I loved Iron Man. I never thought I would, I was always much more of a DC/Batman fan, than a fan of any of the Marvel heroes (apart from the perpetually mismanaged Hulk). Sure, Spiderman was fun, and X-Men gave us the character of Wolverine as a decent superhero interpretation at least, but Iron Man wasn’t even really on my radar. Yet with his prominence in the superior Ultimate Avengers comic series, as well as the massively popular 2008 film adaptation, that soon changed. Not only did Iron Man reinvigorate Robert Downey Jr.’s on-the-rocks career, but it also proved that Marvel stood a chance against the might of D.C.’s Chris Nolan Batman interpretations.
Of course, given the unexpected success of Iron Man, a sequel was fast-tracked, with Director Jon Favreau returning to helm the film. Released as a 2010 summer blockbuster, it boasted not only the return of Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow, but also an assortment of big names new to the franchise, including Sam Rockwell, Don Cheadle and Scarlett Johansson. With a bigger part for Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, as well as Mickey Rourke as the lead villain, fresh off the back of his own on-the-rocks career lull, my hopes were understandably high. Unfortunately, I have to say that I left the theatre pretty disappointed. It may have been bigger, louder, with grander effects and more famous supporting stars, but it just wasn’t held together as well as the outstanding first movie. Bloated, overlong, and anticlimactic, I wished that I’d waited until its home entertainment release to watch it on the small screen instead. So now, 6 months down the line, I finally have the opportunity to revisit the indisputably successful sequel. The question is, has my opinion changed – is the movie actually any better than I originally thought?
All-but unique amidst his superhero peers because of two main facets: he has no superpowers (much like DC’s Batman) and his true identity – billionaire weapons developer Tony Stark – is known to the public, Iron Man 2 kicks off by reminding us of the fateful press conference where Stark revealed to the world that he was Iron Man. We are then introduced to Ivan Vanko, the son of a Russian scientist who worked with Tony’s father, Howard Stark. Hearing the news about the real identity of Iron Man, Vanko begins working on his own variation of the highly advanced arc reactor, as well as some kind of suit which will be powered by it. Meanwhile Tony is dealing with his own issues: the military pressuring him to reveal the technology behind the Iron Man suit, his age and alcohol problems starting to become a factor, complicated by the publicity surrounding his known alter-go, and – as the icing on the cake – also finding out that the arc reactor plugged into his chest may just be poisoning him slowly to death. With a nefarious arms designer and dealer backing a new nemesis for Stark – Vanko’s creation: Whiplash – who he has also hired to help create a fleet of drone Iron Man duplicates for military use, will Tony be able to stay up on top of everything, or will his whole world come crumbling down right in front of his eyes?
There are a lot of good ideas in Iron Man 2 – some decent story arcs, one decent villain, one good superhero partner for Stark, one good love interest and one reasonably good ending – but they are largely lost amidst a flurry of doubling-up efforts on the part of the filmmakers. Rather than just stick to the basics and get them right, the main story is submerged, almost incoherently, under a sea of meandering – at times downright boring – subplots, and extraneous secondary characters. Stark’s discovery that he could be poisoning himself with his own self-designed life-support system was enough by itself, but instead we have to watch him having an embarrassing mid-life crisis. Vanko’s vengeance-seeking Russian supervillain, Whiplash, makes for a uniquely well-developed entry in the hall of comic book adaptation bad guys, but is diluted somewhat by the presence of the mischievous, scheming defence contractor, Justin Hammer, who seems little more than a younger version of the villain from the first movie. The perpetually endearing Pepper Potts was also overshadowed by the introduction of the mysterious Natasha Romanov, a totally unnecessary extra character, herself a part of yet another superfluous sub-plot, this time involving Nick Fury’s covert S.H.I.E.L.D. group, and its plans for Tony Stark’s Iron Man. Even the film’s explosive climax is dragged out – rather than keeping it simple and just having a solid face-off between hero and villain (which is in there, somewhere) – we instead get a protracted effects-laden chase through the skies between numerous CG-rendered robots.
Iron Man 2 is basically a lesson in overkill and overindulgence: too many writers having too much money to make their dreams come true – ideas which, independently, may have worked quite well, but which come together to form little more than a disjointed mess. I mean, honestly, who thought it would be a good idea to have a drunk Tony Stark, dressed up in his Iron Man suit for a raucous party, facing off against his friend, Colonel Rhodes, who just happens to have stolen Stark’s prototype War Machine suit? I would have been happy if they had ripped that entire scene out of the film. Even if it would not have cured the production of all its woes, it would have made a big dent in the more cringe-worthy aspects.
Which is not to say that this film is bad by any means, just that I am perhaps being more critical because of the high standards that its predecessor set. Iron Man was enjoyable from start to finish – arguably one of the best comic book origin story adaptations ever made – and it’s just a shame that its sequel has so much good going for it, but is actually dragged down by all the bad, extraneous stuff that they shouldn’t have left in.
