Iron Man 2
Directed by John Favreau
The first Iron Man movie a couple of years ago was a hit with the public and press alike; it was a fun, exuberant, blockbusting romp that stood in almost binary opposition to the lurking Dark Knight behemoth and its allusions to the War on Terror, the disintegration of civil rights in periods of duress, and the unintended blowback from asymmetrical warfare on elusive foes. Iron Man’s insinuations were less opaque, it firmly set its arrogant hero amidst the threat of Middle Eastern extremism and Tony Stark was less wracked with doubt and guilt on the exercise of overwhelming firepower to achieve his aims. The inevitable sequel was granted a limited European release last weekend to mixed reviews and some curious readings of its cultural cache, its alleged subtexts on the use of power and technology in the era of a new incumbent in the White House - a recurrent theme of cultural commentators since the first Star Trek re-boot emerged as the quintessential Obama film with all its multiculturally blazing optimistic vigor. Iron Man 2 suffers from a distinct cast of sequelitis. It is unfocused, messy and clumsily handled, and alas much of the charm and wit that the original employed to win over its viewers is largely absent.
On the surface, things are going well for Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and his technological titan Stark Industries as he unveils a scintillatingly prestigious World Expo in New York, an event akin to a Led Zeppelin reunion concert crossed with the latest corporate extravaganza from Steve Jobs. Loved by the public and media alike, Tony is seen as being personally responsible for ushering in an unrivalled period of world peace, but beneath the surface, things are falling apart. The introduction of the Iron Man weapon has triggered a secret arms race with North Korea and Iran working on similar prototypes, the film’s only nod to operating in any sort of metaphorical guise. The US executive is attempting to co-opt the battle-suit technology to ensure its military superiority in this brave new world, benefits against Tony’s protestations. More insidiously, Stark’s health is seriously deteriorating, his blood being incrementally poisoned by the energy consumption that his advanced pacemaker requires to keep him alive. Threats of a more tangible nature are evident in the figure of Whiplash (an incomprehensible Mickey Rourke), a Russian super-villain who craves revenge on the Stark dynasty after his fathers contributions to the firm were sidelined by Tonys father twenty years ago which left him exiled in a Soviet gulag. A coup is being engineered by the pernicious Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) to seize the Iron Man technology and accelerate his career in the Pentagon, his teaming up with the spiteful Whiplash to achieve their intertwined ambitions provoking a serious threat to our heroes ambitions. Gwyneth Paltrow is back as Pepper Pots and Don Cheadle usurps Terrence Howards role as Lt. Colonel Rhodey (one improvement from the first film, as Cheadle is far more interesting and amusing) whilst new blood is introduced to the franchise in the form of Natasha Rushman (a pneumatic Scarlett Johansson), an enigmatic lawyer in Stark Industries who may or may not be what she seems – I don’t think I’m alone in considering her as easily the film’s most spectacular special effect.
There’s a lot going on and that’s probably the film’s main failing. Robert Downey Jr’s charisma, which centered the original installment, is seriously lacking in the sequel. He really was the charming trump card of the first film and his mumbling delivery of humor-free dialogue pales in comparison to the original’s chemistry. The plot trajectory is nebulous at best, and the film is plagued with mostly confused scene arrangements that map the course of the film’s two hour run time. The main failing, though, is what exactly you want to see from big blockbusters such as this: an expectation that a big Hollywood franchise can at least deliver on the action material and mind boggling SFX which are simultaneously cool and exciting to the general public and fan-boy community alike. In Iron Man 2 the CGI is mostly efficient and provides the requisite eye-candy, but the set pieces (with one exception) are insipid and dull – the Grand Prix sequence covered in the trailers is anemic and to keep things spoiler free I won’t detail any of the other kinetic moments, suffice to say they don’t manage to achieve much in the way of interest or intoxication. Predominantly, the film lurks in a zombielike paralysis, with not even the presence of the usually excellent Sam Rockwell salvaging the interest vacuum that has developed over the preceding ninety minutes of screen time.
While the film improves dramatically in the last twenty five minutes or so (some discerning gags materialize, some excitement is generated throughout the final showdown, we eventually see the Black Widow strut her stuff and some clever toying with the superhero genre emerge), holistically it is all too little too late as there is no emotional investment in what’s at stake. In fact, there is very little idea of anything being in jeopardy or what the consequences of defeat for our heroes would be. No doubt the fan-boy community will enjoy some juvenile agitation at seeing Iron Man, Black Widow and Sgt. Fury exchange pleasantries in a brief diner set scene (I certainly did), and there is a nod toward another imminent superhero series in one flippant moment. For those of you so inclined, be sure to stick around for a brief coda after the credits which sets up the next franchise and provides another step forward to the hugely anticipated Avengers movie.
Iron Man 2 is not a disaster of Daredevil, Elektra or Incredible Hulk re-boot proportions. but it does flounder on a simple, visceral entertainment level, and the Marvel boffins are seriously going to have to up the ante to match their Disgruntled Competition’s recent big screen triumphs.
- John McEntee