Given that Iron Man 2‘s already a Designated Hit of the Year, nothing I can say will make the least bit of impact on the film’s bottom line. I find that rather freeing, because I don’t have to pretend the film is some amazing stand-out example of its genre. It’s not bad, but it’s still a fuzzy-headed rehash of tropes that should be familiar to anyone who’s watched a superhero sequel. The Villain Hypertrophy, the mawkish sentiment, the origin of A Sidekick, the Hero striving against his Fate, trying to shore up his Legacy against Death’s inevitable encroachment while simultaneously learning how to play well with others – it’s all here. And it’s all so mind-numbingly safe I had to slap myself with a Netflix envelope just to recall why I was here.
Just kidding…I don’t actually have Netflix.
Then I realized something extraordinary: I was actually having fun. I know. Weird. In spite of everything I just said, the film managed to draw me back into the perpetual train wreck that is the life of Tony Stark. Hell, I thought, how did this happen? It’s all the fucking actor’s fault.
In the two years since Tony’s revealed his secret identity, Iron Man’s somehow managed to bring about World Peace. Since Justin Theroux’s script feels this plot point is unworthy of our attention, let’s focus on Tony’s heart instead. Turns out walking around with an arc reactor in your chest will eventually give you blood poisoning. Who could’ve known? Certainly not legendary super genius Tony Stark, whose efforts to find a cure have so far produced naught but headaches and vaguely-humorous asides as he attempts to keep the truth from his PA/love interest, Pepper Potts (still Gwyneth Paltrow).
With the clock ticking and evil-looking black stuff seeping into the tissues around his battery, Tony begins acting even more like an erratic, showboating, proto-fascist than usual. He arranges a gigantic Stark Industries expo in Flushing, New York, promotes Pepper to CEO, and does everything he can to keep the U.S. military’s grubby hands off of his armor. After all, it’s not like its a weapon of mass destruction or anything…right?
I could pick apart the film’s gross oversimplification of geopolitics…but so could a fourth grader with a Ritalin habit and a steady supply of Noam Chompsky‘s books. I’m the last person to put any kind of faith in governments (any of them), but I do have faith in one thing: government’s unfailing ability to monopolize power, especially the power to destroy things.
All I’m saying is, there’s no way it would take two years for the Senate Armed Services Committee to slap Tony with a subpoena. No way Tony’s goshe, new-money antics would ever win standing ovations from the Washington press corps (look how those jackals cover Stephen Colbert every time he flies in their orbit). And there’s no way they’d let him keep the damn thing in his basement…unless he dangled Stark Industry’s Weapon’s Division in front of their faces like a hypnotist’s watch. I’m sure there are hundreds of contracts the government would rather not re-negotiate in Stark Industries’ archives…millions of jobs stretched across hundreds of Congressional districts our distinguished “leaders” would rather not disappear…talk about “all the lives the Stark family has destroyed.” Didn’t Tony tell Obediah Staine to close that whole arm of the company down in the last film? Bet that went over well. I wonder what kinds of horrible, personal secrets Tony’s holding over his Board of Directors’ heads? How many incriminating Polaroids does it take to stop a hostile takeover in its tracks?
Never mind. This story chooses to focus on Tony, as he does all the things guys say they’d do if they knew they were going to die. Irony is, we all really are gonna die. And you know what? If we ignore the fact that two years have supposedly passed, this story could be enough to carry the whole film on its back.
Unfortunately, the film needs those two years. How else could Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), our Designated Villain, build his own arc reactor in a dingy Moscow apartment? Vanko’s a portmanteau of the villains Whiplash and Crimson Dynamo, the son of a disgraced Russian scientist Tony Stark’s father allegedly double-crossed back in the day. Papa Vanko wound up in a gulag. Papa Stark became the Walt Disney of World Domination. Out for Revenge, Ivan ambushes Tony at the Grand Prix, netting an iron and knuckle sandwitch and a tour to France’s finer correctional institutions.
He’s sprung from the clink by Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), Tony’s competitor in business and in the Rich Douchebag Olympics. Unfortunately, Rockwell chose to amp the Odious Comic Relief inherent in his role into the stratosphere, keeping there for the entire show. Do you see how this might undermine his status as a villain?
I never thought I’d hate a fake CEO of a weapons company any more than I hate the real ones. I’m surprised Ivan abstained from killing the fopish bastard, but I suppose we have to keep him for the sequel. I can only stand Hammer when he’s ripping off Gary Oldman’s (much better) presentation from The Fifth Element:
Meanwhile, Tony’s continued depression leads to the real highlight of the film: drunken birthday party antics that motivate Stark’s military liaison, Colonel James Rhodes (now played by Don Cheadle) to don one of Tony’s spare suits. This sets up one of the best armored superhero fight scenes on the silver screen (to date). I particularly enjoy the fact that it destroys so much of Stark’s stuff, including the kitchen sink…and that one honestly-poignant moment at the end, when Tony patently does nothing to stop Rhodes from highjacking the suit in the name of Patriotism, honor, and all that’s nationalistic in the world. We get the clear sense that Tony intended to give Rhodey the armor all along…if only posthumously. If only Tony could’ve avoided alienating everyone around him by being such a drunken ass…but, if that happened, he’d be Bruce Wayne instead of Tony Stark.
