I found myself thoroughly entertained by the first installment of theÂ Iron ManÂ series, even though I sometimes felt that the â€œYay America!â€ vibe rendered the war on terror in too strictly black and white terms. The movie was just too damned slick and vibrantly expressed for me to care about the finer points of reality.Â Iron Man 2 starts off with an even greater level of bravado, but this timeÂ Jon Favreauâ€™s andÂ Robert Downey Jrâ€™s combined showmanship could not overshadow the lack of substance in the story itself. Despite my better judgement, I callÂ Iron ManÂ great, but this sequel is simply bad.
I found myself thoroughly entertained by the first installment of the Iron Man series, even though I sometimes felt that the “Yay America!” vibe rendered the war on terror in too strictly black and white terms. The movie was just too damned slick and vibrantly expressed for me to care about the finer points of reality. Iron Man 2 starts off with an even greater level of bravado, but this time Jon Favreau’s and Robert Downey Jr’s combined showmanship could not overshadow the lack of substance in the story itself. Despite my better judgement, I call Iron Man great, but this sequel is simply bad.
I am no expert when it comes the the Marvel universe — or any comic universe, for that matter — so I have a limited understanding of the complex narrative unfolding on our cinema screens over the past few years and in the near future. Somewhere in the individual stories of Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, and Captain America, is the making of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers. Unfortunately, Iron Man 2 feels like a mere stepping stone in the collective origin story, bridging Iron Man’s own origin story and his future with the Avengers, but offering little to the mythos besides a new form of elemental power for the Iron Man suit.
Downey Jr. is as cocky and self-assured as he was playing Tony Stark in the first Iron Man film, but his take on the tortured superhero trope plays flatly. Working against Downey’s performance as benevolent, billionaire badass is the film’s prologue, which too briefly introduces Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) as Iron Man’s nemesis, and whose motivations are at best, hinted at. Before Stark even opens his mouth, the audience knows that Stark’s fatal flaw is hubris, pride. For the opening ceremony of Stark Expo, Stark dons his now-famous suit and skydives from a plane to the stage, which erupts in a flash of pyrotechnics and scantily clad women. The message is one of celebration and success — according to Stark, no less than the achievement of world peace — that the audience knows is unfounded and waiting to be debunked by Vanko and his own weaponized armor (a narrative element known as dramatic irony, in case you were wondering). Having Stark say he’s saved the world, all by himself, doesn’t mean the film achieves the same believability or resonance with real world audiences. In fact, the prologue and Stark’s own bravado work to undermine his benevolent character. Even with the knowledge that Stark faces death through the continued use of his suit, it is difficult to pity the boasting playboy who insists on wearing the suit even in unnecessary situations, such as the Expo.
Stark’s showboat behaviour is really the subject of the film, drawing criticism from Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow), Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) himself. Vanko’s arrival and collaboration with Stark’s munitions competitor, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), frustrates Stark’s confidence in the scarcity and novelty of his own resources. An important development in the narrative is Pepper’s promotion to CEO of Stark Industries, which leaves an opening for Scarlett Johansson’s entrance as Natasha Rushman/Romanoff, but is ultimately a self-serving choice Tony makes to free himself from public scrutiny and accountability. This is the general trend of Stark’s behaviour, which his simultaneous bodily break down does little to temper in my opinion. We are supposed to forgive the man his flaws since he sacrifices himself to be the world’s saviour, but not enough is done to create the latter impression.
Eventually, we learn the reasons for Vanko’s vendetta against Stark industry from Rourke’s lips, but ultimately, a flashback scene would have served audiences better. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but something is being lost in the attempt to schedule narratives around movies that have yet to be released. Vanko is poorly developed as a character, as is Johansson’s Romanoff. She is introduced as Pepper’s replacement as executive assistant in the first half of the film, but her true identity is revealed matter-of-factly by Nick Fury without even tempting audiences with hints or misdirections as to Romanoff’s allegiances. I’m pretty sure it was the most boring plot reveal I’ve ever witnessed. Paltrow’s Pepper is consistent with her earlier performance as Stark’s Girl Friday, but doesn’t call on much more acting skill than the ability to frown.
Cheadle plays an important role as Rhodes/War Machine in Iron Man 2, acting as the voice of reason and unofficial handler for Tony in Act I, and brother in arms in Act II. However, given this custodial role, Cheadle almost always plays serious and, therefore, doesn’t represent an extended version of the persona originated by Terrence Howard, which was more dynamic and allowed an element of humour. Overall, humour was surprisingly lacklustre in Iron Man 2 despite being one of the best features of the first installment, and being scripted by Justin Theroux, co-writer of the massive comedy hit, Tropic Thunder. If I could name one redeemable quality of this film, it is the presence of Sam Rockwell. Rockwell is a superb actor in any role, and his performance in Iron Man 2 as Justin Hammer is no exception. Favreau gave Hammer the time he needed to develop as a villain in the shadow of Vanko, meaning that Iron Man 3 should not suffer from the same contextlessness as it’s predecessor. I'm not handing out props for special effects today, since they form the minimum requirement for contemporary superhero films and are often the only legs a film has to stand on. If Favreau had failed in this respect as well, oh you'd hear about it.
Overall Score: 5.75 – Bad. (5s are movies that either failed at reaching the goals it set out to do, or didn’t set out to do anything special and still had many flaws. Some will enjoy 5s, but unless you’re a fan of this genre, you shouldn’t see it, and might not even want to rent it.)
With Iron Man 2, Favreau and Downey Jr. try to recreate the magic of their first collaboration with little success. Lacking the humour and character development of the first Iron Man film, the sequel offers little substance besides its contribution to the burgeoning mythos of the upcoming Avengers film.
Overall Score: 7.75 — If screenwriter Justin Theroux hadn’t tried to (or been coerced to) cram so much of the mythology into one film, it might have been a slick ride. All its finer points are set within an unstructured framework that almost falls apart when it incorporates plot threads more important to The Avengers. You can read his full review here!