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Is Iron Man 2 a thematic successor to The Dark Knight?

As anyone who reads this blog is probably aware, we’re still eagerly awaiting news of any sort of announcement about Batman 3, the sequel to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight that was rumoured to arrive this January. Be it that he was leaving or staying or what have you. Still, part of me wonders if there might be quite a significant amount of stuff in Iron Man 2 for those looking for a further exploration of the themes in the 2008 blockbuster. With recent discussions about the project and the first trailer, I can’t help but get the fantastic feeling that the second Iron Man movie may pick up and explore some of the wonderful threads which Nolan’s dark epic set up. That’s not to say that there isn’t reason to get excited for the film in it’s own right – Robert Downey Jnr! Sam Rockwell! Mickey Rourke! Jon Favreau! – but it’ll be interesting to see if the themes overlap or echo with the film’s 2008 summer rival as well.

Who says darker and edgier is the way forward?

Of course, all this is idle speculation based on a trailer and commentary. But it’s fun to speculate and then look back with our face in our hands wondering how stupid we could possibly have been to believe X Y or Z. And there’s the fact that superhero films tend to share certain tonal and thematic elements by default. Duality and justice tend to be chief amongst them. But I’m getting strong vibes that the two frnachises may be linked by more than just that, if you’ll give me the benefit of the doubt for a few paragraphs.

There’s the most obvious hint that the Iron Man 2 crew had their competitor on their minds in the final line for Stark before jumping out of an aerplane, assuring his secretary with the same words that linked the Joker and Batman, “You complete me”, as if to draw attention to the possibly over-the-top nature of that particularly line. But that isn’t the most interesting part of the trailer, nor is Mickey Rourke’s Russian accent or even Scarlet Johanssen. The most compelling glimpse of the movie is the first one we are offered, featuring Stark called before a congressional hearing concerning his Iron Man armour:

You want my property. You can’t have my property. … But I did you a big favour: I successfully privatised world peace.

– Tony Stark

It looks like Jon Favreau’s sequel will share the same concern about authority that echoed through 2008’s biggest hit – although Nolan’s skepticism was centred on the authority of the crusader himself as a stand-in for the Bush administration, here the government acts as a stand-in for itself, trying to gain control of Stark’s armour. It seems like Tony will spend a great deal of the movie trying to protect his identity – represented by the Iron Man suit, rather than the traditional ‘secret identity’ schtick – from those in power. By announcing his identity to the world at the end of the first movie, Stark put himself up for grabs. Publicity materials are saturated with toys and villains based roughly off Stark’s designs – leading to speculation that Stark’s economic competitors will seek to ‘follow the leader’ in their particular business models, presenting the bizarre irony that Stark’s armour may cause more harm than good, a similar position to Batman’s presence in Gotham at the start of The Dark Knight.

It’s an interesting twist on the concept that hasn’t really been explored. With great power comes great responsibility was the mantra of the Spider-Man films, but that responsibility only extended as far as your own exercising of that power, your own moral sphere. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way. The first movie had Stark taking responsibility for the damage done by his business partner behind his back and it looks like that one will explore his own responsibility to keep his power out of the wrong hands. He isn’t a mutant or a naturally-augmented superhero, his powers are intellectual property – they can be bought, sold and traded at the free market and he must account for that.

This somewhat mirrors Bruce Wayne’s journey in The Dark Knight. Admittedly the movie was as much about finding a peace between what Bruce wanted and what Batman wanted, but it was equally about Bruce coming to terms with how he’d shaped the world. Not in a ‘hero is responsible for accident which creates villain’ sort of way, more so in the context of what Gordon deemed ‘escalation’. His very presence draws the insane towards him. He can’t control his image or how he ‘inspires’ people. The climax of the film sees the character forced to take responsibility for circumstances well outside his control in a pragmatic rather than an idealistic manner. It seems that these are the same sort of dilemmas which Stark will find himself facing in the second movie.

The most striking parallel that occurred to me arose from an interesting little tidbit which emerged last week – concerning the role of Samuel L. Jackson’s character in the film. Apparently he keeps asking Tony the same question, as things continue to spiral out of control. That question is apparently: how long can he keep doing this alone? The image which immediately popped into my head was that of Bruce Wayne, half-in and half-out of his Batman uniform alone in his penthouse after losing the love of his life. He can ‘endure’, because he has to.

