SPOILERS INCLUDED – YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!
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Let’s be clear: Iron Man 2 is not going to change the way movies are made or force anyone to wax philosophical or prompt tweets about how much better living in Pandora would be, as another highly-anticipated and over-hyped sci-fi movie did this past winter. However, it may ease a few fears in Hollywood about the sophomore sequel slump and should solidify Iron Man as one of movie-dom’s most bankable franchises, revving up the anticipation for Thor, Captain America and the mother of all exercises in ego management, The Avengers.
Why? Because it’s good. It’s a superhero sequel that actually manages to be entertaining, advancing the story of the protagonist by introducing new characters and a credible villain. It also continues to debunk the myth that superheroes must be virtuous, retiring, and hidden from the public eye.
Watching Iron Man 2 on opening weekend, I was struck, maybe for the first time, at the differences between Tony Stark/Iron Man and his Marvel brethren (and not-so-distant DC Comics cousins). Based on comic mythology, Tony Stark should be Iron Man’s villain—he’s narcissistic, attention-seeking, insubordinate and quite honestly, ethically challenged. He’s also intensely witty, which is a far more common characteristic of antagonists than protagonists. True, his origin story is full of similarities to Spider-Man, Batman and the rest: tragic accident deeply affects and/or physically changes the character, forcing him to further examine life and his place in it, making him realize he is meant for greater things and should therefore don some type of costume, invent some unreal gadgets and fight bad guys under cover of darkness while maintaining an eccentric and aloof public persona.
This latter distinction is where Iron Man deviates the most from his counterparts. At the end of Iron Man (and retold cleverly as voiceover in the beginning of the sequel), Tony Stark reveals to the world that he is Iron Man, and as Iron Man 2 opens, it’s obvious he’ll make no apologies for his role in the current state of world peace; in fact, he might just make a spectacle of it. (Well, we know he will, because this is Hollywood and it’s Tony Stark).
It’s impossible, of course, to have a discussion about Tony Stark without mentioning his portrayer, Robert Downey, Jr. A clear definition between the two is oftentimes hard to spot: they both have well-documented histories of bad boy behavior and run-ins with the law (for Tony, substitute military for law), as well as a long list of accolades for their work. And Tony’s snark wouldn’t be half as endearing if anyone else was delivering those lines, I’m convinced of that. In Iron Man 2, Downey, Jr. stresses Tony’s egotistical and sardonic nature (sometimes, to excess) and continues to make no excuses for his less-than-defendable behavior.
In fact, it’s his grandstanding that draws the attention of the piece’s villain, Ivan Vanko, a menacing Russian played with menacing aplomb by Mickey Rourke. Rourke, taking the role fresh off his Oscar-winning performance two years ago in The Wrestler, manages to do what few other character actors have done before—adopt a Russian accent that doesn’t make us groan or giggle. Side note: isn’t it interesting that even 20+ years since the end of the Cold War, Russians are still Hollywood’s go-to bad guy?
Ivan’s backstory is a little fuzzy. Told through a short scene between Ivan and his dying father as well as some well-placed, yellowing newspaper articles papering the man’s apartment, I’m not sure I would have followed his motivation (or believed it) if I hadn’t read about it before sitting down in the theater. About two-thirds through the movie, more of Vanko’s history is revealed to Tony, filling out the story, however, it felt too late to make the necessary impact. But this ill-timed exposition doesn’t detract from Rourke’s performance or the very awe inspiring site of his character wearing electric whips that cut through cars like butter.
However, Ivan’s lack of planning brings about the wrong kind of attention, landing him in a French prison. Enter his sponsor, another Stark hater who has already made it pretty plain that he feels entitled to everything Tony has and is capable of throwing very petty and technology-fueled temper tantrums. Justin Hammer, head of a rival weapons company believes Vanko has the tech to not only wrest Tony’s U.S. Department of Defense contract away from him, but destroy the smug superhero, too. Played perfectly by Sam Rockwell, Hammer is the guy you want to feel sorry for, but just can’t, because, unlike Tony, his snark is not charming, it’s slimy. Rockwell has made a successful career playing smarmy guys who make you feel like you need a shower, and he doesn’t disappoint here. While incredibly smart, it’s clear from the start that Hammer cannot be allowed to win—and secretly, you want Iron Man to rough him up, just to knock that smirk off his face.
