F. Scott Fitzgerald famously once wrote: There are no second acts in American lives. What he meant was that for him there was to be no second act. Because he was capable of shame (and he was an alcoholic). Compare his life with the life of, say…Mickey Rourke, and it becomes quite clear that there are second acts in American lives, provided a) you have no shame, and b) there’s a funny story to your initial downfall. F. Scott, poor lamb, felt guilt and shame that Tender is the Night wasn’t better. Mickey Rourke scarcely regrets making Another 9 ½ Weeks. That’s why one of them died, broken, aged 44, and the other is playing the villain, aged 58, in Iron Man 2.
Mickey Rourke’s character is called Ivan. He’s Russian. He wants to whip Iron Man to death. Iron Man – you’ll recall – is a super hero played by Robert Downey Jr. He’s like Batman (rich, right-wing), but, instead of dressing up as a bat, he dresses up as a robot. Iron Man has no secret identity because, at the end of the last movie, he told everyone he was really a billionaire called Tony Stark. This time around, the U.S. government wants Tony to lease them the patent on Iron Man, but Tony wants to retain personal control. Imagine it like a super hero movie where the hero was a high-flying investment banker…and the bad guy was the Federal Reserve.
Unlike the last Iron Man movie (which everyone thought would fail), the sequel is a sequel (which everyone needs to do well). That means: everything that was new and original must be repeated and anything that is new and original must be feared. So Tony Stark must, for instance, construct advanced technology (in this case, what appears to be a Large Hadron Collider) out of bits of metal he finds lying around. And he must have a love/hate relationship with a hydraulic arm. And he must fight a man dressed in a bad robot costume (“bad”, as in “morally” bad, not “unconvincing”). And he must depend, heavily, on the innate charm of Robert Downey Jr. to paper over cracks in the script and generally convince the audience they’re not watching MacGyver dressed up as a robot.
Second only to Mickey Rourke as the Man Previously Thought Least Likely to be made into an Action Figure, Robert Downey Jr.’s career offers yet another rebuke to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “American lives” aphorism. In 1996, Downey was arrested for driving drunk and being in possession of Mexican Black Tar heroin (!!!), crack, cocaine and an unloaded .357 Magnum revolver. Today, his likeness comes free with a Kids Meal at Burger King. Obviously, there are those who think Mexican Black Tar heroin is probably better for you than a regular diet of Whoppers, but still, it’s quite a come-back. As Iron Man, Downey offers hope to A.A. members everywhere.
The idea that Mickey Rourke is also set to come free with a Kids Meal is…proof that America is unlike anywhere else on Earth. Rourke, who left acting to pursue a professional boxing career from 1990 – 1994, who thanked his pet Chihuahua in his Golden Globe acceptance speech, who once donated part of his salary to the I.R.A., who had sex on camera with his (now ex-) wife Carré Otis, who – let’s face it – is a comic book character, seems at home in Iron Man 2, even with a cockatiel on his shoulder. No-one ever says why Ivan Badguyo’vich owns a cockatiel, but my guess is: no-one had the guts to ask for an explanation from Mickey Rourke.
This movie is about a peculiarly American brand of shamelessness. It didn’t exist back in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s day. Back then, 40 was old, and Tender is the Night was as close as you got to a sequel. Today, 40 is nothing, and even a “quadrilogy” doesn’t sound too bad. Repeating yourself – so dangerous in Fitzgerald’s imagination – doesn’t matter any more. When Iron Man leaps out of a plane, high above Las Vegas, and lands, on stage, to thunderous applause; no-one’s worried about the “2” in the title. The first Iron Man was where they took risks and got your attention; the second Iron Man is where everyone stops beating themselves up, and takes your cash.