Directed by Jon Favreau. Screenplay by Justin Theroux; based upon characters created by Stan Lee, Don Heck, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby and published by Marvel Comics. Produced by Kevin Feige. Music by John Debney. Photographed by Matthew Libatique. Edited by Dan Lebental, Richard Pearson. Production designed by J. Michael Riva. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, Samuel L. Jackson, Clark Gregg, John Slattery, Garry Shandling, voice of Paul Bettany.
Iron Man 2 is pretty much exactly what most people expect from a superhero sequel: it takes everything present in the first movie and dials it up to 11. It is bigger, louder, busier. Oh God, is it busier. And at the end of the day, it’s a little deadening. Don’t get me wrong; this is an entertaining movie. I’d hesitate to even think of calling it a bad one…per se. But it’s an ungainly and cluttered one, and seems to want to wow us more with the prospect of juggling several things at once then with actually doing it. Compared to the efficient storytelling that distinguished movie number one, it comes up short.
Once again we focus on Tony Stark, billionaire defense contractor playboy, who is (as he made clear during the press conference that closed the previous movie and opens this one) Iron Man. Rather than fret about a secret identity, Stark embraces the new angle on fame he has as America’s premier superhero: deterring war across the globe, landing onstage in the middle of his company expo and emerging from the Iron Man suit like a rock star, then scurrying down to a congressional meeting to work the crowd and crow “I have successfully privatized world peace.” Inside, Stark is dying: as the technobabble front piece on his chest that he must wear to keep shrapnel from entering his heart is made of a material that is itself poisoning him. Between events, he checks a little blood toxicity monitor—a handy dandy tool, to be sure.
But we all know that every superhero saga needs a villain. But this is a sequel. And so we get two. First: the odious Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), a competitor of Stark Industries who desperately wants his own piece of the Iron Man pie. And then there’s Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a tattooed, gold-toothed, impoverished mumbling Russian tough guy. Vanko, the son of a castoff from Stark Industries, has a nasty trick up his sleeves: he has mastered the same technology that Stark has and builds himself his own suit with electromagnetic whip hands. Yes. Electromagnetic whip hands, fastened to his body with a chestplate that makes him look like He-Man crossed with a meth addict. An altercation on a Monaco racetrack pits Vanko against Stark, in a scene well-staged by director Jon Favreau. It goes on from there. So far, so very comic book.
It is the great misfortune of Iron Man 2 that it is a superhero sequel, and so it has high standards to live up to: every Marvel franchise has had a second chapter that improves upon the original, and Iron Man 2 was the first major superhero movie to come out after the triumph of The Dark Knight. In fact, Iron Man 2 has a surprising amount in common with The Dark Knight. Both are superhero sagas that try to bring more to the table than is expected, and both are about flawed millionaires trying to fight a multi-front war. Both films even have a key scene where hero and villain sit down and chat following the latter’s imprisonment, and in both cases the evil mastermind makes it clear that what he represents is more important than whether or not he actually succeeds in his mission.
Here’s where the comparison falls apart. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight actually conceives of a second half that matches the build up of the first. The Joker, even though he escapes, makes good on his promise to test and corrupt the “pure-hearted” citizenry that Batman protects, and the film deals with that fact. Vanko, in contrast, gets in a good speech about what thieves the Starks are, and how now they’re going to lose everything: “If you can make God bleed, people will stop believing in him.” Interesting themes are sounded here of the fickle nature of fan adulation, sins of fathers weighing on their sons, parental secrets, and the horrifying vulnerability and self-destructive tendencies of Tony Stark. Then Vanko escapes, teams up with Justin Hammer, and does the exact same thing he did in the first half: plot to kill Tony Stark with some cool weaponry. Iron Man fights him. Iron Man wins. End of movie.
Okay, so yes, there is slightly more to it than that. But here’s the thing: at no point is the screenplay interested at all in doing something with the ideas it raises. Iron Man’s popularity never wavers with the public, even though it’s implied the racetrack incident should be the beginning of the end for him. Later revelations make it painfully clear that Tony’s dad (Tony Slattery) was right in booting Papa Vanko, so that moral dilemma is nice and quashed. And yeah, Stark is dying, and boy does he make a drunken ass of himself at a party, but don’t you know that when the element that your body depends upon is killing you, all you have to do is invent a new element? (Yeah. I know.) Bonus round: Tony is convinced his dead father hated him, but fifteen seconds of a never-before-seen home movie manages to wipe all that away like magic.
