Iron Man 2, dir. Jon Favreau (2010)
Nothing in Iron Man 2 seems old: like the arc reactor in Tony Stark’s chest, everything glows for no reason. The screens with which Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) interacts throughout the film go past physical presence and become the very air of Stark’s workshop, which he can manipulate with his touch. He not only tells robots what to do, he is himself a robot. It becomes difficult to stop thinking you’re watching The Jetsons.
Favreau’s camera follows things smartly: it follows Stark as a film camera, TV camera, or a security camera. Sometimes you watch through the eyes of Stark himself, or through the camera-eyes of Iron Man (they are, after all, one in the same). When Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke, who must utter five lines throughout the whole film) nearly axes Iron Man, we watch through a fake worldwide news agency. Vanko’s father worked with Howard Stark to invent arc reactor technology, though according to Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, who has not, as of yet, left Pulp Fiction) Stark the Elder had him deported for wanting to profit off of the invention. How someone was kicked out of the United States for desiring to be a good capitalist in the 1960s is the one piece of the film’s logic that seems far too far-flung.
Sometimes we watch the film through CNN or C-SPAN, as when Stark refuses hand his suit over to the American government because, he says, it’s not only his suit; it is him. This scene–featuring Garry Shandling–is the highlight of the movie’s awkward fist half hour. Despite the rocky start, though, Jon Favreau picks the movie up and manages not to miss a beat until an out of place, whitewashed fight scene featuring Scarlett Johansson’s charmless shadow beating some guards senseless. Johansson, in fact, is a strange presence throughout the film. Unlike Gwenyth Palthrow, Johansson is eerily silent, as if Favreau simply didn’t tell her where to stand.
Later, at StarkExpo, competing weapons developer Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) presents a veritable army of drone Iron Men, who attack Iron Man and his new sidekick, War Machine (Don Cheadle) in the film’s final battlesetpiece. Vanko controls the drones, and the film presents him much in the way we imagine all drone operators: with the malicious pleasure of someone playing a particularly violent video game.
All of this makes the film’s most shocking moment the point at which Stark, effectively under house arrest by SHIELD until he gets his act together, watches a 16mm film of his father Howard Stark (John Slatterly, who didn’t even have to leave the set of Mad Men for his brief role). The radical disjuncture between the smoky film and the smooth, gleaming, and edgeless atmosphere of Iron Man 2—both the world within the film and the film itself—serve as a melancholy reminder of what is both lost and gained in the digital age. Iron Man 2 begs everyone to believe that despite the apparent warmth of analogue technology, there is something exclusionary about it, while everything new and digital lets us in. Yet something under the surface of Iron Man 2 is running contrary, and it has to do with history: Stark is rediscovering his father, he is finding the key to America’s future. It is a key that was constructed after World War II–when America was America–and has been kept hidden until now, when Iron Man can bring it back. Despite the veneration of the new, there’s a serious nostalgia here for the past. It’s nostalgia not only for righteousness but also for a particular kind of familial cruelty, which Stark’s own aggressive alcoholism indulges. In the final battle, Vanko’s distance from the machine he controls is a source of anxiety and evil; while Stark’s unity with the suit offers safety and stability. The coldness of 16mm film comes from Stark’s distance from it: a distance of time and a distance of knowledge, something about that analogue technology doesn’t let him inside. The best technology is the kind you can become. It’s the way of the future–rooted in the past.