The first Iron Man was a wonderful surprise. In a masterstroke of casting they plunked down Robert Downey Jr. with his whip-smart quicksilver persona in the middle of a Summer action behemoth and instantly deflated all the portentous seriousness that has dragged down many recent would be blockbusters. (Parts of Hancock played like In the Bedroom) In addition, Favreau's steady hand at helm kept the whole show zipping along at a great clip. Iron Man was breezy where most mega-action films lumbered, witty where they were lame and obvious. They could almost have skipped the action altogether, so cheerful was the tone of the whole production.
So it is with no pleasure that I have to report Iron Man 2 is a big step down, falling prey to the problems you hope sequels like this avoid, the story overstuffed and cluttered to vastly diminishing returns. Iron Man moved in clean, pleasing lines. Iron Man 2 spins madly in place.
It's bad enough when a movie steps wrong, disappoints, or otherwise botches the job. Infinitely more frustrating is when it gets it right and doesn't even realize it. Iron Man 2 gets it right with the villian, Ivan Vanko, aka - Whiplash. Along with Favreau and writer Justin Theroux, MIckey Rourke creates a formidable nemesis for Tony Stark, charismatic and genuinely threatening, and Iron Man 2 flies right past him in a great hurry to get nowhere in particular. Watching the movie I had the urge to scribble on the screen with one of those electric pens the sports commentators use, circling and triple underlining Mickey Rourke. "Here is your movie -HERE."
Iron Man 2 starts well enough. Downey is still in top form, and if his work as Tony Stark doesn't have the benefit of being fresh, that doesn't make it any less entertaining. The sequel picks up where the first film left off, with Stark confessing to the world that he's Iron Man, thus sparing millions of grateful moviegoers two hours of secret identity handwringing. Stark gives a defiant grandstanding performance at a Senate hearing probing the implications of Iron Man, but we quickly learn his outward showboating hides private dread. It turns out the arc reactor that powers his suit and keeps him alive is also not-so-slowly killing him. So far so good.
In a parallel story line we are introduced to Ivan Vanko, Russian mobster and physicist with a grudge against the Stark family. We grasp that he is the intellectual equal of Stark when he slaps together a replica of Stark's power source out of junk shop bric-a-brac, and we can also tell that he is palpably dangerous because - well, because he's played by Mickey friggin' Rourke. Rourke's career renaissance continues here unabated. Most actors take comic book villain roles as an opportunity ham it up - to turn the dial up to Pacino and tear down the scenery. Rourke does the opposite, turning the energy way down he implies enormous power with his stillness and his seeming indifference to the superhero shenanigans transpiring around him.
So at this point, about 25 minutes into the film, everything is rolling along nicely and I was settling in to see my strong yet deeply flawed hero confronted by his capable adversary - and by extension his misspent, unscrupulous past. Then the narrative sputtered to a stop and the film attempted to go in half dozen directions at once, noisily treading water for about an hour of screen time. Let's look at the varety of the ways Iron Man 2 gets stuck in the mud:
- The first major action scene gets off to a promising start with Vanko brazenly stepping out on to a race track and using his electric whips to eviscerate Stark's car in motion, but sloppy editing lets the air out of the scene - way too much time passes with Stark cowering and bickering with cohorts while Vanko should be juicing him like John Coffey in The Green Mile.
- There are several conversations with Don Cheadle, who takes over for Terence Howard as Starks best buddy. Cheadle could not look more bored if he was reading a script for the next Oceans sequel on screen and his scenes lapse into reptitive nagging. That goes double for Pepper Potts who does nothing but turn up every ten minutes to give Tony Stark the frowny face treatment while Scarlett Johansson gets to do all the fun stuff Pepper should be doing.
- Speaking of Johansson the movie has to stop dead so we can spend time getting to know Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson's Avengers characters. I could complain at this point how studio greed damaged Iron Man 2 by insisting that it essentially run previews for future franchises right in the middle of the current one, but honestly the idea might have worked. The real problem is that it's a bad preview. I doubt anyone is going to get jazzed about an Avengers movie based on Iron Man 2 as the Avengers aren't particularly interesting or exciting and pop in mostly to tell Tony Stark to get his head out of his ass. Scarlett is provided with a decent fight scene at film's end, but what she isn't provided is a personality. Neither is Nick Fury for that matter, but luckily Sam Jackson supplies his own.
- Much screen time is given over to Justin Hammer, Stark's incompetent rival weapons manufacturer amusingly played by Sam Rockwell, and his plan to recruit Vanko to one-up Stark. Hammer is fun comic relief but he is too buffoonish to be a serious threat and his presence comes at the expense of Rourke who is reduced to tinkering with an army of Iron Men knock-offs. In the film's worst scene we are treated to a long -long- sales pitch as Justin Hammer tries to sell weapons to Don Cheadle's Lieutenant. At the point of the movie when the villian should really be putting the screws to hero - it was about this point in The Dark Knight when Maggie Gyllenhaal was being blown to bits - instead we get Sam Rockwell giving an elaborate tech demonstration with precious little relevance to the story, while Vanko hangs around a warehouse hitting robots with a wrench.
- With no bad guy activity to speak of for most of Act 2 the movie follows Tony Stark wallowing in self-pity as his health rapidly deteriorates. Downey is still wonderful in the part, but he needs more to work with and he has a drunken party scene that veers dangerously close to embarrassing.
- In what is supposed to be one of the film's dramatic high points Stark attempts to discover and synthesize a new element to save his life. This is dressed up with a lot of slick tech stuff involving Stark's computer system and ivolves some of Stark's random half-baked daddy issues, but if you look closely you will notice that dramatically nothing is happening. Stark isn't put to the test in any meaningful way, he is simply aquiring some new info. Without the neat whiz-bang effects the same plot point could have been accomplished with a trip to the library.
- In a serious miscalculation, the film's action finale involves Iron Man battling an incredibly underwhelming robot army. Look- we show up to Iron Man because we like Tony Stark and want to see him put to the test against a worthy adversary. We don't go to see him sink into routine battle with a mass of ineffectual CGI robots. The robot army here is like a bulkier version of the terrible, filmsy battle droids of the Star Wars prequels. When fifty of them start blasting away simultaneously, and do little more make the set go Boom! KaPow! behind the hero, it quickly gets deeply boring. Imagine if instead of Luke confronting Vader, The Empire Strikes Back climaxed with Vader ordering wave after wave of storm troopers after him and you get the idea.
- Rourke eventually shows up in a robot suit himself to engage in some too little, too late battle with Stark. Here I'd only ask what the point is of casting Rourke just to cover him up in a fakey robot battle suit. This should be obvious, but the more you want Rourke to be intimidating the less you cover him up.
Compare all this with the powerful, direct beats of the first film: Tony as amoral shark, Tony imprisoned, Tony perfecting Iron Man, etc., and you can see what the sequel has lost track of. I go into all this detail not because Iron Man 2 is a disaster that deserves pummeling but because there's still a lot of potential in this franchise and it can easily shake off this weak entry and rally for a strong third film. Here's hoping.
Verdict: Not a fatal misstep like Batman and Robin or the Pirates sequels, but still a cause for concern, Iron Man 2 feels like a film that has buckled under the weight of expectations. It must be difficult to maintain a lively tone when you have a dozen studio executives demanding it not only deliver for one blockbuster franchise, but for several. I suppose under those circumstances it's surprising the film is as enjoyable as it is. Favreau and company need to clear out the clutter for the next installment. This time around the franchise, like Tony Stark, has trouble keeping it together. 5 out of 10