Oh, and who gives Tony that magic film reel, the info about Vanko, and the motivation for Tony Stark to figure out a way to cure himself? Why, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the man who wants to recruit Iron Man for the Avengers, of course! Nick Fury, who has a drink with Tony Stark, drops off a case full of lost family mementos, and then leaves with such abruptness that it’s a miracle his line of dialogue wasn’t “Well, the cameo’s over, I gotta go.” How convenient that the time he picks to deposit all this information is the exact moment that the screenplay requires him too, eh? Damn, he’s good.
Also convenient: Fury’s other Avengers cohort, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), who looks really sexy and later dispatches a room full of guards with such utility that you’d swear somewhere a screenwriter is engineering a room full of guards just for Black Widow to easily dispatch while looking really sexy. To be fair, Black Widow is just her stage name. I mean, her superhero name. Wait, she has no superpowers. So…is she a super model? Her real name is Natasha Romanov, and she uses it when she goes undercover as a notary for Stark Enterprises, although someone should probably tell her that real notaries button the top half of their blouses. Yes, even in California.
You see the problem. There is a lot of stuff in this movie dedicated to setting up The Avengers…a movie that when this film was released was two years away, and as of this writing, I remind you: is still not out yet. It’s neat to see Marvel blatantly tying their films together after the tenuous trial balloon that was Iron Man 1, but it ultimately gets in the way of the storytelling here. I can imagine a version of Iron Man 2 that asks harder questions about Tony Stark: his alcoholism, narcissism, and above all the way he treats being a superhero like it’s simply an elaborate way to get ink and babes. Maybe that version could even include the somewhat disturbing knock-down metal-to-metal fight he has here with Col. Rhodes (Don Cheadle), now suited as War Machine. But the actual Iron Man 2 doesn’t have time to be that movie; it’s much more concerned with setting up other movies and giving fan service.
Parts of the film are just plain confusing. If Natasha is supposed to be keeping an eye on Tony Stark, then why does she have a conversation with him that practically encourages and enables his destructive behavior at the party? For that matter, why does she immediately blow her cover as a notary by knocking Tony’s pal Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) around the boxing ring? How much time did Howard Stark have in order to plant a crucial clue inside a giant tabletop model, and why keep such a thing hidden, anyway? Does Vanko really have the willpower and knowledge to single-handedly build an army of drones and a prototype super-suit in about a week without Justin Hammer noticing? And could someone explain the legal logistics of Justin Hammer’s departure from this film?
Here’s the most shocking thing about Iron Man 2: much of the humor doesn’t work. The first film had a breezy charm, aided immensely by Downey’s gift for ad-libbing, which helped even during the scripted scenes. Here, everything feels scripted. The worst offender is the blossoming love story between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow): in the original movie it was tender and nicely subdued. Here it’s underlined and shrill, and their rapport feels like a depressingly forced attempt to channel Nick and Nora Charles. So bad is the romantic material here that one scene (in Pepper’s office) stops the film absolutely dead in its tracks. It’s not funny, it’s not dramatic, it’s not even about anything, except dispensing a tiny plot point.
The acting is fine. Well, everyone except Paltrow; I found Ms. Goopy to be surprisingly endearing in Iron Man 1, but here she’s not likable in the least. Rourke is good, but doesn’t really get up to much except some easy actorly ticks that scream “villain!” Jackson plays Jackson. Johansson has the right body for Black Widow, but I would love to have seen what a more powerful actress would have done (someone like Emily Blunt, who was the original choice). The standout here is actually Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer, who ably portrays a nerd who thinks of himself as a rock star—watch the false swagger as he steps onstage during the Stark expo, and how flat his presence falls for the audience. Rockwell does a very tricky thing here: giving a great performance about a man who essentially lacks charisma. Think about that. That is very difficult to do.
As for Robert Downey Jr…well, he is this franchise. Period. He remains deeply watchable and compelling, even when saddled with a screenplay that asks him to do a lot without paying any of it off. Some actors are movie stars, and are bankable and magnetic. Others are real actors, and with their talent can find hidden notes within their roles. Downey rests firmly in the third category: those who are undeniably both. It’s clear in both films that he is having a lot of fun being Iron Man, and I think it’s the surest testament to his skill that I would gladly sign up for an Iron Man movie where Tony Stark just walked around his house. He would make it so very entertaining. Plus, at least that one would do what it set out to do.
NOTES/AVENGERS CONNECTIONS: First appearances of Black Widow and Howard Stark. Agent Coulson returns, notes the presence of a mysterious shield in Tony Stark’s workshop, and then departs for New Mexico, where he finds a big hammer lying in the desert sands. Hmm. Who could that belong to?