened across the U.S. on May 7th. It had already opened in a number of international markets. The determinedly insouciant Robert Downey, Jr. again plays Tony Stark, a somewhat repentant inventor and billionaire arms dealer who is a kind of post-modern Howard Hughes.
You wouldn't think that the guy who so brilliantly portrayed Charlie Chaplin -- or who was once one of Hollywood's most dissolute party boys -- would be an action movie superstar. And yet he is.
In fact, he's probably the biggest action movie star in the world now. What do you make of that, Arnold Schwarzenegger? The first Iron Man, wonderfully directed by Jon Favreau, propelled Downey into the firmament. Sherlock Holmes, not, er, the greatest action film ever made, was a very big hit thanks to Downey's performance. And now Iron Man 2 confirms it.
However, though it's filled with lots of interesting things and players, and I like it, it's probably too filled. As in cluttered. And it's much more of a mess politically and intellectually than the first film.
Though it did not end up challenging The Dark Knight for the opening weekend domestic box office record, as many expected, it did garner the fifth largest opening ever.
Where the first movie surprised, and was surprisingly moving, this one is more of the same. A lot more of the same. With a lot of new stuff inserted seemingly to serve the franchise needs of Marvel.
The first movie surrounded Downey, a tremendous actor who can entertain reading excerpts from a phone book, with Oscar winners Gwyneth Paltrow as indispensable "Girl Friday" Pepper Potts and Jeff Bridges as his legendary father's old colleague who's kept Stark Industries together as he mentored the much younger Tony.
He, of course, turns out to be the villain. The progression that leads to this revelation and its resolution tracks Tony Stark's own arc from devil may care playboy war profiteer to, well, Iron Man, the superhero in the spectacularly capable flying armored suit.
In the second movie, things are a lot more muddled. In part because the cast is bigger. This time not only Paltrow is (again) on hand but also a whole host of Oscar and Emmy nominees.
That includes Mickey Rourke, the ostensible villain who isn't really a villain at all.
The film opens with his Ivan Vanko in a down-at-the-heels Moscow flat, seeing Tony Stark's apotheosis as the man-boy wonder of the world as Vanko's brilliant wreck of a father dies, bequeathing the only thing he has left, a gift of technology. Technology stolen by his one-time partner, Stark's legendary late father Howard Stark. (Played in archival footage mode by Mad Men's great John Slattery, aka Roger Sterling, who ends up playing a crucial role in not only his son's psychology but also the present day plot.)
Vanko sets out to exact his revenge on the younger Stark. It's a very intriguing situation. But for Howard Stark's treachery (he had Vanko's father deported) and the subsequent fall of the Russian empire (before its recent rebirth), Ivan Vanko could have been Tony Stark.
Rourke is great in the part. But once his Vanko is established as a very serious threat -- his attack on the F1 race car-driving Tony Stark at the Monaco Grand Prix is a great sequence -- he disappears for long stretches of the movie.
Instead, we get a lot of Sam Rockwell as rival technologist and arms dealer Justin Hammer. He's amusing, but not nearly the potential equal and threat that Rourke's character provides.
There's the terrific Don Cheadle taking over Terrence Howard's role as Tony Stark's Air Force colonel sidekick, James "Rhodey" Rhodes. (Cheadle's one of my favorite actors, but I thought Howard was good in the part.) Not to mention Garry Shandling, amusingly smarmy as a sleazy senator.
And we get a lot of what feels like a really long intermittent trailer for the upcoming Avengers movie, with the great Samuel L. Jackson lurking about in an eyepatch trying to give Stark orders as he decides whether he wants him for his secret group of superheroes.
Tony Stark got it right when he said to Jackson's Nick Fury regarding "The Avengers" initiative: "I told you before. I don't wanna join your super-secret boy band."
Oh, and there's someone named Scarlett Johansson, who seems perfectly lovely and earnest (an early Barack Obama backer in real life) and a very credible action star but, sorry fanboys, is neither the hottest (that's Leslie Bibb, returning as a venturesome Vanity Fair writer) nor the most beautiful (that would be Paltrow) woman in the movie.
While the action scenes are fun -- except, oddly enough, for the big set pieces that conclude both movies, which tend to go on and on a bit -- what I like most about these movies is what happens when the Iron Man suits aren't on.
As portrayed by Downey, Tony Stark is the post-modern Howard Hughes.
Stan Lee says that he modeled Tony Stark on Hughes when he created the character in 1963 and director Jon Favreau says he wanted the LA and Vegas locale that was Hughes' own.
Howard Hughes was one of the central figures of the 20th century, a dashing inventor, entrepreneur, industrialist, Hollywood producer, aviator, and playboy. Once the world's richest man, his story is at the core of the secret history of America, with his technological innovations and companies at the center of what Eisenhower called "the military-industrial complex." Add intelligence to that complex and the picture is complete.
Always on the eccentric side, he ended up stark raving bonkers in Las Vegas, a recluse owning a string of casinos and a local TV station so he could watch his favorite movies in the middle of the night. Finally he slipped away in a series of tropical hotels, his life testament to how truly massive wealth can lead to the ultimate in alienation.
