Sunday, May 9, 2010

Iron Man 2: A-Rusted Development?

Like many people, I saw Iron Man 2 this past weekend. Below is a brief general review of the film, followed by a discussion of a couple of psychological issues that stuck in my mind after I saw the film. But first I have to make a confession: I really liked the first Iron Man film. I thought it was a brilliant, modern reboot of the character, something much more powerful than the original comic book Iron Man origin story. As a psychologist, I thought it did a lovely job of conveying some of the changes the trauma survivors undergo when they come out of the other side of their experience-specifically that they may develop a new philosophy about the meaning of life and their sense of purpose (this area of psychology is referred to as posttraumatic growth or stress-induced growth). I had high hopes for the sequel.

Okay, here's my general review (with minor spoilers): I thought that the film introduced too many new significant characters for its two-hour running time. The glut of new characters (plus the old ones) meant that all characters were portrayed as cartoons. (Yes, I understand the irony of my statement-the characters are based on comic book stories. BUT what was so neat about the first film was that it didn't feel as if it was based on a comic book. The characters-particularly Tony Stark-felt real.) There were so many new significant characters that each could only receive superficial treatment-we learn only just enough about the character to move the plot along to the next scene. If the film had been an hour longer, this would not have been a problem. (Pet peeve: The film version of Justin Hammer shares little with his comic book character beyond name and job title; the film's version is a buffoon and it's hard to see how he could attain and maintain the position of head of a large weapons manufacturing company. He was simply too two-dimensional.)

By analogy, this film reminded me of comic book stories from the 1960s and 1970s-fast paced, plenty of action, only enough exposition to advance the plot. In contrast, the first Iron Man movie reminded me of more recent comic book stories-the characters had more psychological depth, more angst, and their internal conflicts and struggles were relatively clear.

Just as The Empire Strikes Back (Star Wars, Episode V) clearly was a vehicle to bring the viewer from Episode IV to Episode VI, part of the goal of Iron Man 2 seems to have been to bring viewers from the first Iron Man film to the upcoming Avengers film. I would have enjoyed seeing what director Jon Favreau could have done with this sequel if the story had been relieved of the burden of creating a bridge to the Avengers film. Still, Iron Man 2 was a good romp.

On to my "psychological" review of the film. While watching the film, two aspects stood out for me. [spoiler alert: if you haven't seen the film and don't want to know too much about the film, skip down a couple of paragraphs] One was Stark's episode of binge drinking (his drinking is likely to play an even bigger role in subsequent films if they model themselves after the Demon in a Bottle storyline by Doug Michelinie and Bob Layton). We can see that Stark is struggling with mortality issues (as he did in the first movie-only in that film it was about his heart and the threat of being killed by his captors). In Iron Man 2, he's confronting the possibility of his death through poisoning: The Palladium that powers his chest magnet is becoming toxic to his system. He keeps this bit of information to himself, and deals with it by drinking himself silly on his birthday, assuming it will be the last birthday he has. He did this drinking while wearing his Iron Man armor.

Tony's drinking got to the point where his blood alcohol level probably reached around 0.20 (plus or minus 0.05). As you can see in the table below, this is a frightening level for anyone to reach, let alone someone in Iron Man armor. Favreau and his crew did a nice job of conveying how impossible it is to reason with someone who's this far gone. Tony becomes irrational and-most importantly-incredibly irresponsible, putting his guests' lives at risk. He staggers, his motor functions are impaired, he doesn't understand what going on. The only way to "contain" him was for his buddy Rhodey to don some armor and try to corral Stark. Stark bucked like a drunk bronco. And even though Rhodey hadn't previously logged many hours in the armor, his inexperience was compensated for by the physical and mental effects of Tony's drunken state.

(Source for chart: click here.) [end of spoiler alert]

The other theme that I want to touch on here was Stark's age-or more accurately, Robert Downey Jr.'s age. Don't get me wrong-it's refreshing to see a middle aged actor playing a superhero. But in an early scene I noticed his age. So it got me thinking that of all superheroes to be portrayed by someone in middle age, Iron Man is the best possible choice. Here's why. As people get older:

  1. they typically lose muscle strength, but when wearing Iron Man armor, this muscle strength loss is irrelevant. Score one for an aging Stark.
  2. their speed of responding typically declines-they take a bit longer than they used to. Unfortunately, this would probably affect Iron Man's performance in some situations-those in which fast reflexes are essential. Stark loses a point on this one.
  3. they may develop increasing difficulty hearing high-frequency sounds, such as distinguishing certain words that differ by a single consonant-like kill and pill. This could be a problem for an Iron Man down the road.
  4. have a harder time multi-tasking, specifically with tasks that require the person to hold information in mind while also doing something else. This is a type of mental juggling that Iron Man must do frequently.

Now for some good news for an aging Iron Man: Even though middle-aged or older adults may experience these physical and mental changes, many of the changes are offset by the wisdom that comes with years and experience. For instance, older adults compensate for their slower reaction time by having better (e.g., more efficient or logical) strategies than their younger counterparts. Some other good news: as people get older, they become better at regulating their emotions (click here and here for articles on this topic). This would definitely be a plus for Stark, who can go off half-cocked and be too emotionally reactive.

Copyright 2010 by Robin S. Rosenberg. All rights reserved.