After that fight, the film can’t really top itself. It’s that old story: Hollywood blockbuster writes itself into a corner and solves everything with a fight scene and a deus ex machina. In this case, it’s Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and walking deus ex machina of the Marvel Universe. I’m more mollified about that than I should be. But retcons and silly dialogue are still retcons and silly dialogue, even when they’re coming out of Samuel L. Jackson’s mouth.
Rather than dealing with Tony’s impending demise in any way that could be called “mature,” “meaningful,” or “satisfying,” Iron Man 2 goes the Dan Brown route of presenting the audience with a mystery and then immediately solving it before any real drama can accrue. Because Tony Stark’s just that much of a genius. Whip up new atomic elements from old, secret diagrams hidden in family heirlooms by you dead father? Hell, that’s just Tuesday at Casa de Stark, home of the Prince of War is Peace.
If I were God, I’d condemn screenwriters who take this easy way out to a special level of Hell, as drawn by Todd McFarlane…right next to directors who artificially lengthen their action scenes with tension-killing comic relief, especially when it comes from villains. There’s a reason Batman Returns and Superman II are the only superhero sequels you remember. I’m not one to chalk it all up to the villains…but they certainly helped a lot by not vacillating between Gary Oldman and Shia LaBouf impressions.
Last time, Tony fought an evil version of his father. This time, he fights two (externalized) evil version of himself. So I suppose next time he’ll have to fight an evil version of Pepper, his Holy Spirit. Naturally, she’ll be decked out in a suit of powered armor that accentuates all the right curves. Samus Aran, anyone?
I kid the Iron Man Trilogy-to-Be. It’s middle act is obviously attempting to serve two masters…and we all know what Jesus said about that, don’t we? Forced to carry its own weight and serve as the safety pin holding films One and Three together, it brings up more than it can reasonably resolve, fumbling the ball when it tries to force shit.
Still, director Jon Favreau knows how to frame a character and a high speed action scene with equal aplomb. Stand outs include that scene where Rhodey learns of Stark’s condition (through an exchange of significant looks), Rhodey’s post-birthday-bash landing at Edwards Air Force Base, and anything having to do with Tony and Pepper Potts. Paltrow and Downey once again sell their character’s cliched, Movie Romance through sheer chemistry and the energy of their sniping. Their kiss at the end (shut up; like “the Hero and his Girl kiss” is any kind of Spoiler), two movies in the making, is the best-realized, most authentic-feeling, most-earned kiss the genre’s seen since at least 2004.
I know what it is: everyone’s gotten comfortable…maybe a little too comfortable. There’s a clear sense every character has their own interior lives, even if the story their trapped in refuses to reflect that. I like that they made Pepper CEO, giving her something to do besides cleaning up Tony’s every “whoopsey.” I like that Tony’s new minder is played by Scarlett Johansson. She may be playing a one-dimensional character, but that dimension is awesome. I like Cheadle’s turn as War Machine, though I wish he’d had more screen time since I’ve always found War Machine’s relationship with the whole “flying coffin” much more interesting than Tony’s. I like Sam Jackon, because if I didn’t I’d be dead.
It’s the script I can’t stand. Especially after it suffers a stroke two thirds of the way through and starts drooling all over the carpet. Inevitably, the quality of writing in a superhero film falls as the numbers in the title climb higher. There’s never been an honest-to-God-good superhero trilogy (to date), and Iron Man‘s slipping already. This is not a good sign, since it’s supposedly following all the rules.
Why, after all, do we need two villains per film? And if we must have them, why can’t they both be credible threats, capable of being taken seriously? Why can’t a superhero movie sequel be about something other than the Hero’s Journey towards Learning to Play Well With Others? Why can’t scripts follow through all the way to the end? There’s a reason The Dark Knight worked so well…you know, Hollywood?
You don’t, do you? All you know is this movie made three times its budget…so Thunderbirds must be Go! for the Inevitable Sequel…and at least nine other pictures that’ll eventually tie all the Marvel films together into a coherent, fictional universe. I wish everyone involved the best. But I’ve got Spider-Man 3 sitting on my shoulder like the demon-spawn it is, telling me to keep my hopes in check.
And, really…Christ, it’s Tony Stark we’re talking about. He’s the man Bruce Wayne pretends to be in the daylight. And that man is a rich douche who ignores all his real friends to have rich, douchey parties with other rich douches. Is it any surprise that, once he gets drunk, blasting them with pulverized glass becomes his idea of fun? He’s the worst kind of rich fuck: the kind with Shakespearean pretensions and a complete lack of imagination. He has to ask Scarlett Johansson what she would do on her last birthday party ever, which is as tragic as it is pathetic…and that’s the entire point. Tony’s only interesting when he’s wracked with pain, lying prone inside the ruins of his excuse for a life. He’s the Charles Foster Kane of superherodom, and this film finds nothing better to do with his Rosebud than set up the climactic action sequence. That’s it. Full stop. No mas.
But, then again, this is the United States, where rich people own everything…even our superheroes. I suppose its only natural they should be our heroes as well, since we certainly can’t look up to poor people. That would just be un-American. At least the cast and the action sequences are decent enough…right? We’ll see what number 3 brings.