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05.04.10

Iron Man 2's Hidden Plot

Gina Piccalo argues that some crucial plot points in the summer action flick feel like a bizarre reimagining of Robert Downey Jr.'s own road to sobriety.

Robert Downey Jr. has been sober for years now. With two blockbusters under his belt and Iron Man 2 on deck, Hollywood has stopped holding its collective breath, waiting for the next drug arrest, the next failed stint in rehab. Downey is Sherlock Holmes and Marvel Entertainment’s $500 million man. All that earnest talk of the actor’s redemption is old news, right?

So why do some crucial plot points in Iron Man 2 feel like a bizarre reimagining of Downey’s own resurrection? The film opens with Downey as billionaire genius Tony Stark reveling in rock star-style adulation for saving the world. But little do his adoring fans know, this super-powered glamour puss is literally dying inside and like any terminal fame junkie, Stark is destined to begin the dive to “rock bottom.”

At the film’s Los Angeles junket, Downey raised the comparison himself then seemed to immediately regret it.

Cut to the staggering drunk Stark, lurching around his living room, wearing his Iron Man get-up like a Halloween costume, firing lasers at watermelons tossed in the air by a giggling blond. When the camera pans over to the real-life celebrity DJ AM (Adam Goldstein), who died last August of an accidental drug overdose, the movie starts to feel uncomfortably meta.

Next thing you know, Stark’s rad cliff side Malibu manse is a pile of rubble and his best friends have left him. But with the help of a character even director Jon Favreau described in press notes as a “grizzled AA sponsor” (or the super hero approximation of one–Samuel Jackson with an eye patch) and a sort of sobriety coach (Clark Gregg) to stand guard, Stark pulls it together—sans rehab. He begins earnestly grappling with his father issues, and blasts through a character evolution that looks a lot like a 12-step program. That is, if 12-step meetings played out like the battle scenes in Transformers.

Iron Man 2’s script was a fluid, group effort with Favreau, Downey and Marvel Entertainment president Kevin Feige—among others—crafting the plot well before writer Justin Theroux was hired. The whole point was to take the Iron Man story into territory uncharted in the more than 600 issues of the Marvel Comics series published since the late 1960s. If, for example, Favreau had stuck to the original concept for Stark’s arch enemy Whiplash, Mickey Rourke would have worn tights and a purple plume atop his head rather than the badass Russian gangster tattoos and a mouthful of gold teeth. So kudos goes to Favreau for giving his talented cast–Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson, among them–so much room to contribute and improvise. It made for some fun movie going.

But no matter how many actors Paramount Pictures and Marvel Entertainment crowd onto the Iron Man 2 poster, this is still Downey’s show. Indeed, to hear Favreau talk, it’s an homage of sorts to Downey’s own journey from the “ rough patch,” aka the nude cruise down Sunset Boulevard, the barefoot wandering through the streets, crash-landing in a neighbor’s bed, the desperate 911 call from a Palm Springs hotel room, the state prison stint. Hollywood loves a good comeback, after all, and Downey has delivered one for the record books. (That of his co-star Rourke comes a close second). Maybe the Iron Man tribute offers some kind of Hollywood-style closure.

“It was inspiring and extremely gratifying to see Robert beat the odds and, with the success of the [first] film, come back bigger and better than he was before,” Favreau says of Downey in the film’s promotional materials. “That’s the ultimate success story and it was oddly parallel to the character of Tony Stark. Sometimes when art imitates life, you can really catch lightning in a bottle.”

Downey himself has kept these comparisons at arm’s length. His face grows tense when interviewers raise comparisons between the looming shadow of Stark’s father, the weapons manufacturer Howard Stark (played with panache by Mad Men’s John Slattery) and Downey’s own dad, the irrepressible Robert Downey Sr., an underground filmmaker and prize-winning boxer who had achieved more by age 22 than most manage in a lifetime and who introduced his son to drugs at age 8.

“Like Tony, I took some hits,” Downey recently told The Times of London. “Mostly of my own making, but everyone transforms; some of it is just a function of age.”

At the film’s Los Angeles junket, Downey raised the comparison himself then seemed to immediately regret it. “The mental and emotional aspects and development of Tony, were to me, a lot more–it’s strange to say personal, cause it’s not necessarily relating to my life, so to speak,” he said, before dropping that thread entirely to veer into this next obtuse observation. “But just the mythology of saying you’re something and being that thing or something is entirely different.” Got that?

Later, just for laughs, Downey gamely raised the specter of the bad old days. When asked whether he’d ever dressed as a superhero as a boy, he quipped, “Growing up, no. But in my mid-30s? In Palm Springs? Right before an arrest? Yes.”

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Gina Piccalo spent a decade at the Los Angeles Times covering Hollywood. She's now a contributing writer for Los Angeles Magazine and her work has appeared in Elle, More and Emmy. She can be found at ginapiccalo.com.