Iron Man 2
There hasn’t been a more hyped film since, well, Avatar. Consumers can buy Iron Man 2 hamburgers, candy bars, Big Gulps, soda, electronics, toys, motor oil, antivirus software. And with a predecessor both critically and commercially acclaimed, there’s a certain anticipation that exists despite Paramount and Marvel’s $100 million marketing budget. Nevertheless, with all these expectations and advertising schemes, there’s only one thing fanboys and typical moviegoers really want to know: Does director Jon Favreau’s second round live up to such buildup?
Yes ... but mostly no. While Iron Man 2 is fine entertainment with superb acting and action, it’s missing the punch of the previous franchise blockbuster—established by a stronger script with a tighter plot—while possessing all the same flaws—superficial characters and bungled political commentary that harps on government guilt and privatization, stemming partially from the comic book itself. The result is a mildly fun yet depthless action flick that is sure to pin big numbers in the box office, but not big impressions on those who love film and expect value out of hundreds of millions of dollars.
Beginning where the first movie left off, the sequel opens with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.—check out our Q&A with him) publicly announcing his identity as Iron Man, which incites a series of conflicts that take shape in new plotlines and characters. Ivan Vanko, aka Whiplash (Mickey Rourke), is one of them. Hungry for vengeance, Vanko creates a miniaturized arc reactor of his own, attaches whips that harness its energy, and sets out to eliminate Stark, whose family allegedly caused injustice to his recently deceased father, a former Soviet scientist.
Meanwhile, Stark is struggling through problems of his own. The palladium in his arc reactor is poisoning his body and slowly killing him, and the government is demanding that he release the technology of the Iron Man suit for military application. Not only that, his rival Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) is doing everything in his power to compete with Stark Industries, even if that means teaming up with Vanko. There’s also a loosely connected subplot involving Stark’s new assistant, Natalie Rushman (Scartlett Johansson), and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the leader of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Though surely clever, Justin Theroux, who replaced superior screenwriters Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby (First Snow, Children of Men), creates quite a mess. Unlike Iron Man, in which the narrative is focused, Theroux’s script is oblique and vague. There’s too much going on. Just when a scene begins to take shape, it ends, and a new one begins. This arbitrariness also leads to a lack of context. Events occur, like Stark going to a car race in Monaco, but we never know why. It’s as if Theroux, out of desperation, wrote these scenes at the last minute just as a way to introduce or connect characters.
Such sloppy writing filters into the characters’ motivations, as well—a flaw in the previous Iron Man and almost every other superhero film. Vanko’s incentive to murder Stark isn’t believable. Evidently his father was mistreated by Howard Stark, but that’s not enough to even slightly justify dedicating his life to destroying Tony because of it. The actions of Stark’s friend Rhodey (now Don Cheadle), moreover, seem out of character in this sequel. The usually rational Lieutenant Colonel continually acts irrationally, especially when he flies off in one of Stark’s Iron Man suits. Even though Iron Man 2 isn’t a drama or character study, it’s still unacceptable to leave characters this underdeveloped.
Stark’s character, however, is consistent. He’s the same egotistical rebel as before, except for some added arrogance—as if there wasn’t enough already. While undoubtedly humorous, his persona is troubling. Stark’s ego is supposed to be a blemish to his personality, yet it’s glorified. On the verge of death, Stark brags to the world that he, himself, created world peace, wanting all the glory. There’s nothing glamorous about that lack of humility. Like Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne, Stark is an imperfect hero, which is OK—think Moses or David—but his shortcomings ride the line between exaltation and deprecation.
Downey’s quirky acting, nevertheless, is near flawless. Working cohesively with Favreau, he and the cast are what hold the film together. Rourke, whose comeback is proving to be no fluke after a brilliant performance in The Wrestler, milks his sketchy character for all it's worth. Johansson perfects her standard, mystery girl caricature. In his ephemeral moments, the always promising Jackson is as amusing as ever. But it’s Rockwell who steals the show, even from Downey. Every time he’s on screen, there’s compel shaped by his mix of subtleness and deadpan, like a sillier, exaggerated version of William H. Macy in Fargo.
Through these performances and the aptitude of their wit—something Theroux actually knows about, verified in his debut script for Tropic Thunder—along with a few short-lived, visually stunning action sequences, particularly a scene in which Natalie Rushman transforms into Black Widow mode, Iron Man 2 survives the once-inevitable failures notorious to sequels. Nonetheless, unlike Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, Favreau’s second rendition to the Marvel comic takes a step backward from what was already middlebrow entertainment, which won’t provide the same kind of memories as its predecessor, if any.