Iron Man 2Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 05/08/10 00:32:05
When the first “Iron Man” film was released a couple of years ago, it was a far bigger risk on the part of its filmmakers than the typical superhero extravaganza. After all, it was based on a comic book property that, while beloved by fan boys, was not necessarily that well known to the general public, it was directed by someone who had never made anything close to its size and scope and the lead role of Tony Stark, the brilliant and hedonistic industrialist-turned-superhero, was filled by Robert Downey Jr., a brilliant actor whose mercurial talents had never really translated into box-office dollars. In other words, this was a rare example of a studio blockbuster that strayed away from the formulas instead of adhering to them and the public, in a rare bout of good taste, responded favorably to its willingness to do things differently--especially in regards to the casting of Downey--and turned it into a worldwide smash hit. Having hit the jackpot the first time around by going against the grain and being further emboldened by the fact that a follow-up would be about as close as one could get in Hollywood to a sure thing these days, you might expect that the people in charge of “Iron Man 2” would take the opportunity to build on what they had achieved and make a film that further messed with both genre and audience expectations. Instead, they have inexplicably chosen to play it safe this time around by offering up a virtual retread of the original that ends up accentuating its flaws while failing to invoke the freshness that people responded to in the first place.Set six months after the events in the first film, the story opens with Tony Stark, now known to the world as Iron Man, literally on the top of the world (or at least an aircraft hovering over it), basking in the knowledge that he has, as he puts it, “successfully privatized world peace” as the result of his efforts and attempting to further solidify his legacy by reviving the Stark Expo, an amusement park/think tank that comes across like a combination of EPCOT and an Apple story on the day of a new product rollout. Alas, Stark’s world is not as perfect as he likes to let on. The rare energy source used to power the machine in his chest that both keeps him alive and powers the Iron Man suit is slowly but surely poisoning his blood (he even has a little gadget to measure its toxicity), a fact that he has yet to confess to Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his faithful colleague, potential romantic interest and the newly installed CEO of Stark Industries. At the same time, he is being pressured by the government, in the form of an especially fatuous senator (Garry Shandling. . .yes, Garry Shandling) to turn over the suit and its secrets to the military on the grounds that no lone individual should possess something that powerful. Inevitably, Tony spurns this demand--partly because he doesn’t like the idea of its secrets getting out and, though he won’t admit it, partly because the idea of being a lone wolf superhero playing by his own rules is a great way of feeding his already pronounced ego. This decision puts him in a difficult position in regards with both his best friend, Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle stepping into the infamously vacated shoes of Terrence Howard) and the mysterious Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who is trying to recruit him for a shadowy superhero collective known as the Avengers.
Meanwhile, over in Russia, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a brilliant-but-crazy physicist whose father may have helped collaborate with Stark’s father on creating a possible new energy source before being deported and left to rot in prison. Enraged by Stark’s apparent appropriation of the technology his father helped develop and his efforts to try to wipe the Stark family slate clean of its checkered past, Vanko devises his own version of the suit, complete with giant electrified bullwhips, and tries to kill him in the middle of the Monaco Gran Prix by walking out onto the track in the middle of the race and attempting to cut him and his car down. Although he fails to actually do away with Stark for good, Vanko does smack him around pretty good and his efforts attract the attention of Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), a rival industrialist and war profiteer who has been unsuccessfully attempting to devise his own version of the Iron Man outfit to sell to the governments of the world and to knock Stark out of business. Hammer secretly busts Vanko out of jail and brings him to America to have him help create new suits that will help bring Stark down both personally and professionally, though he doesn’t quite grasp Vanko’s desire for revenge against Stark and the lengths he will go to achieve it. There is another new and potentially sinister presence in the form of Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson), a sexy new Stark Industries employee who may be too good to be true--luckily for her, if she is an industrial spy (or worse), she can look people in the eye and say whatever she wants without fear of being caught in a lie because the vast majority of them will be aiming their gazes roughly 14 inches below her eyeline, if you know what I mean and I think you do.
