IRON MAN 2: The Point Is You’re Welcome, I Guess

Iron Man 2 (2010) – The 3rd Marvel Cinematic Universe Film – Directed by Jon Favreu – Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jon Favreau, Clark Gregg, John Slattery, Leslie Bibb, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara, and Gary Shandling.

I have a pet theory when it comes to why sequels sometimes suck.

I’m trying to come up with a clever name for this theory. It’s always a good idea to bash Joel Schumacher in these instances for foisting the Batcrap films on us, so I’ve toyed with calling it Schumacheritis, but then I remember that Batman Returns looks a lot better when you compare it to Batman Forever and Batman and Robin rather than Tim Burton’s first Batman movie.

Burton’s second Bat film is a step down, too, though it never becomes an outright embarrassment. Looking back on it, however (and I’m going to go through all the Batman films in the near future, so maybe I’ll revise this), he falls victim to the same traps that plague many sequels, which is a desire to basically trap the same magic from the last film in a similar bottle, while unnecessarily upping the ante by adding additional villains (if one villain was great, let’s give the sequel two!) or secondary characters (why just have Robin when you can have Robin and Batgirl!) or basically just overdoing whatever people liked about the first film in the follow-up.

What really hurts sequels, though, according to my pet theory, is that they are simply no longer an unexpected event and so because we’re overly familiar with the original (which is probably two or three years old by the time the sequel hits the theater) a film that just tries to replicate that old magic is going to be about as successful as a reheated dinner – it might still be good, but it’s not going to compare favorably to how it tasted freshly prepared.

While no generalization is going to be a universal truth, I think the sequels that are generally equal to, or better, than the original tend to either find some new way to be a stand-alone event film or to push an actual, overall story forward. Probably the best example of the former is James Cameron’s Aliens, which follows Ridley Scott’s moody, quiet horror flick with a thunderous actioner. We still get what we love about the first film (the aliens, Sigourney Weaver) but we get it in a different package. For the latter, there’s plenty of examples that were either designed to be multi-part stories (the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings franchises) or capitalized on the success of the opening film to craft a more satisfying story (Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2). It is the rare film that manages to be both an event in its own right and a better story, but then, that’s why The Empire Strikes Back is so beloved. Empire manages to be an event in its own right by 1. new characters like Yoda and Lando that were every bit as interesting as the original characters, 2. new locations like Hoth and Bespin, 3. dramatic events like the dismantling of C-3P0 and carbonization of Han that weren’t simply repeats of the first movie, and 4. most importantly, subtly switching the main character from Luke to Han, which served to advance the overall story, making it an important chapter and not just another movie.

All of which is prelude to saying that IRON MAN 2 is a film caught between being a Replication Event and one that pushes the story forward. The result is a film that is feels a bit like reheated pizza – it’s still the best option in the fridge, but it’s not what it was last night.

All of the elements of a Replication Event are here – there’s more of Tony Stark’s snarkiness, more of exasperated but competent Pepper Potts, more Iron Man (with the advent of War Machine), more Rhodey (albeit played by a new actor), more villainous suits of armor (WAr Machine, Whiplash and his platoon of armored drones), more villains (Vanko and Justin Hammer), more hot women (Leslie Bibb is back, and Kate Mara and Scarlet Johansson are added to the cast), more Nick Fury, more Avengers name dropping, and another post-credit bonus scene to build the Avengers film franchise. Heck, there’s even more Happy Hogan and, to show that the filmmakers apparently thought snarkiness was a big key to the first film’s success, the heaviness of Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane is replaced by Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer, who is basically Stark-Snark Lite.

It’s to the credit of the actors, writer, and director that despite all of that reheated pizza, it’s still pretty darn enjoyable.

Why it works holds a lot to Robert Downey, Jr.’s undeniable charm. While there’s plenty to be said about how the movie Tony Stark is different than the comic Tony Stark (which, again, I don’t care about – I have the comics and I have an imagination, I don’t need the movies to act out the books), what Downey’s portrayal has in common with the comics is Stark’s seductiveness. I’m not just talking about with the ladies, either, but with men who shouldn’t put up with his crap. Downey’s Stark is Esquire’s wet dream – the affluent, snarky guy that can get any woman he wants to sleep with him and any guy he wants to be loyal.