Of course, we all know that the notion of isolation in Favreau’s Iron Man 2 (assuming that this isn’t a massive misdirection) is a wonderful thematic dovetail in Marvel’s shared universe crossover event The Avengers, where Tony will not be alone. And, arguably, we know that Tony is never quite alone. He has the same sort of support network as Bruce, but we know that also has friends and fun outside of that (and more than the appearance of fun presented by Bruce when he’s playacting). The two character form an interesting counterpoint to each other and it’s interesting to see the two juxtaposed so well.

I will concede that I wasn’t as ridiculously impressed with Iron Man as everyone else was, but I did appreciate the film’s capacity to deal with big and complex themes in relatively light ways. It represented a very conscious effort to resist the ‘darker is better’ tide which has been coming in for comic book movies in the past few years. It’s interesting to see how the notions of isolation and escalation will flow across franchises. In fairness, they arguably aren’t the most original themes for a superhero movie to deal with, but they do suggest the genre may be growing up. Which is great if it’s going to be around as long as it seems it will be.

There’s also the fact the franchises share roughly similar protagonists, as far as your typical heroes go. Neither Tony Stark nor Bruce Wayne are kids or teenagers, so their journey can’t be one used as a metaphor for puberty or growing up (though there’s room for growth – there always is in any just about movie). The characters themselves are similar at least in backgrounds – orphaned and wealthy entrepreneurs who head multi-national corporations. Though their characterisation is distinct (Tony is bright and funloving… mostly; Bruce is dark and brooding… mostly), their characters seems to be built upon the same archetype: the self-made (or in Stark’s case, manufactured) hero. So logically, the themes overlap somewhat. You might make a similar remark about the quality of the writing staff – but the phrase “great minds think alike” probably better sums up that point.

One of the most interesting aspects of Christopher Nolan’s first two Batman films – and perhaps the biggest reason I’m clamouring for a trilogy – is the way that it offers an exploration of all these mature themes. It feels like a journey beyond the huge explosions and fanfare. And the vast majority of its ideas and analysis are fascinating. The fact that it looks like these themes may bleed into a movie we’re getting a lot sooner than the next Batman makes me all the more excited about Iron Man 2.

Don’t get me wrong, Iron Man itself wasn’t exactly berift of these ideas and interesting questions about the nature of heroism and society and such, but it felt too consciously like an origin story to deal with them in a truly engaging manner. The movie skirted around those big ideas, instead rocketing along on the charisma of its lead actors and giving us a great character study of Tony Stark. In many ways, Iron Man 2 looks to be a fusion of both approaches, which should be fascinating.

I’ll concede that I’m still a little cagey about the film. The cast looks huge. The first Iron Man looks practically minimalistic based upon the setpieces and character drama we know are coming. The Guardian may have been over-reacting when they wondered aloud if the movie was beginning to resemble Spider-Man III. Based on all the rumours and whispers we’ve heard, there seems to be so much going on that it’s hard to believe that this isn’t two films instead of one.

Hammer, don't hurt...

That said, I’ve been on-board since the casting was announced. No, not Mickey Rourke as Whiplash – though I am intrigued by that. No, not Scarlett Johansson in a red wig and a catsuit. I’m talking about Sam Rockwell, who seems to be the movie’s best-kept secret as Justin Hammer. The character doesn’t have a horrible nickname like Black Widow or Crimson Dynamo (though surely ‘Hammer’ is close enough). He doesn’t have a giant Jeff-Bridges-style armour suit (that we’re aware of – though he may have drones) nor will he yell about something “IN A CAVE, WITH A BOX OF SCRAPS.” He’s just a corporate CEO, a guy in a suit.

He’s the anti-Stark. The comic character was originally an eighty-odd-year-old, but here he’s been aged down so he can be played by Rockwell. He’s an arms dealer, but he had no scruples. He’s everything Tony isn’t. And Rockwell is perfect casting, because he’s the anti-Downey. Downey does charming, while Rockwell does sleazy. Downey does friendly, while Rockwell does creepy. Downey does disarming, while Rockwell plays the sorts of characters you wouldn’t let your kids near. It’s pitch-perfect casting, just like Robert Downey Jnr. in the lead role.

I don’t know. There’s enough here to certainly keep me interested in what looks to be the start of the summer movie season.

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