Tony has allies too, most notably, his long-suffering assistant and sometimes Girl Friday, Pepper Potts, and Lt. Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes, who must appease his military commanders while managing Tony’s giant ego and maintaining access to the tech. The replacement of Terrence Howard with Don Cheadle in the role caused a stir when it happened approximately eighteen months ago, but in practice, nothing really changed. Cheadle and Howard obviously bring something different to the screen and the role, but I didn’t feel anything was “missing” with Howard’s absence. Cheadle even managed to better convey Rhodey’s conflicted conscious, although some of his actions in the movie seemed supremely out of character. (I’m still not sure why Rhodey thought the only way to talk Tony off the ledge during his girls-gone-wild-birthday-party was to don another suit and fight him for it. Given Rhodey’s respect for the tech, it seemed inappropriate.)
However, it was fun to watch Iron Man and War Machine take down Vanko in the film’s climactic battle sequence. Especially when the director allows us to see their faces and expressions through “in-suit” close-ups. Both Downey, Jr. and Cheadle have green screen acting down to a science.
And then there are the girls: Pepper Potts, played by Gwyneth Paltrow and Natasha Romanov aka Natalie Rushman, played by Scarlett Johansson. One day, I will ask Stan Lee about the redhead in his life who inspired all of these female characters, but I digress. Back for her second shot at Potts, Paltrow’s quiet exasperation and dwindling patience for Tony’s behavior continues to win us over, as does her evolution in the sequel to CEO of Stark Industries. Pepper’s talent for damage control cannot be overlooked as she deftly attempts to take over the company while keeping Tony on some kind of leash.
Johansson’s role seemed more of a set-up for a possible part of The Avengers movie rather than integral to this story. Yes, it’s nice to watch Tony drool on his shoes and even better to watch Johansson take down a hallway full of men in a skintight cat suit, but I’m not convinced she needed to be there, although the men in the audience would probably disagree. What I actually enjoyed most about her role was her interactions with returning S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury, played by the ultimate badass Samuel L. Jackson. In fact, Fury’s beefed up presence in this film was a welcome addition, providing us with not only insight into his agenda, but also a hint at what the S.H.I.E.L.D.’s true purpose may be. (As a peripheral comic book reader, I know a little, but not a lot, so this added exposition is welcome to me.)
Also, only RDJ can go head-to-head with Jackson and appear completely unaffected by the latter’s intimidating presence. Their scene toward the end of the movie is probably one of the best.
I have to give a shout out to John Slattery as well. The man who plays boozy ennui so well on “Mad Men” turns in a great, nuanced performance as Howard Stark, Tony’s aloof, dead father. Shown only through clips of video recorded in the 1960s, Tony and the audience are given insight into the man who built the empire Tony reluctantly inherited. His messages “from beyond the grave” were a great way to introduce needed backstory while also honoring another man who built an empire in the 1960s, Walt Disney. The tone, look and content of the videos was far too similar to be a coincidence. (Maybe an early tribute to Marvel’s new owner?)
Jon Favreau, the film’s director and Tony’s upstanding driver/bodyguard, still brings his “everyman” funny to the part, while keeping all the film’s intricate pieces moving. Garry Shandling’s turn as a pompous U.S. senator was also notable, although I’m pretty Shandling long ago established his dominance at playing pompous.
The true beauty of Iron Man 2 however, is that it’s fun. While other superhero movies have gotten darker—I’m lookin’ at you The Dark Night—Iron Man has managed to stay light-hearted and still tell a convincing, engaging story that you’re invested in. There’s no doubt that Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Night is a remarkable film or that Heath Ledger’s performance was inspired. However, I can tell you for certain, I’ll never watch it again, once in the theater was plenty. But Iron Man, and Iron Man 2, will become go-to “fun” movies for me, similar to Indiana Jones, Spider-Man and its sequel (but not three, I do have some taste), Star Trek (old and new) and of course, the mother of all sci-fi movies, (and my personal favorite), the original Star Wars trilogy.
For me, that’s the testament of a great movie—a desire to watch it over and over again, to spend a protracted time with those characters and their story and to find that no matter how snarky they are, you actually care.