What we really want from superhero movies is a kernel of emotional truth writ large and sincere. This is by no means an original idea, but I was vividly reminded of its truth while watching Iron Man 2, which contains nothing resembling an actual human emotion. Here was a movie that offered big action, high-tech metal suits, plenty of geeky in-jokes, a heaping dose of snark, Scarlett Johansson in a variety of tight outfits, a typically funny and idiosyncratic performance of Robert Downey Jr. – and nothing at all to care about. I want to say that it "didn't speak to me," but really it didn't speak, period, to anyone, about anything. It's someone's purely conceptual idea of "summer fun," perfunctorily executed and duly delivered to 4000 theaters. Everything that made the first movie such a joy – including the thorny fascination of watching a man try to do the right thing for the first time in his life – had been surgically removed.
But actually, the movie that I remembered with nostalgic fondness while watching the cure for insomnia that was Iron Man 2 was not Iron Man, but Spider-Man – still, for my money, the pinnacle of the genre, even post-Dark Knight. I love its sequel, and even have a lot of affection for the much-maligned third film, but the original is a true pop masterpiece, up there with Raiders of the Lost Ark and the first two Terminators. And the reason is that it takes familiar, relatable emotional themes – teenage insecurity, friendship, first love, discovering your potential – and plays them out on a grand scale, without a trace of irony.