A couple of weeks before the release of Iron Man in May 2008, the American public started to realize that casting Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark, a Howard Hughes-like inventor turned superhero, was a great idea. After all, why does Hollywood bother existing if not to make a big American movie about a big American comic book character starring an actor fated to be either a big American star or our most spectacular flameout?
Iron Man wound up the most entertaining of all the superhero blockbusters, at least for my tastes. The Iron Man comic, created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and two other Marvel staffers, first appeared in 1963, which is as far back as I can remember. (Perhaps that explains why I’ve enjoyed the two Iron Man movies so much.) Iron Man 2 displays the usual signs of sequelitis, but at its (frequent) best, it’s an autumnal screwball comedy that challenges a host of fine actors–such as Mickey Rourke as a villainous old Soviet physicist–to try to counter Downey’s verbal velocity.
Comic book adaptations tend to appeal to American guys of a certain age. While Avatar, the state of the art blockbuster, earned 68 percent of its revenue abroad, movies about traditional superheroes such as Iron Man and The Dark Knight still tend to reap a majority of their box office domestically. Not surprisingly, the new Iron Man 2’s $133 million opening weekend audience was 60 percent male and 60 percent over age 25.
Tony Stark is a throwback, too. He’s a billionaire grease monkey who gets his hands dirty building machines (such as his flying armored suit) rather than structuring derivatives. Moreover, he’s a hedonistic reactionary–much like Downey, who has noted, ”…you can’t go from a $2,000-a-night suite at La Mirage to a penitentiary and really understand it and come out a liberal. You can’t.”
Jon Favreau’s Iron Man adaptations are nominally set in the present, but spiritually, they take place in 1963-64 at the peak of the Cold War arms race in which my father, like Tony Stark's, was employed (at a rather lower-paying level, unfortunately).