(Traditionally, the comics Stark is more like GQ’s wet dream: the affluent professional with a few personal demons who every classy woman wants to be with and every man wants to be.)

Marvel has shown that they have no qualms about changing actors to play even leading roles in their films – there’s been three Hulks cast (Eric Bana, Edward Norton, Mark Ruffalo) and two James Rhodes (Terence Howard and Cheadle), and even the non-Marvel controlled Marvel properties are giving us new faces in old roles – but this is going to be extremely difficult to do with Tony Stark because this version is so much about Downey. It’s been easy to change Bruce Banner around because the film Banners have been rather vanilla and traditional, but the filmic Stark is uniquely Downey’s; heck, they can’t even pull it off in Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and there they only need a vocal actor.

Downey is every bit as good in IRON MAN 2 as he was in Iron Man, but it’s no longer a new portrayal and so it has that slightly warmed-over feeling to it. I remember reading some reviews or hearing some friends talk when the film came out saying that Downey was kinda mailing his performance in, that there wasn’t the energy here that there was last time around. I think that misses the point that IM 2’s Stark is supposed to a bit tired and frayed and out of control, and thus he’s supposed to have that been-here, done-that feeling to it. It’s easy to put that on Downey, even though he’s giving the exact performance required by this role. (And I’m not saying you have to like the performance or the decision, I’m just trying to explain what I think is going on.) The key scene in IM 2 to understanding Stark is his self-destructive birthday party where he gets drunk and shoots bottles of champagne out of the air to impress bubble-headed (and -chested) socialites and fights with an armor-wearing Rhodey.

Like the first film, IM 2 is about Stark digging himself out of a hole; the difference is that the first film put him in a hole of someone else’s making while this time around it’s self-induced. Last movie had him fighting to overcome his physical ailments and this movie has him surrendering to them.

The birthday meltdown causes his friends to freeze him out, even if they all know it won’t last. Tony has signed CEO duties over to Pepper and she doesn’t have time for the actual Tony Stark because she’s too busy putting out the fires Tony Stark has caused. Rhodey is torn between his duty to country and his loyalty to Tony, but when Tony fails in his eyes to live up to the responsibility of wearing the suit, he steals an unpainted suit and brings it to the military.

Unlike Downey, Cheadle disappears inside of his suit. His version of Rhodey is much more parent-like to Stark as opposed to Terence Howard’s more brotherly portrayal. I think it’s a mistake. I understand wanting a male parental figure for Stark given the way Howard Stark is dead but not forgotten (he exits through old film footage) but that role is filled much more fittingly by Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury, who has the gravitas and the cool to not only stand up to Stark but kick him in the ass.

Fury is elevated from post-credits easter egg to in-movie secondary character and in just a few scenes does what you want Nick Fury to do – he’s cooler than you, he’s tougher than you, he’s playing a game of chess with you and he’s five moves ahead, he’s going to get you to do what he wants, and as much as he might need you, he’s going to convince you he doesn’t need you but you need him. It’s all about leverage and knowing when to push and when to pull. When Stark is wallowing post-birthday party, it’s Fury who arrives to dress him down and challenges him to push himself up, giving Stark some of his father’s materials. It’s perfect Fury. He could’ve given that suitcase of old reels and plans to Tony at any time but he chooses this time, when Stark is at his lowest, to give it to him because that’s best for Fury.

Their final scene sees Fury doing his “pull” routine. He leaves some Avengers files out on the table and when Stark picks them up, he arrives to take them away. Stark now wants in, so Fury tells him he doesn’t want him, just Iron Man. Even when he gets what he wants, he’s leveraging you for more.

Scarlett Johansson is a bit of a non-factor. She looks fantastic and she does what the part requires (even if her fight scene is a bit weak), but she doesn’t have the hardness to hang with Stark and Fury, so she ends up being more window dressing than an integral part of the film. This is partly on her and partly on the conception of the character, a SHIELD spy working undercover in Tony’s office to spy on him so she can report to Fury about the possibility of him joining the Avengers. While she does get to kick a bit of ass at the end of the film, the character is more passive than active, sent to observe and report, which makes her less womanly and a bit girlish. Her fights scenes feel more orchestrated than natural and you don’t get the sense that she can kick whomever’s ass comes around that next corner, but rather that she can kick whomever’s ass happens to get their face in the way of her boot which she’s going to swing in 5 … 4 … 3 … (wait for it) … 1.