Hughes seems an obvious character for Hollywood, especially since he's dead. Yet no movie yet has centered on his central geopolitical role.
1980's Melvin and Howard was about his supposed encounter with a gas station attendant who turns up with his will.
Diamonds Are Forever had an amusing take on a slightly fictionalized Hughes as James Bond did Vegas.
Martin Scorsese took a proper crack at it with The Aviator in 2004, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes. Yet that movie ended right as Hughes was becoming really historically significant.
Warren Beatty has planned for decades to do the ultimate Howard Hughes movie, secret history aspects and all. Yet it remains unproduced.
So, at least for now, with regard to this emblematic figure, we're left with Tony Stark in the form of Downey and his post-modern interpretation of Hughes.
Tony Stark is also a Heinlein hero, a more liberal one, but coming from the fundamental libertarian strain that marked Robert Heinlein's work.
When Stan Lee created Tony Stark in 1963, Heinlein was the biggest science fiction writer around. Well, he was one of the biggest writers around, period. His Stranger In A Strange Land was a smash hit that influenced the counterculture. Before that, Starship Troopers, with its vision of a society run by veterans, inspired conservatives -- not to mention generations of boys and the current military with its flying weaponized armored suits.
It's all here, the know-it-all super-rich hero, the resentment of the bureaucratic mindset, the pithy statements, the endless techno-tinkering, the powered suits, the penchant for leggy redheads.
Of course, the binary notions of the Cold War are long gone for most, so this Tony Stark has less of a cover for the essential amorality underlying his vast fortune.
He finds his origins as Iron Man after being mortally wounded in Afghanistan (an old stomping grounds of mine, the Eastern Slope of the Sierra Nevada, stands in rather convincingly for Afghanistan's notoriously dangerous Kunar province where Stark is traveling after demonstrating a devastating new missile). Stark realizes, rather belatedly, that the arms trade isn't about helping the good guys -- assuming you can figure out who they are -- but selling product. Deadly product.
So he gets out of the arms business altogether, deciding to right wrongs rather than help create more of them, indirectly or not.
In Iron Man 2, his position is a lot more muddled. He's turned himself into a one-man strike force for good. Good, that is, as he determines it.
The slide from idealist to autocrat isn't necessarily a long one.
At a Washington hearing, Shandling's smarmy Senator Stern tells Stark: "Our priority here is to have you turn over the Iron Man weapon to the American people."
To which Downey's Stark replies: "Well, you can forget it. We're safe. America is secure. You want my property -- you can't have it! But I did you a big favor."
Flashing the peace sign, he declares: "I have successfully privatized world peace."
It's an electric moment, a great line, and a very cool scene. Audiences love it. But Tony Stark, erratic to begin with, is slowly dying from the device that keeps him alive and powers his super-heroics.
The first movie was thoughtful enough to have pondered whether this fellow -- modeled after one of history's great mad men, mind you -- is rational and balanced enough to handle this power.
Iron Man 2, awash in a clutter of characters and subplots, is not.
Nor does it follow through on the promise of its opening, in which Rourke's Ivan Vanko, watching Stark on TV as he works on his great invention for vengeance, notes: "You come from a family of thieves, and butchers. And like all guilty men, you try to rewrite your history, to forget all the lives the Stark family has destroyed. There will be blood in the water, and the sharks will come."
Sadly, amidst all the clutter, this is barely followed up on in the rest of the movie.
Iron Man 2, entertaining as it is, and I like it, is a big missed opportunity. It could have been a lighter version of The Dark Knight, exploring deeper themes in a pop context with a more congenial cast.
Instead, it's confused. And intellectual, if not political, confusion doesn't merely bother political writers.
While graphic novelist Warren Ellis, a key re-inventor of Tony Stark over the past decade, calls Stark "a test pilot for the future," this version is losing altitude.
Off to a fast start in international markets, where it debuted before its domestic launch last Friday, Tony Stark has to battle Europe's depreciating currency as well as the movie's assorted villains and supposed allies. And here at home, it's dropping off faster during the week than it should.
Still, it's a huge hit, and in its own pop terms a terrific movie.
Tony Stark, the post-modern Howard Hughes, is a great archetype. What technology leader or billionaire wouldn't love to be seen as being as cool as Downey's portrayal.
It can't have been hard to engage Oracle software CEO Larry Ellison, the richest Californian, for his bit part. After all, Ellison, who recently won the America's Cup yachting title, acted like he was Tony Stark before there ever was a movie.
As for Elon Musk's cameo, Jon Favreau himself wrote this year's Time 100 entry for the rocket scientist who pioneered Tesla Motors and PayPal.
In addition to following in the footsteps of Howard Hughes, Tony Stark also represents the Silicon Valley inventor/entrepreneur archetype made most famous by Steve Jobs.
It's an archetype seldom invoked in electoral politics, though Steve Poizner may end up giving it a go in his rising campaign against billionaire Meg Whitman for the GOP nomination for governor of California. He is, after all, the guy who put GPS into mobile phones. He has a black belt, too.
But he should probably forget about a Tony Stark endorsement for governor.
After all, that was Robert Downey, Jr. at a Jerry Brown fundraiser for one of his charter schools Tuesday night in San Francisco.