So, is everyone looking forward to “The Avengers” next year, then? You’d better be, after Marvel Studio’s ambitious and expensive build up – five big budget superhero movies (Iron Man 1 & 2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America) establishing the principle characters in next year’s main event, The Avengers.
The big question has got to be, does anyone apart from Marvel fanboys actually give a toss? Sure, Marvel have made their money back – and then some – with the project so far, and the films so far have been an enjoyable way to kill a couple of hours.
But how excited can you get if you know the hero must survive in order to fulfill their role in The Avengers, and how excited can you get about these superheros anyway, given they are all pretty much B- and C-Listers on Marvel’s back catalogue? (As a non-comic book geek, before all this begun, I’d heard of exactly 50% of the above line up).
“Iron Man 2” opens at the conclusion of the last film as billionaire industrialist and playboy Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) announces to the world that he is Iron Man. This breaking news is watched by a dying old man in a dark, dreary Moscow apartment – he is Anton Vanko, who we will learn had a grudge against Tony’s father, Howard. The old man passes away, and his son Ivan (Mickey Rourke) sets to work, using blueprints conspicuously marked “Stark Industries”.
(Although set in the modern day, it’s interesting to note how this credit sequence clings to American Cold War-era cliches about Russia – there’s some Red Army Choir-like music on the soundtrack; it’s grey, freezing, miserable, and knee deep in snow; everyone looks poor; all there is to drink is vodka.)
Six months later, Stark has used his Iron Man suit to broker world peace; he’s as conceited and facetious as usual, and as he re-opens the expo established by his late father, appears to be a man riding the crest of a wave.
However, Stark is a man with problems – he is subpoenaed to a Washington Senate commission, led by the loathsome Senator Stern (played convincingly by the loathsome Garry Shandling), who wants him to turn his Iron Man tech over to the military.
Stark is also dying. The Palladium core of the reactor in his chest, which keeps him alive and also gives his suit all its fancy powers, is slowly poisoning him.
Despite his friend James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) being forced to testify against him, Stark manages to demonstrate projects in unfriendly countries such as North Korea and Iran to develop a similar suit are years behind – as are the experiments of rival weapons contractor, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell). As Stark modestly puts it, “I have successfully privatized world peace.”
However, as Ivan Vanko is about to spectacularly demonstrate at the Monaco Grand Prix, Stark’s assessment is grossly over-exaggerated…
“Iron Man 2” trundles along entertainingly enough without ever being as fresh or refreshing as the original. This is partly due to Stark – the man’s dying, so obviously he’s a bit down in the dumps. In the first film, most of the fun was due to the anti-heroic nature of Stark, an unrepentant hedonist and narcissist, who’s enjoying himself discovering what he can do with his indestructible flying suit. This time round, Stark’s not enjoying himself so much, so neither is the audience.
It’s also down to director Jon Favreau, who seems caught in two minds where he wants to go with this, the bridging chapter between “Iron Man” and “The Avengers”. The eventual outcome is pre-defined, but he seems unsure whether he wants to go for more of the same, and stick with the light, irreverent fun of the original, or go darker and expand on the characters, like “Spider Man 2” or “The Dark Knight”.
In the end, he doesn’t really do either, so “Iron Man 2” follows pretty much the same story arc as its predecessor, without adding on any darker psychological layers to make the characters anymore interesting.
The film has one stand out set piece, as Vanko unveils his new equipment at the Monaco Grand Prix – which Stark has decided to race in, as you do when you’re a billionaire playboy superhero who’s dying.
Mickey Rourke looks awesome, standing fearlessly in the middle of the race track, tearing cars apart with lashes of his electric whips. It is the film’s only genuinely exciting and inventive moment, and the later climax pales in comparison.
Rourke, as usual, transcends the material he is surrounded by, although is tragically under used in “Iron Man 2”. Vanko is underwritten for a supervillain, and Rockwell’s Hammer gets to do most of the talking, leaving Rourke to do most of his work with his eyes. However, Rourke does what Rourke does best – Vanko in his hands becomes a weary soul weighed down with hard won wisdom.
It would have been nice for Rourke to share more screen time with Downey Jr, to see what would happen – both men fell from grace after bright starts in their career, and fought back from obscurity to become two of today’s most interesting and watchable actors. Both seem to use their troubled pasts to inform the characters they play, no matter how well scripted or directed.
Downey Jr seems relatively restrained this time around, which perhaps is inevitable given his character is dying, so is understandably a little more introspective. His performance is never less than interesting, though, and despite the excellent cast assembled, Favreau still seems content to let the film coast along on his star’s unpredictable charisma.
Sam Rockwell has fun as Justin Hammer, a loquacious, smarmy gobshite who wants to be just like Tony Stark, only to have his ambitions trumped at every turn. Rockwell plays the part mainly for comic relief, although subtly gives the character a sinister edge – this man may not be the fool he seems.
Gwyneth Paltrow is as dependable as her character, Pepper Potts, still running around tidying up after her capricious boss, still the obvious unspoken love interest; however, this time Stark’s eye is caught by newbie Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson), hired to replace Potts when Stark promotes her to CEO.
Johansson doesn’t have much to do apart from look sultry, and plays what at first seems like a small part as transparently more than it seems. She gets to do some pretty slinky, cat-suited butt-kicking later on, when she forms an unexpectedly effective partnership with Favreau, reprising his role as Stark’s chaffeur and bodyguard Happy.
Don Cheadle has the most unforgiving role, as a man caught between duty and looking after his anguished friend; the performance comes across as rather one note, for the most part Cheadle looking like a dog does when it’s owner nips down the shops for a paper and leaves it at home.
Samuel L Jackson rolls up at one point, in the film’s most overt reference to the upcoming “Avengers”, as S.H.I.E.L.D director Nick Fury (That’s Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Department for those of you who don’t know…)
Strangely, for a big summer blockbuster, it’s the action sequences that let the movie down. All credit to Favreau for keeping the characters the main focus, but apart from the Grand Prix sequence, the action moments are the movie’s most forgettable, and the climax is the worst of the lot.
It degenerates into a flashy but unengaging punch up between Stark, Rhodes and an army of Vanko’s drone creations, and Vanko himself is dispatched with embarrassing ease. There’s no sense of danger to the characters, especially as their facial expressions to the action is registered via a disembodied “in helmet” shot – their face against a black background, with the suit’s dials and read outs projected against it. As a result, the ending falls flat, with a disappointing shoulder shrug rather than a big bang finale.
“Iron Man 2” is a friendly and non-threatening way to while away a couple of hours – but then, it’s nice occasionally to have a superhero movie that doesn’t feel the need to go all dark and broody (“The Dark Knight”, “Watchmen”, etc). Having said that, without that psychological edge for non-superhero fans, isn’t it all just comic books?