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May 8, 2010

Iron Man 2 - The Alcoholic Superhero of the Summer

Yeah, I know. Iron Man 2 isn't a cult movie, midnight movie, horror movie, or whatever kind of movie this site's designed to cover. But hey, I've got the keyboard, and I want to talk about something.

Also, this post could be deemed as containing spoilers regarding the film's plot. I don't intend to directly address any developments, but structure of scenes and my opinions about their meaning will occur. If you haven't seen it yet, you're probably safest skipping this one (and coming back later, of course).


As a child, I loved the idea of Iron Man. I only had about 6 comics growing up, but that was more than enough for me to create my own images of the heroes I read about, and Iron Man - probably because his suit matches the colors of my mother's (and eventually my) college's sports teams - quickly became a hero of mine. As I've rediscovered Iron Man as a young adult nerd, there's a specific segment of the character's lore that appeals to me greatly, on a personal and professional level - the image of Tony Stark as an alcoholic/addict. While this part of Tony was barely alluded to in 2008's Iron Man film, I was ecstatic to find the sequel, in both subtle and direct ways, establishing Tony Stark's addiction perfectly.

One of the most common misconceptions in society regarding addiction is that it's simply a choice. My belief, which is backed by doctors, scientists, and those in treatment across the world, is that alcoholism and addiction are an incurable disease that requires constant attention. While it's not something that can be isolated in the body or something that can be traced to a virus or pathogen, the disease concept of alcoholism/addiction is widely accepted - and in my eyes is at the forefront of Iron Man 2.

In the film's opening scenes, the central point of the film is that Tony Stark believes he is untouchable. He shows little care for others, mocks legal issues, and is quick to proclaim that he believes he is above anyone else. Behind the scenes he is dealing with his own issues - a Palladium infection that parallels the heart problems the comic-bound Stark encountered after becoming Iron Man - but he hides this from others and insists that he knows best and that he has everything under control. This is amplified by the fact that the cinematic Tony Stark has already announced to the world that he "IS Iron Man", which makes his problems that more significant to a world of onlookers who know that the out-of-control billionaire is also someone they need available in case of emergency.

Others that I've already discussed the film with have stated they feel the infection is a parallel to addiction, and they're right to an extent. But there's a lot more going on that establishes Stark as an addict without showing him using or drinking often. A party scene that's designed to be comical does show a completely intoxicated Stark - who had started drinking to deal with his problems before the party began - making a fool of himself, embarrassing and fighting his loved ones, and destroying his own property. This establishes the ailment further, but it's the implications about Tony's mindset that really hit on key concepts of addiction for me.

The self-centered attitude I mentioned earlier is the key to most of the film's second act. Stark isolates himself from anyone who believes his actions are harmful and creates strain in the relationships with those that he used to hold dear. At the center is his assistant Pepper, whom he realizes has kept him out of trouble for most of his adult life. He knows he needs her, but instead of saying that he simply gives her his company...and leaves her to run it on her own. In the middle of the film he realizes he's isolated her and rushes to her to make amends, frantically stopping to get her a box of fresh strawberries - which are the only thing in the world she's allergic to. Tony sympathetically exclaims that he knew there was a connection between Pepper and strawberries, and that this realization has to mean he's trying. He wants to deal with their issues, but he's still not willing to admit that he has his own problems.

This is a summer blockbuster, so the third act naturally swings upward in tone. Tony finds the answer to his physical problems, reconnects with his best friends, and gets himself together long enough to save the day. But his attitude never really changes - he's become conscious that his behaviors have caused problems, but no progress has really been made to change his lifestyle, and he appears to be back to behaviors that could become high risk situations. He's nothing more than the proverbial "dry drunk" who isn't addressing the factors that could lead him back to alcohol.

Though the film never directly addresses alcohol as the problem like the comic did before it, the message is there. In a wrap-up scene, Nick Fury and his watchful eye point out a list of defects that make Tony Stark and Iron Man risky to himself and others, but Tony's mind is again closed to the possibility. This serves two purposes in the direction of our new Iron Man tale: Setting up the love/hate relationship between Iron Man and S.H.I.E.L.D (which will eventually be embodied by Captain America), and reminding us that Tony Stark has not hit his "rock bottom" yet.While I doubt that Hollywood filmmakers will ever delve into the Demon in a Bottle storyline that resulted in an alcoholic Tony Stark living on the streets while losing his father's company and his heroic side, Iron Man 2 proved to me that Jon Favreau and the team behind this version of Stark recognize what makes the character so interesting to me. At this point, the character is the big-budget equivalent of the teenage kid who just finished up a short-term drug treatment program, but is still convinced that partying on the weekends and smoking it up a few times a week can't hurt him if he uses the skills he has. Tony Stark may have found a happy ending for now, but the challenges are only going to get more difficult if he can't address the diseased mind inside his crimson and gold suit.

3 comments:

Drunketh said...

Nicely examined and written.

Joe Monster said...

Here here! A very nice examination of the film, Mike! I just saw it yesterday and I agree with pretty much all the points you made. I love that Favreau and Co. are making Tony Stark/Iron Man into a real human character than just an action-packed machine. Robert Downey Jr. also does wonders with the material he's given. This is one superhero series that I wish would never end.

Carl (ILHM) said...

Suffice it to say most Horror fans probably double as comic fans, so the post is always welcome! Didnt get to see IM2 yet this weekend, but I cant wait to check it out, LOVED the first film and now I am totally pumped Mike!