Robert Downey Jr. Flies Again for Marvel Studios.
In anticipation of Marvel Studios IRON MAN 3, opening Friday (in case you haven’t heard!), I present my original opening weekend reviews of the first two films of the series. My review of the first IRON MAN film can be found here.
DIRECTED BY JON FAVREAU/2010
If we’ve learned anything from the deluge of Marvel movies in the past decade, it’s this: Film two of most of their series’ will be the high point, the apex, the pinnacle – just before the series in question crashes and burns with film three (if it gets that far). Consider the evidence: Spider-Man 2. X2: X-Men United. Even the second Fantastic Four film was superior to its predecessor – although that’s not saying much. So, considering that Jon Favreau’s Iron Man has been in many ways the most solid example of a Marvel comic book come to life, and the fact that most of the core talent of that film has returned for the sequel, it’s reasonable to have high expectations for said sequel. In many ways, those expectations are met, but on the whole, Iron Man 2 is a mixed bag of nuts and bolts.
The first Iron Man film, which showcased Robert Downey Jr. in his career-rebirthing role as the magnetic but reckless billionaire industrialist Tony Stark, remains one of the most accessible and likeable summer blockbusters of the decade. Favreau and company are well aware of this, and are simply too eager to please with Iron Man 2. It appears that in an effort to have the sequel out quickly, as it fits into Marvel Productions master plan in which all roads lead to an all-star hero-filled Avengersfilm, the screenplay (by Justin Theroux) was rushed. As a result, despite the numerous wow-worthy set pieces and highly enjoyable performances, the narrative connective tissue is threadbare at best throughout the film. This is an unquestionably fun film, but those looking for fleshed-out character motivations and solid plot logic will be left wanting.
The story begins six months after Stark memorably ended the previous film by publicly outing himself as the armored avenger. He is now a celebrated hero worldwide – and he’s loving every minute of it. But privately, Stark secretly knows that the very technological marvel that once saved his life and made him who he is today is also slowly killing him. Borrowing a page from Mark Millar’s excellent “The Ultimates” comics, the film gives us a terminally ill Tony Stark. It is this illness that puts him on the road to his “demon in a bottle” moment in the film, in which his presumed alcoholism and personal recklessness come to a head at his embarrassingly drunken birthday party.
Based upon the evidence of Tony Stark’s shortcomings in film one, these actions are not out of character or surprising. But the story lacks finesse, dumping us from one major point to another without adequate build-up. So when Stark’s military buddy Rhodey (played by Don Cheadle, and who’s been depicted as a bit of a pushover up to this point) shows up at the party barking out orders and wearing one of Stark’s earlier armors, it feels like the most overblown intervention of all time. (And that’s before the ensuing battle and its righteous property damage.) Other important story elements, including a “sins of the fathers” aspect, are touched upon and visited just enough to be functional, but lack the impact they otherwise might’ve had.
Interesting characters come and go throughout the film, most of them just compelling enough to be frustrating. Scarlett Johansson’s mysterious Black Widow heroine is awesome in her token action scene, but on the whole, she remains a woman of mystery – and that’s it. Even more of a mystery (particularly for those who didn’t sit through the closing credits of Iron Man for his introductory scene) is Samuel L. Jackson’s covert ops higher-up Nick Fury. Midway through the film, Fury wanders in, all Basil-Exposition-y, as though we are expected to know who he is and what he’s all about via some sort of fanboy osmosis.
Both of the villains of the film reflect different, skewed aspects of Tony Stark’s character. Mickey Rourke is an inventor every bit as brilliant as Stark, but, being a poor Russian, lacks the resources at Stark’s easy disposal. Of course, had Stark’s father not wronged Vanko’s father back in the old days, maybe things would be different. And that’s why Vanko is p.o.ed, and decides to wield electric whips and wreak havoc on an unsuspecting world, starting with a grand prix race that Tony just happens to end up in. (Another unexplained plot contrivance, but just go with it.) Vanko ends up working for a second-rate industrialist competitor of Stark named Justin Hammer, played with weird gusto by Sam Rockwell. Rockwell’s Hammer, with his hammy quips and huckster demeanor, comes off as an irritating Tony Stark wannabe. Granted, this is probably the intention of the filmmakers, but I can’t help but recall the misstep of Tommy Lee Jones trying to out-Jim Carrey Jim Carrey in Batman Forever all those years ago.
Despite its flaws, there is a lot to like about Iron Man 2. Like the first film, this continues to be the Robert Downey Jr. show (even with regular upstaging threats from Rourke and Rockwell). And that is as it should be. There is no denying that this franchise owes its success to its leading man just as much as the actor owes his career rebirth to the original film. The fact that it’s often impossibly hard to differentiate where Downey ends and Stark begins is one of the best examples of a great actor completely inhabiting a role, and making it wholly his own. This aspect of the Iron Man films is vital to their success both commercially and artistically.
In one of many meta-moments connecting the character with the actor, Stark references the myth of the phoenix early on. Like Stark at this point in the film, Downey Jr. is on top of the world, and it just feels right. Let’s hope that his inevitable returns to the character in any further sequels and Avengers films will continue this characteristic. But let us also hope that Marvel allows the filmmakers enough time to iron out the screenplays more successfully than they did for this one. Iron Man 2 may not be typical of second Marvel films in that it does not surpass the original, but that said, very few will likely walk away completely dissatisfied.
This piece was originally posted on May 7, 2010 at TwitchFilm.org.