Monday, May 17, 2010

Iron Man 2 (2010)

Back in 2008, on the eve of the premiere of Iron Man, the film was facing strange expectations. On paper, there was no way it should have worked: Iron Man was a much-lesser known superhero; Tony Stark/Iron Man would be played by then-supposed Hollywood washout Robert Downey Jr.; it was directed by actor/director Jon Favreau, previously best known for comedies such as Swingers and Elf. But then something miraculous happened: it didn't suck, mostly thanks to its focus on character over explosions and RDJ's abundant charisma, and it made hundreds of millions of dollars. The sequel was inevitable.
And as far as sequels go, Iron Man 2 delivers. Here, Tony is now facing the consequences of revealing that he is, in fact, Iron Man. He's trying to host the Stark Expo, a vision of his father's (John Slattery, in Mad Men mode) that he intends to complete, as well as dealing with Senate hearings lead by Senator Stern (Garry Shandling), who wants Tony to turn over the Iron Man weapon to the US military. Meanwhile, rival weapons manufacturer Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) is trying to mass-produce the suit, Lt. Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard from the first movie) is trying to convince Tony to turn over the suit to the military, and Russian Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) has actually built a "suit" of his own. Oh, and Tony has made Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) the CEO of Stark Industries, and has hired Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson), who turns out to be a super-spy working with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), as his new assistant.
Needless to say, Iron Man 2 falls victim to the more-is-better ideology of blockbuster sequels, and a lot happens with the film's two-hour running time. However, in what can only be described as lightning striking twice, the film more or less is successful; it's not quite Spider-Man 2 good, but it's certainly not Spider-Man 3 bad, especially considering it's use of multiple "villains" (more on that in a minute). I would credit this to RDJ's brilliant performance and the decision to keep the film's focus on de-constructing Tony Stark. Tony is a fascinating character, and in the film his darker side is explored. This isn't done through a lame-emo-Tobey Maguire transformation, but rather a descent into alcoholism and self-destruction. It's a different move for a superhero movie, and for the most part it works. In fact, I would say that it's the secret to the Iron Man franchise's success.
Which brings me to the film's biggest flaw: the villain. The first Iron Man had this same problem. In the films' narratives, there's so much focus on Tony that it's as if the writers forget that the villain is even there, or perhaps the villain is only included because its mandatory in a superhero film. Either way, the character of Ivan Vanko (who, by the way, is never referred to as Whiplash even though that's obviously who he is) is underdeveloped, which gives the great Rourke little to do but sit around tinkering with machines, speaking a few lines of Russian, and mostly looking bored. It's a shame that he's been wasted in this manner, since, as another comeback kid from the 1980s, he could have made an excellent foil for RDJ's Tony; a better movie would have made them two sides of the same coin.
The other "villain," Justin Hammer, is only so in the nominal sense. Rather, he's just a rival weapons manufacturer with even shadier morals than Tony. Rockwell plays the role with a gleeful arrogance, making him much more interesting that Vanko. However, once again, he gets very little development, and in a better movie, he too would have been a foil for Tony.
All of this may sound like Iron Man 2 is a terrible movie, and let's be honest, the critics' reviews are not exactly glowing. However, the movie is awfully fun, and it never loses its sense of mischievous joy. And in a shocking development, Don Cheadle steps into Terrence Howard's shoes surprisingly well, and, as War Machine, is a terrific sidekick for Iron Man. When the inevitable third-part comes out (I refuse to use the term "threequel"), I'll be in line for it, ready to see these two in action again.