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“I’ve Just Privatized World Peace” — Josh Reviews Iron Man 2!

I’m always chasing after that perfect cinematic experience — the rare movie where everything just seems to magically click, and I walk out of the theatre totally jazzed by what just unspooled before my eyes.  I felt that way when I saw the first Iron Man. I was really blown away by the confidence with which director Jon Favreau and his team (headlined, of course, by the amazing Robert Downey Jr.) pulled off their exciting, engaging, and all-around FUN first installment.

Best of all, while that first movie was certainly a complete story all its own, it ended on a terrific high-note that promised fertile stories ahead — Tony’s spur-of-the-moment “I am Iron Man” admission in the final scene of the film, and the end-of-the-credits button that introduced Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Nick Fury (played by Sam Jackson, who was the visual model for the character in Marvel’s “Ultimate” universe created about a decade ago) and made mention of the “Avengers Initiative.”  I walked out of that theatre unbelievably pumped for the stories to come, and when Marvel announced, about a week after Iron Man‘s opening, their plans for future films based on Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man 2, all of which would build to a movie-version of Marvel’s super-hero team The Avengers, it was clear that an extraordinary venture was underway.

But that venture was fraught with risk.  Both Thor and Captain America seem like characters who work great in comic books but would be fiendishly difficult to pull off believably in a movie version.  And while most of the key creative players behind Iron Man were returning for the sequel, well, I probably don’t need to list for you the many, many sequels that have been colossal disappointments, unable to capture the magic of the first installment.

Alright, already, so what did I think of Iron Man 2?

Mr. Favreau and his team have crafted another fun, engaging installment of the adventures of Tony Stark.  They haven’t reinvented the wheel.  They haven’t turned over the apple-cart in the way that makes some of the truly great movie sequels so notable (The Empire Strikes Back, The Wrath of Khan, The Dark Knight…).  I didn’t walk out of the theatre with that same tingle that I had after seeing the first Iron Man.  But that doesn’t mean that the film isn’t very good.

Robert Downey Jr. proves that his perfection as Tony Stark in the first installment wasn’t a fluke.  He’s once again phenomenal, totally magnetic whenever he’s on screen.  I was pleased that the filmmakers resisted the temptation to trim any of Stark’s rough edges — Tony is just as much a pompous egomaniac here as he was in the first film.  But in an endearing way!  Likewise, Gwyneth Paltrow is just ridiculously likable as Pepper Potts, the woman responsible for keeping Tony’s life in some semblance of order.  Much was made of the re-casting of Tony’s friend James Rhodes, replacing Terrence Howard with Don Cheadle, but I was pleased how well Mr. Cheadle fit into the role.  Five minutes into the film, and the re-casting is forgotten.  (Though I thought the “it’s me, deal with it” joke was unnecessary.  Too on-the-nose for my taste.)

One place where many, many super-hero sequels have stumbled is in the temptation to over-stuff themselves with too many new (usually villainous) characters.  When I read that this film was going to introduce two new villains — Whiplash and Justin Hammer — as well as the Black Widow, AND was going to feature Nick Fury in a larger role, I was a bit concerned.  Luckily, all of those new characters were very well-done, and integrated smoothly into the film.  I never felt that the narrative was bending under the studio’s need to sell new toys like some other failed superhero sequels I could mention (cough Spider-Man 3 cough).

Mickey Rourke is a lot of fun as Whiplash.  Mr. Rourke plays Ivan Vanko, a Russian thug/physicist who’s been nursing a planet-sized grudge against the Stark Family due to his belief that Tony’s father Howard Stark stole the arc reactor designs created by his (Ivan’s) father.  Rourke puts on a pretty crazy Russian accent for the role, which teeters just on the edge of ridiculous, but he brings enormous charisma and menace to the part, both of which help him create an intriguing, eminently-watchable character.  Also, I could listen to him say the word “bird” all day.  (Apparently, so too could the filmmakers, since he says it about a hundred times during the film.)  When Vanko’s first attempt to kill Tony fails (a thrilling attack during a car-race that is deliriously well-executed by the special effects team), he gets recruited by industrialist Justin Hammer.  Hammer is sort of a failed version of Tony Stark.  Well, not “failed,” really, since he is a wealthy supplier of weapons to the U.S. Military.  But as rich, smart, and successful as he is, he is less rich, less smart, and less successful than Tony Stark.  Hammer is played by Sam Rockwell, who imbues the character with bucket-loads of smug arrogance.  Rockwell’s off-kilter mannerisms are a good match for Robert Downey Jr.’s own particular brand of fast-talking mania — and also for Rourke’s quiet, hulking danger.

