Iron Man 2 - Good, but not great
| 2 years is a pretty quick turn-around time to produce a sequel to a movie that became a bit of a surprise hit – almost on the scale of the first Pirates of the Caribbean film. For those who are fans of the first films for these two franchises, I can tell you that the results in the sequels are similar. In Iron Man 2, there’s a lot to look forward to, and a lot where your eyes might glaze over as you wonder why you’re not more excited by what’s happening on screen.
For the fanboys, Iron Man has always been one of the more popular characters in the Marvel Canon, but he doesn’t have the cross-over popularity of a Spider-man, a Wolverine, or even the big green guy. Like The Curse of the Black Pearl however, what Iron Man, the movie, did have was a proven star on the rise again. People responded to Downey as Tony Stark with the same fervor that they gave to Johnny Depp as Captain Jack. Aging nerds (myself included) could defend their love for a super-hero movie because it had pedigree in its star, and said star provided enough charm and charisma for the girlfriend or wife to come along, go in on the #1 combo, and give the movie some repeat business.
So, here we are two years later – almost to the day. Iron Man marks the beginning of the summer movie season once more, and as a summer movie, it delivers more than it disappoints, but what I watched on-screen last night, was a new-found bankable franchise resting on its laurels somewhat, as it continues to lay the foundation for The Avengers film a few years down the road.
Iron Man 2 is a movie filled with talk. Watching Tony debate with Pepper Pots, the U.S. Senate, and his Army buddy, Jim Rhodes, is not unlike witnessing Josh, C.J., Sam and Toby walk through the West Wing at the height of Aaron Sorkin’s career. For the most part, this is a good thing. Tony Stark and those that surround him on all sides are constantly, and cleverly, at odds over the predicament they now find themselves in. In the first film’s origin story, Stark creates the Iron Man suit as an act of repentance – wanting to protect the people his government’s military “puts in harm’s way.” Here, he’s dealing with a prolonged period of peace for America and the World. As Tony himself says, he is now the ultimate military trump card – despite the apparent fact that darker regimes throughout the world are now racing to develop Iron Man suits of their own – with varying degrees of success.
One man that does succeed however is Anton Vanko (Mickey Rourke) – the son of a Russian physicist (Ivan Vanko) who co-developed the original Arc Reactor that Stark Industries based its future creations around. Through back story, we learn that Stark’s father, Howard, largely took credit for the co-creation, sending Ivan back to Russia to presumably father a young Mickey Rourke, live a life of destitution, bitterness and resentment, and tell stories to his son about how close Tony Stark’s apple is to his daddy Howard’s tree. Cue Ivan’s death, Anton’s revenge-fueled shop project, and the birth of a disposable villain. This is in the opening credits, and now we are ready for Iron Man 2.
I’m not going to say that Iron Man 2 is a waste of time – far from it. If you enjoyed the first one, and you think Robert Downey Jr. can do no wrong, then you will have more ammo for your argument after this movie. Pepper Pots has more to do, there’s a lot of joy to be had in the promise of the movies to come, and there are a few displays of violence here that will make you maybe wonder why this movie is rated PG-13, and not at least an M. The scene from the trailer where Rourke’s “Whiplash” character (more of a Crimson Dynamo, really) “makes god bleed” on the tracks at the Monaco Grand Prix is alone worth the price of admission. The resulting battle, where we see Tony’s briefcase armor for the first time, and we see Anton doing more than a little bleeding of his own, is vicious and cruel – even director John Favreau gets into the action. Truly, after flipping a formula 1 racing car, and taking quite the shit-kicking from Rourke, once that gold facemask snaps down over Tony Stark’s face, you know you’re in for a moment of unparalleled bad-assery. Fewer film images to me are cooler than this.
Still, for all that’s right with Iron Man 2, there are a few things that left a bad taste in my mouth. Why, for instance, after the darkness of The Dark Knight, are we still afraid to deal with the fact that people die in comic book movies? There are enough explosions in the sum of the robot-laden climaxes of both Iron Man films to equal at least a 9/11 body-count, but nobody seems to mind. Crowded freeways and technology expos become playgrounds for people who like to make things go “boom” and the narrative seems barely equipped or interested enough to deal with the aftermath in a satisfying way.
I recognize that I’m complaining about realism in a super-hero movie that is basically a set-up for a super-hero team movie where The Hulk, Captain America, Iron Man and Thor, the God of Thunder team up to beat-up bad guys, but still – if you want me to buy into the immediacy of our hero under threat, give me a reason to believe that death in his world is real and something that can’t be wiped clean with a well-placed one-liner. Sure there’s some half-assed story about Tony being “poisoned” by the very thing that’s keeping him alive, but that threat is brushed-aside with as much effort.
Director John Favreau will have another hit on his hands here, though I can’t see this one getting as much repeat business. Yes, Iron Man 2 was fun, there’s a great deal of impressive action on display, and Robert Downey Jr. is once again the go-to guy. There are also plenty of fun throw-away treats for Marvel (and Swingers) fans to enjoy. However, The Dark Knight this is not, and though that may seem like an unfair comparison to some, after the undeniable masterpiece from August 2008, I’ve come to expect a little more hard-hitting realism from all of my movies where grown men put on costumes to fight crime.
That’s what great movie do – raise expectations, and make the movies within the same genre that are merely “good” seem a lot more juvenile and far from ready for greatness. In answer to any comment on the story's fictional inclusion in the American military industrial complex, there's a cameo by Bill O'Reilly that makes you wonder how close Fox News is to 20th Century Fox. Instead of investigating the issues surrounding the volatility of the Iron Man weapon being in the hands of someone with Tony Stark's alcoholism and self-destructive tendencies, we instead see Rhodes inexplicably try-on a suit he's never before worn to lay a smack-down on the out of control party boy before flying off to deliver the suit into the hand of the US Military in a scene that is sure to draw some unintended snickers and shrugs.
Again and again, Iron Man 2 errs on the side of big and flashy, without stopping to think about what it's saying. I don't know about you, but when a movie turns it s brain off, while watching it, I tend to do the same. By the film's end, when there are more robots than people and all I can see are tracer bullets and explosions, I wonder if I'm at an early screening for Transformers 3, I get a bit embarrassed, and I kind of want to turn to the girl I brought to this movie and apologize for doing so.
Iron Man 2 is fun, it's got great action, and it's everything most people might be expecting from a big budget summer movie. However, that might not be enough to consistently wow a comic book audience that Christopher Nolan helped become a lot more discerning and sophisticated two summers ago.