In contrast, Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson is one of the highlights of the film, with Gregg’s dry wit making this administrative suit stand easily alongside Stark’s super-genius. Charged by Fury with keeping Stark focused, Coulson tells Stark he’ll “taze you and watch Supernanny as you’re drooling on the carpet” if Tony tries to leave the premises. Later, when Stark is fully invested in his project, it’s Coulson who notices an early prototype of Captain America’s shield amidst all of Howard Stark’s stuff. “Where did you get this? Do you have any idea what this is?” he asks Stark, who’s only interest in the damaged shield is that it’s the perfect size to prop up his invention.

It’s Coulson, too, who gets the post-credits scene this time, driving through the New Mexico desert to confirm an intelligence report. (Which is nonsense that Fury would send a suit to drive out into the middle of desert instead of using a spy satellite, but whatever.) “Sir, we found it,” he tells Fury over the phone as the camera pulls back to reveal Thor’s hammer resting in the sand.

Sam Rockwell and Mickey Rourke are both passable as villains; Rockwell has the personality and Rourke has the … uh … grunting in Russian. Seriously, I watched the movie late at night so I kept the volume down to not bug my neighbors (who have the temerity to be sleeping at 2 in the morning), but I couldn’t understand half the things he mumbled. It’s like he learned his Russian accent from Rocky and Bullwinkle and then slowed everything down and garbled everything up. Anyway, he’s all in a bad mood because his daddy said Howard Stark stole his ideas, so he reads some comics and decides to be part-Whiplash, part-Crimson Dynamo and destroy some race cars.

Rockwell’s Justin Hammer is a great villain because he’s really not a great villain. Not only is there no sense that he has anywhere near the ability to take over a small municipality let alone the world (not that his goal is that grand), but Hammer comes off more desperate than diabolical. It’s really an interesting take on a villain in a big budget film, where filmmakers are always trying to make their villains more deadly and dangerous and equal to the hero. IM 2 doesn’t even attempt this move; their Hammer is openly inferior to Stark and that complex drives him to bust Rourke’s Vanko out of prison and then turn on him when he’s not getting the results he wants.

Honestly, though, the best villain in the piece is Gary Shandling’s Senator Stern.

Yeah, say that again. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that no one anywhere ever said that Gary Shandling would one day be one of the most awesome parts of a superhero movie, but Shandling is brilliant as the grandstanding, publicly phony politician.

There’s a story in here about Vanko’s armor-fueled quest for revenge and Stark dying because he can’t fix his heart and it’s a solid story, but IRON MAN 2 is really about the characters and what happens to them, about the damage they inflict on themselves and the complications that come from being involved in Tony Stark’s life more than it’s about Vanko’s destructive revenge plot.

It’s the filmmakers’ decision to concentrate on the characters (even if quips are often more important than any real developmental arc for the secondary characters) that makes IRON MAN 2 work. Jon Favreau might not make the kind of films that will win him awards, but he’s an A-list director that has not only created a mega-money franchise out of an unexpected character but set the blueprint for all Marvel-controlled movies.

He might not win awards, but he makes movies I want to watch, and watch again, and watch again. Visually sharp, brilliantly paced, never losing sight of the fact that his movies are entertainment, there isn’t anyone who makes movies for the masses any better than Favreau does.

IRON MAN 2 doesn’t have the impact that Iron Man did, but it’s still a darn fine movie that delivers from start to finish.

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2 thoughts on “IRON MAN 2: The Point Is You’re Welcome, I Guess

  1. I had the opposite feeling about Cheadle’s portrayal of Rhodey. I felt like even when he was lecturing Stark, you got the sense that they were actually friends. With Howard, it felt too much like he actively disliked Stark, I felt no real bond of friendship between them. His Rhodey felt far too much, ironically as he referred to himself in the plane scene, as Stark’s babysitter.

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