May 8, 2010

Review: The Power of 'Iron Man 2' – A Hot Mess

Iron Man 2 is mostly forgettable, disposable fun, executed slickly with a ton of moving parts. Robert Downey, Jr. is Iron Man and his stellar supporting cast elevate the film from its muddled plot mechanics. This intrepid superhero sequel follow up to actor turned director Jon Favreau's acclaimed superhero romp, is bigger and more audacious, but that ambition ultimately hurts the film's structure particularly in the film's weak second act and underdeveloped finale. Something about the film just falls flat, lacking a certain charm from the original. Marvel seems to be going for a more serialized, elaborate comic book feel for the film that is a bit unbalanced.

Things start off at a terribly breakneck pace going from Moscow to New York to Washington to Monaco and Malibu, which is fun, but never letting up for any kind of fluid buildup until the second act grounds to a halt as nothing happens and there is a long stretch without any sustained action. The early anti-climatic battle that ends the first act, while thrilling, really throws off the momentum of the film as the threat level never rises up to that level again as characters never feel in much immediate danger.

Too much is going on and none of it is really compelling enough as the film constantly shifts focus. Things start off with Mickey Rourke as the Russian Ivan Vanko at his father's deathbed with a clichéd scream of anguish into the camera. This was a less than thrilling start as the motivation of Rourke's Vanko is rushed as he swears revenge Stark. Vanko's arc mirrors Tony's in the first film with shots of suit and armour building sped up considerably and lacking a needed dramatic weight and buildup. Rourke pulls off a nice villainous turn with a turn of quirk and great, understated menace playing the role straight in an ultra serious manner.

Tony Stark's greatest opponent in the film is himself. There is a nod to the Demon in a Bottle storyline, but it does not pay off with other contrivances that evoke alcoholism and depression, instead. The villains and threats come from within, as Tony Stark the famous playboy, gets ever more bloated and destructive under the massive weight of his own ego.

Sam Rockwell really steals the film and saves it from becoming overwrought with his stellar and entertaining performance as the scheming rival weapons industrial, Justin Hammer. Rockwell plays a weaselly, impotent, manic version of Stark as a jealous snake oil salesman. Rockwell, dare I say it, outfoxes Robert Downey Jr.'s performance as he is just as compelling and vibrant in his three piece suit as Downey is in his many suits of armour. Although Downey is very good and just as fun to watch as he continues to step up his turn as eccentric Tony Stark.

The way Gwyneth Paltrow as the straight woman, Pepper Potts, interacts with Downey is golden. Unfortunately, she is relegated to the background as the new characters dominate the film. Her and Downey's chemistry bubbles on screen. Parts of the film play as a screwball comedy complete with a ridiculously wild drunken party that comes out of nowhere. Don Cheadle is morose and earnest as Rhodey, but not nearly as playful as Terence Howard (who he replaces) was. Cheadle does impress as the sidekick War Machine in his own Iron Man suit. However, the way he gets his suit of armour and develops his skills makes little sense. What took Stark the entire first film to do in mastering the Iron Man suit, Rhodey does in a few minutes.

Scarlett Johannson does a serviceable job as Stark's assistant but really thrills in her brief action sequences donning a tight catsuit as Black Widow. Her action scenes are incredible and breathtaking. However, she and Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury have zero character development and show up with little to do. Jackson's scenes kill any momentum the film tries to build up in terms of an internal mythology. Iron Man 2 seems to exist entirely to setup other Marvel films like Thor, Captain America, and the eventual team up of The Avengers. The references to the superhero organization S.H.I.E.L.D. make no sense for those not dialed in on the Marvel Universe as nobody explains what Fury or Black Widow are doing and why.

The plot takes wild feats of fancy without adhering to an internal logic or underlying reality set in the first film as it truly builds to a greater universe of characters. The filmmakers tried to solve most of the script and pacing problems by throwing money and talent at the screen and they largely get away with it, but scenes lag nonetheless. All the individual scenes play out well and are good, but as a whole, the film just does not connect entirely.

"They had no script, man." Those were the words of Jeff Bridges, who portrayed the villainous Iron Monger, describing the filming process of Iron Man. Favreau and Downey again use improvisation and constant reworking and revision of the story. This worked for the first film but that kind of fluid, on-the-fly filmmaking cannot last and sustain a whole franchise with this kind of framework and mythology, especially when it is trying so hard to spin-off a host of other tangentially related films. The first film was lightning in a bottle and trying to replicate that success only two years after the original on a rushed production schedule was an unenviable task.

This time around, Iron Man 2 had a single screenwriter who crafted the script throughout production. Actor turned screenwriter, Justin Theroux (Tropic Thunder), is the sole credited writer and his relatively new status as a Hollywood screenwriter shows as the second act severely suffers. Theroux's script does borrow heavily from a few comic book story lines, but mashes them together haphazardly. There is still a lot to like here, but not much to really love. The film is driven and propelled by the likeable personalities of the talented cast of actors.

Iron Man 2 tries to be bigger and bolder than its predecessor in every way, which proves to be a dangerous notion. It suffers from the pressures of improving and building upon on the first entry. Iron Man 2 both benefits and detracts from its filmmaking by committee style at Marvel Studios as introducing elements that will be paid off in other films gets annoying. The sequel very much continues off of the first, instead of forging itself on its own. Iron Man 2 is kind of a mixed bag of ideas of little substance and genre clichés but is still executed with polish and wit as a sort of self-aware sequel that provides adequate thrills and a good time. It sinks, soars, and floats on the likability, talent, and charm of its cast and crew.

In the original, Favreau sort of embraced the perils of the origin story that gave that film a tight sense of development and exposition that the sequel lacks. But as genre fare, it does away with mindless action in favour of maintaining character development. It is a true comic book film as it drives straightforwardly with a mass framework of characters, plots, and world building that is one segment of a larger tapestry. Iron Man 2 is a lot of fun but it could have easily been much more.

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