Tuesday, May 11, 2010

In Theaters: Iron Man 2

Iron Man 2 poster and IMPAwards link
Two years ago, IRON MAN managed to surprise a few people by being a smart, banter-heavy summer blockbuster with some great performances and strong characterization. IRON MAN 2 can’t help but suffer a little bit from heightened expectations, and though business is apparently booming it has gotten a less enthused critical reception. As for myself, though, I find myself liking it about as much as I did the first entry. It takes a couple of steps forward, a couple of steps back, and maybe one or two sideways; it’s a bigger movie, which has its advantages and disadvantages, and it delivers what it promises while not quite living up to its potential.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), having come out to the world as the man inside the Iron Man battlesuit, is well on his way to 21st century godhood as the story begins. He opens a year-long Stark Expo in New York, promising an unusual mix of better living through technology and sheer capitalist decadence, while trying to keep the government from seizing control of this new weapon. His decision to go it alone is reinforced by his private knowledge that he doesn’t have much time left- the palladium reactor keeping his heart going is also poisoning his bloodstream, and he has nothing to replace it with. He turns over ownership of Stark Industries to his overworked assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and is doing his best to live up his last days. However, industrial rival Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) Is gunning for Tony’s tech, and Russian inventor/badass Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) wants to personally make him bleed, and after the latter attacks Tony on the race track at Monaco, the two team up to make his life as hellish as possible.

As is common with superhero sequels, IRON MAN 2 has a lot more on its plate than its predecessor. It’s possible to distill the plot down to “Tony Stark has a lot of rivals”, but the details are sometimes hard to keep track of. Ivan blames Tony’s father for the exile and ruin of his father, believing that the former stole the plans for the ARC reactor- the dynamo that powers the Iron Man armor- from the latter. Hammer cozies up to the government by trying to turn the Iron Man concept into something that can be mass-produced, and Tony’s Air Force buddy, Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard), ends up siding against him, thinking he’s getting a little drunk on power when he isn’t just plain getting drunk.

Adding some interesting ambiguity to this, Tony’s detractors aren’t entirely wrong. They don’t know that he’s dying because he insists on confronting that- and all other problems- alone, and his similarly unilateral approach to world peace seems almost selfish and self-deifying. Pride inevitably goeth before a fall, and though the film isn’t very dark and only a little mopey, a big part of it is Tony being knocked down a peg even as he tries to live up to his responsibilities.

From a thematic standpoint all this is fascinating, but it does a number on the movie’s structure. It rambles around a lot, and it’s not always clear where it’s going, which would be good except we then have to wonder if it’s going anywhere in particular at all. Some sections feel a bit bloated, and the plot just isn’t as clear as it could be. It’s not really obvious what the stakes are, and the sudden involvement of the international spy organization SHIELD feels like a plot element thrown in from another movie (and, to be sure, it’s mostly there to foreshadow the upcoming AVENGERS movie.)

Downey is as good as he was the first time, which is to say pretty awesome. He knows the character and he keeps Tony sympathetic even though he’s kind of coming off as a jackass to everyone. Paltrow is very strong as Pepper Potts, but the character this time kind of gets sidelined near the end, which is a shame. Cheadle makes a great Rhodes, though I had no problem with Howard in the original. Rockwell takes a fairly thin “evil corporate douchebag” role and makes it entertaining, and Rourke’s a nice counterpoint even if his accent is unconvincing. Scarlett Johansson, as a legal secretary and part-time stealth badass, is- very pretty, with a talented stuntwoman, but sadly doesn’t make as much of an impression as everyone else.

When the film’s plot finally does get underway, we do get some very good action; Jon Favreau shoots the picture’s main setpieces clearly and cleanly, letting the spectacle of metal men clashing with heavy artillery speak for itself. Vanko’s attack on Tony at the race track is as good a setpiece as was teased in the trailers, and I think the final battle represents an improvement over the somewhat murky climax of the first film. At times Favreau does fall prey to what some are calling “the teal and orange fungus” but thankfully it’s not in every scene.

So, a bit better in the action department, a little worse in terms of structure, but with some really interesting thematic and character stuff to make up for that. Overall I was satisfied- the film neither falls prey to its excesses nor fails to deliver the excess we want from this kind of thing to start with. The franchise, I think, has yet to live up to the full potential of the talent involved (both in front of and behind the camera), but hopefully they’re getting there. Tony Stark’s story continues to be a fascinating one, warts and all.

And yes, there’s another after-credits sequence this time. One that I thought was just a little bit awesome.

Based on the comic by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck, and Jack Kirby (not necessarily in that order)
Screenplay by Justin Theroux
Directed by Jon Favreau

Grade: B+

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