A film review by Craig J. Koban May 11, 2010

IRON MAN 2 j
j
½ 

2010, PG-13, 125 mins.

 

Tony Stark: Robert Downey Jr. / Pepper Potts: Gwyneth Paltrow / Lt. Col. "Rhodey" Rhodes: Don Cheadle / Natalie Rushman/Natasha Romanoff: Scarlett Johansson / Justin Hammer: Sam Rockwell / Ivan Vanko: Mickey Rourke / Nick Fury: Samuel L. Jackson / Agent Coulson: Clark Gregg / Howard Stark: John Slattery / Senator Stern: Garry Shandling

Directed by Jon Favreau / Screenplay by Justin Theroux, based on the Marvel comic by Stan Lee, Don Heck, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby

There is a very droll scene in IRON MAN 2 where billionaire playboy/industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is having a heart-to-heart chat with S.H.I.E.L.D. head honcho Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) about his worthiness of being a member of a top-secret and prospective super hero team called "The Avengers Initiative."  Stark is given a psychological profile of himself which he picks apart what he views as falsehoods about his integrity, that is until he finds the bullet point that states, “Mr. Stark displays textbook narcissism.”  Downey’s Stark – with a nonchalant self-absorption and low key cockiness - states to Fury, “Agreed.”

The very first IRON MAN picture and, in some respects, IRON MAN 2 have very secure footing when it allows Downey free reign to make his comic book screen persona be the egomaniacally glib and self-aggrandizing loose canon/anti-hero that we’ve come to expect and want.   I recall in my review of the first film writing, “Has there ever been a more inspired, surprising, and perfectly cast actor as a comic book hero than Robert Downey Jr.?”  Up until the earlier part of the last decade, the actor was all but considered uninsurable and unbankable as a star, but what the first adaptation of Stan Lee’s 1963 created Marvel Comics property did with such a reckless and carefree abandon was to give the actor a chance to show why he is so good at delighting audiences by playing characters that straddle the line between being likeable and corruptible.  Tony Stark, much like the greatest of the other Marvel pantheon of super hero alter egos, generated more interest because, deep down, he seemed like the least likely person to become a costumed (or armored) crusader of justice.  And with Downey’s never-look-back edge and gnarly tencaity, both IRON MAN films have an off-kiltered edge and sophisticated unpredictability. 

IRON MAN 1 was essentially a classical origin story, but part of its smooth and calculating efficiency was how it allowed that story to brew and simmer gradually; we did not see much of Iron Man early on because of the film’s exemplary pacing and for the way it developed its personalities, warts and all.  Unfortunately, part of the problem with this sequel is that its overall storyline lacks the cohesion, pacing, and symmetry of its antecedent.  IRON MAN 2 is cluttered, scattershot, and oftentimes lacking in focus: it foregoes the rhythms and swiftness of the first film’s narrative and, more times than not, it seems to be more akin to setting up storylines of not only its probable sequel, but to the plots of other offshoot Marvel projects (like the long gestating AVENGERS film, which will feature Iron Man).  Instead of telling a personal story with a definitive beginning, middle, and end, we essentially get too many narrative ingredients thrown in a blender in hopes of a unified whole coming out. 

As far as traditional sequels go, IRON MAN 2 opens very shortly after the events of the first film, which you may recall showcased how the super rich weapons profiteer Tony Stark – through a series of unfortunate events – began to see the error of his capitalistic ways and forged a new secret identity of Iron Man to battle those that used his own weapons against humanity.  Stark is now pacifistic, but he is still an industrialist and moneyman at heart (“I have just privatized world peace,“ he humorously proclaims early on in the film).  His adventures as Iron Man have essentially settled many large-scale armed conflicts around the world, making him a one-many army of peace and prosperity.  Unfortunately, a deeply sleazy US senator (in one of the film’s best cameos by Gary Shandling, harnessing his character’s oozing lecherousness with an acidic bite) brings Stark before Congressional committee to force him to cede his Iron Man design to the U.S. government and military.  Stark has one big ace up his sleeve: his is the most popular man in the world (everyone knows he’s Iron Man) and, with public backing, the Senator has problems securing his tech.

Even though Stark is as popular of a celebrity force as ever, he is secretively a man that is suffering.  The device buried in his chest cavity keeps releasing toxins into his blood that is slowly killing him.  Realizing that he cannot be a super hero, a celebrity making appearances, a company man all at the same time, he gives the CEO position to his faithful assistant, Pepper Potts (the glowing, spunky, and adorably sexy Gweneth Paltro).  She agrees, but she finds it difficult to run Stark's company, especially when her boss seems to have developed a reckless habit of boozing and partying as a way to combat the inevitability of his death.

Things begin to unravel even more for Stark: His best buddy, Lt. Col. James Rhodes (a fine Don Cheadle, replacing the departing of the equally slick Terrance Howard) is torn between his friendship with Tony and his loyalty to his superiors (they want him to secure Stark’s iron suits via any means necessary).  Meanwhile, Stark faces two new foes, the first being a slimy entrepreneur named Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell, perhaps the only actor to match Downey’s capricious cockiness and bravado) who has been thwarted many times in his own efforts to create an Iron Man project of his own.  He conspires with a Russian physicist Ivan Vanko (the unhealthily ripped and grungy Mickey Rourke, easily facilitating his role’s requisite menace), whose ties to Stark’s family legacy has hurt his own family in irreparable ways.  He has built his own Iron Man-esque enhancement suit and seeks revenge.  Nick Fury, seeing this nefarious pair as a tangible threat, decides to intervene – with the help of his S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson) – to sober Stark up so he can face Vanko and his banker before things get out of hand.