The first “Iron Man” was, of course, an origin story that necessarily needed to spend a good chunk of its running time introducing the characters and setting up the basic premise before getting around to introducing such elements as a plot and a villain. With all that now out of the way, one might have hoped for a fuller and more consistent plot this time around but if anything, the screenplay by Justin Theroux is even more scattershot here than it was in the original. There are plenty of ideas that could have been developed into interesting stories--including such potential conflicts as Stark vs. Vanko, Stark vs. Hammer, Stark vs. the military and Stark vs. his own cavalier attitude towards his work as a superhero and how his behavior shift over the course of the first film seems to have fallen by the wayside (although he never quite says it, his motto could be “With great power comes great irresponsibility”)--but instead of simply focusing on one, it tries flitting back and forth between all of them and as a result, all of these potentially good idea wind up getting the short shrift. The screenplay also makes the classic superhero sequel mistake of throwing too many villains into the mix--instead of one big and compelling baddie, the story splits between the obvious threats posed by Vanko and Hammer and the potential one posed by Natalie and as a result, none of them manage to take center stage in the way that the story needs in order to have an adversary worthy of our hero. The story is also surprisingly bald on the kind of big action set-pieces might expect to find--the Gran Prix sequence doesn’t arrive until about a half-hour in and once it ends, that is pretty much it from an action standpoint until the big finale. Instead, we are treated to endless scenes in which Tony either acts like a selfish jerk or is upbraided by his friends for acting like a selfish jerk, too many sequences in which it is obvious that director Jon Favreau simply turned on his camera and told the actors to simply make it up as we go along and in-jokes designed to delight the fanboys in the audience without doing much of anything for the other audience members. (As with the original, there is a scene after the end credits that helps further cement the “Avengers” plotline and at the showing that I attended, half the viewers broke out into cheers at what it revealed while the other half--including yours truly--had no idea what it was supposed to depict at first.)
Although the sheer surprising effectiveness of his performance the first time around is obviously lost here, Robert Downey Jr’s turn as Tony Stark is once again the best thing here--he has that rare gift of being able shift from the lightly ironic to the deadly serious in an instant and to be able to walk around in a giant robot suit as if it were the most natural thing in the world to do. However, this is the latest of a string a films where he has managed to jazz up a substandard script by the sheer force of his considerable talents and while he does it again here, it is getting to the point where he is going to have to start picking above-standard scripts to use them on or run the risk of wearing out his welcome. Perhaps the additions of Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell and Scarlett Johansson, three excellent actors not exactly known for appearing in genre films of this type, were intended to strike the same kind of unexpected sparks that Downey did the first time around but lightning does not strike twice here. In his first major role since solidifying his professional comeback with “The Wrestler,” Rourke is pretty much wasted on a nothing role that grants him only a few minutes of screen time and maybe one extended scenes opposite Downey that doesn’t involve the two of them pounding the crap out of each other while encased in robot outfits. Rockwell and Johansson are similarly wasted throughout--though the latter does get one nice showcase in which she decimates a hallway full of foes while clad in an exceptionally fetching catsuit--as are Paltrow and Cheadle. In fact, beyond Downey and Johansson when she slips into ass-kicking mode, the only performer here who really makes an impression is Garry Shandling and that is only because once you see it, you will spend the rest of the film wondering to yourself “What the hell happened to Garry Shandling?”“Iron Man 2” isn’t a complete disaster by any means--as previously mentioned, Downey is a hoot throughout, Favreau keeps things humming along in a slick and competent manner (even if he still has yet to develop the kind of distinct visual approach that might give an added lift to the action scenes) and the film as a whole never hits the depths of such disasters as “Spider Man 3” or “Kick-Ass”--and to judge by the reaction of the audience that I saw it with, it does deliver the goods to those who want nothing more than two hours of eye candy. The trouble is, the first “Iron Man” proved that a film could work as eye candy while still demonstrating a certain amount of intelligence and originality and that is why it stuck with viewers as well as it did. This one, on the other hand, may provide some temporary thrills but they are empty ones that will largely be forgotten within a couple of days.
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