And there are plenty of good elements in the production. Robert Downey Jr. returns to this project, and is on great form. Playing one of the most arrogant comic personas invented, the actor still manages to bring him to life with both enough panache and vulnerability to make him undeniably likeable. I still didn’t like the drunk party scene – it seemed petty for even Tony Stark – but, other than that, Downey Jr.’s contribution is surely one of the best reasons to watch this movie (as with the first one).
At the opposite end of the spectrum we get Oscar-contender Mickey Rourke, his recent comeback now going full-throttle, following on from his excellent contribution to Sin City, his Oscar-nominated performance in The Wrestler and his work on the (admittedly otherwise disappointing) ensemble actioner, The Expendables. Rourke will probably go down in history as the actor who has gone to the greatest lengths to make a comic book supervillain realistic. Even Sir Ian McKellen would be amazed, and whilst I appreciate that this is not quite the best place for Rourke to work his magic, it certainly does show in the end result – his emotional scenes resonate, his character has significant depth, his Russian accent (and spoken Russian words) seem amongst the best I have heard a Western actor ever pull off (compare it to Sean Connery in The Hunt for Red October!!) and he truly brings the villain to life. Unfortunately, despite doing his best, he can’t help but get smothered by the aforementioned extra sub-plots and unnecessary characters. Still, it’s another performance that adds to the list of reasons to actually watch this movie.
Don Cheadle – unceremoniously replacing Terrence Howard as Stark’s buddy, Rhodey – is undoubtedly a class actor, and a better actor than Howard, but he is far from pushed by the material, trying his best to get something out of the lines and bigger character part in this sequel, but often failing, unfortunately. Gwyneth Paltrow is loveliness personified, a really elegant, sweetheart, and perfect for the part of the gorgeous redhead Pepper Potts, Tony Stark’s beleaguered personal assistant. She fares much better in this movie, particularly with an enlarged role, and her will-it-ever-happen romance with Tony is a joy to hang on tenterhooks for. Conversely, the addition of Scarlett Johannsson as Avengers character (and S.H.I.E.L.D. operative) Black Widow is really pretty worthless. I’m not going to dispute the allure of Johannson’s curves and seductive pouting lips, but honestly she has no place here – and the movie would have fared better had her entire character arc been ripped right out. In fact, with Samuel L. Jackson’s increased part in this movie, we really didn’t need another S.H.I.E.L.D. operative (and sort-of love interest) to cloud the waters. Utterly superfluous.
Sam Rockwell? Don’t even get me started. Great actor – have you seen Moon?? – but here he brings an out-of-place character to life in an unbelievable, positively silly fashion. Neither menacing, nor enigmatic, his contribution is reminiscent of Jason Patrick’s odd turn in the underrated actioner The Losers – only Rockwell completely misses the mark.
Still, we’re drifting back into the bad stuff, so let’s look at the action, and see if we can turn things round. Iron Man offered up just the right amount of action and grand-standing effects sequences in amidst a solid storyline. Clearly the Law of Sequels dictated that Iron Man 2 should be bigger and louder, but that does not always mean better. Here we do get a few great sequences – including a nice showdown between Iron Man, War Machine and a bunch of drones; and a climactic battle with Whiplash – but the best scene has got to be the very first action segment: the Grand Prix confrontation. Noticeably combining practical and visual effects (always a better option than just going full CGI), this great introduction to Whiplash, as well as the new Iron Man suitcase suit, is action cinema at its absolute best. Sure, there are a couple of silly moments – both Stark and Vanko are suppose to be human, so neither would have walked away unscathed from some of the blows here (being hit by a car, anyone?) – but largely it is an excellent sequence, totally in-line with the best that Iron Man has to offer. It’s just a shame that things get out of hand later on in the production, the effects getting the better of the climax, and padding out the supposedly climactic section totally unnecessarily.
All in all, there is quite a bit to draw you to Iron Man 2, and a fair amount that can be enjoyed within the production, but there are far too many unnecessary bits – drunk party scenes and over-the-top effects chase segments, as well as totally extraneous sub-plots – which will dilute your enjoyment of the movie as much as they dilute the impact of the decent main story-arcs and two solid central characters. I still think fans of Iron Man are going to be disappointed that Iron Man 2 goes a bit too far in the wrong direction, sacrificing streamlined, solid story in favour of silly scenes and grandiose effects. However, if you accept that this is not quite a perfect sequel, you will likely find plenty to enjoy here, and the movie is definitely much more accessible on the home entertainment format than it was trapped in the cinema to watch it on the Big Screen. Big, noisy, occasionally dumb but usually quite good fun, fans shouldn’t try and resist checking this out, they should just go into it with marginally lowered expectations. Some tighter editing and fewer characters could have left this a perfect Dark Knight-of-a-sequel, but, as is, it’s still a nice shot, and undeniably entertaining viewing.
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