The one thing that IRON MAN 2 does very well – much like the first film – is to acknowledge that the man behind the armor is more compelling than the super hero façade itself.  The script – by TROPIC THUNDER scribe Justin Theroux – understands that the portal into this world is through the character of Stark himself, and Theroux knows just how to harness the script to appease to Downey’s hyperactive and razor sharp-witted inflections.  When Stark is in the suit, he essentially is a faceless drone without much personality, so it’s important for the film to spend ample time on Stark himself, and it does so with aptitude.  Just watch the early standoff with Stark and the U.S. Senator or many of the quitter moments between Downey and Paltro, who share the screen with a bubbly chemistry laced with a subverted sexual foreplay that make these scenes rise above the perfunctory nature of the overall story.  Stark may be a grandiose and conceited SOB, but he’s delightfully so, and Downey once again has a field day with his performance.

As much as Theroux is talented at cat n’mouse word play in the film, he seems to lack a road map with the rest of it in terms of a definitive, clear cut storyline.  IRON MAN 2’s script – from a story by Downey and the film’s director, Jon Favreau, who also filmed the first one – seems too crowed with too many distracting subplots that take too long to correlate to one another.  The film is 125 minutes, but it starts really slow out of the gate and finds itself racing to pick up the momentum later on.  Again, we see a lot of build-up and expository scenes setting up other films, but little in the way of furthering the Stark character to more compelling levels (which is what great sequels should aspire to).  For the most part, IRON MAN 2 seems overstuffed for its own good, which was a fault that stymied, to more egregious effect, SPIDER-MAN 3, another bloated and misguided Marvel Comics sequel.

The film has two other faults as well: Firstly, there are some of the characters themselves, which are sort of ill defined and underwritten.  Mickey Rourke’s tattooed, gold toothed and battle-scarred psychotic has the vile sneer, the venomous Russian accent, and the growling sense of danger that is required for the role, but Vanko seems to lack interest beyond his façade (at least Rourke skillfully underplays the part, which could have festered into campy silliness with a lesser actor).  Then there is Scarlett Johansson, whose physical assets are indeed mighty impressive (she fills out her very tight leather jump suit well), but she never really feels convincing as a dangerous covert agent, nor is her character nothing more than a superfluous entity here.  She’s an action figure and pure window dressing, but not much else.  The film hints at a lot of flirting and unspoken feelings between her and Stark, not to mention a possible love triangle involving them and Pepper Potts, but nothing else seems to be embellished beyond that.

Part of the other shortcomings here pertain to the overall action, which has been amped up considerably.  There is one great visual effects action sequence when Rourke’s villain – in his iron man suit that sports two, lightsabre-like whips – chops his ways through Indy cars at the Monaco Grande Prix to come face-to-face with Stark, who is participating in the race (the film’s other nifty CGI sequence shows Stark taking a briefcase that then morphs onto his body to entomb completely entomb him as Iron Man).  Yet, bigger, louder, and...well... more, more, more rarely means better.  Instead of the deeply personalized battle of metal and brawn between Stark and his former mentor in the first film, we get a lengthy and chaotic climax pitting Iron Man, War Machine (Rhodes decked out in his own mechanized suit) battling a series of robotic drones.  The effects work is superlatively stellar here, but seeing the two heroes mow through a series of metal juggernauts with relative ease never once feels truly suspenseful or consequential.

IRON MAN 2 is not a bad sequel, but one that seems to rush out of the gate a bit too hastily and prematurely without much clarity in terms of an overall game plan.  Make no doubt, Downey’s Stark is a complete original and he rarely occupies a dull moment in the film, but even his towering charisma and snarky, blabbermouthed magnetism can’t override IRON MAN 2’s deficiencies.  Considering the rousing financial and critical success of the first entry, expectations were rightfully sky high for this installment.  Instead of transcending the rabid fan expectations and taking the property to new creative echelons (as was demonstrated in three other comic book sequels than were finer than their first films, X-MEN 2, SPIDER-MAN 2, and THE DARK KNIGHT) IRON MAN 2 spins its gears a bit too gingerly.  The first film had all of its parts in working order and was well oiled, but the sequel, alas, shows more rust around the edges than it should have.

REVIEW ADDENDUM

One thing I will compliment Favreau on is his steadfast refusal to not upconvert IRON MAN 2 to 3-D.  In a recent Entertainment Weekly interview the actor/director stated, “I would only do 3-D if I shot in 3-D.  Otherwise you are charging a premium, and until that technology catches up, I wouldn’t do that.  It would have been irresponsible to do it on this movie."  

Amen, brother.  You are so money!

 

CrAiGeR's other

REVIEWS:

 

IRON MAN  (2008)  jjj1/2

 

IRON MAN 3  (2013)  jjj

 

 

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