Then there’s Scarlett Johansson.  She is terribly miscast as the Russian super-spy Natasha Romanoff (I’d be hard-pressed to think of a more American looking and sounding actress than she), but she’s actually not bad in the role (even though she’s way afield from the original comic book character).  She does quiet inscrutability well, and except for one off-key moment (her childish pout storming out of Tony’s office at one point late in the film) she’s well-used in the story.  She also looks ridiculously good in a tight black cat-suit, so there’s that.

The action in the film is tremendous — a nice quantum leap ahead of what we saw in the first film.  I’ve already mentioned Vanko’s attack on the car-race, which was stunning, and there’s also a lot of chaos in the film’s final thirty minutes which is filled with great stuff.  Watching Iron Man & War Machine face off against thirty Hammer drones was thrilling — a fast-paced, energetic sequence that was a good capper to the story.  As in the first film, I have absolutely no idea what effects were handled practically and what were CGI — the blending is seamless, and really helps to sell the reality of the world being created.

So what doesn’t work?  At the end of the day, why don’t I feel that this film was as across-the-board successful as the first film?

Well, despite everything that I enjoyed, there were a number of aspects of Iron Man 2 that didn’t sit quite right with me.  They boil down to three main failings.  First, there weren’t really any surprises in this film.  The story was pretty by-the-numbers, and doesn’t really tread any new ground for the characters.  One didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to presume, from the ending of Iron Man, that the sequel would focus on Tony’s having to adapt to suddenly being an in-the-spotlight super-hero, and that he’d have trouble dealing with that.  That’s exactly the story that we got, and it unfolds pretty much as one would expect — Tony arrogantly assumes he can handle all of the responsibilities he has taken on, which of course he can’t — so bad things happen and then he learns a valuable lesson.  That’s a pretty simple character arc, and not so dissimilar from what he went through in the first film.  Pepper and Rhodey don’t fare that much better — both characters feel like they’re being put through the same motions that they went through in the first film as well.  Pepper is put off by Tony’s boorish behavior and self-destructive tendencies, so she separates herself from him, but they make up at the end.  Rhodey is put off by Tony’s boorish behavior and self-destructive tendencies, so he separates himself from him, but they make up at the end.  Both story-arcs are predictable, and I sort of feel like we already danced that fandango with those characters in the first film.  (I was also a little bummed that Pepper — whose relationship with Tony was such a dynamic, central aspect to the first film — pretty much drops out of the story for the middle of the movie.)

The second major problem of the film, for me, is the way that the narrative takes the simple way out of all of the story’s conflicts.  The made-up element in Tony’s chest is killing him?  No problem, Tony will just invent some new made-up element to replace it.  Actually, strike that, he doesn’t even invent it, he just finds something that his father already invented.  Speaking of his father, I had assumed that Ivan’s grudge against Howard Stark had a basis in fact — that Howard HAD in fact screwed over his Russian partner.  But no, Nick Fury shows up to tell us that that’s not the case, Howard was really a great guy.  We know that Tony had a complex relationship with his father, and we assume that his father cared more about his work than he did for him.  But here’s a film-strip from twenty years earlier in which Howard looks straight at the camera and tells his son that he really loves him.  Come on!  It’s all very silly, and too easy.  Wouldn’t Stark’s conflict with Vanko be more compelling if Vanko really DID have a legitimate reason to hate the Stark family?  Wouldn’t the Stark family dynamics have been more interesting if his father really WAS a cold prick?  And what was even the point of introducing the plot-thread that the device in Tony’s chest was killing him, if Tony is able to solve that problem lickety-split once he’s given some magic secret info from his father?  And don’t even get me started on that.  The secret new element was hidden by his father in a model he built years earlier?  A HUGE model that apparently has been residing in Tony’s office all this time except that we never saw it in the first movie?  Weak.  Weak in the extreme.

Which brings me to the film’s third major flaw — there was really no sense of threat or danger to the proceedings.  I really respect Mr. Favreau and his collaborators for not imitating The Dark Knight and going all grim-and-gritty with their story.  I LOVE that they were able to preserve the sense of rollicking fun that the first film had.  But I do think this film would have benefitted from giving Stark some stronger adversaries, who would have presented him with a real THREAT.  It’s clear from the scene where we first meet him that Hammer is no intellectual match for Stark — Stark is clearly ten steps ahead of him, and humiliates Hammer at the Senate hearing.  But think of how much differently the movie would have played had Hammer been the one to embarrass Stark at that hearing.  Then we would have known, right from the beginning, that Stark was facing a dangerous man who was a real threat to him — and that threat would have hung over Tony for the rest of the movie.  But by going for a laugh during that Senate hearing sequence, I think the filmmakers undermined themselves.  Same goes for Whiplash.  Early in the film, Whiplash fights Iron Man — and gets beaten.  Then we spend the whole rest of the film building towards their rematch when — surprise, Whiplash gets beaten again.  If we learn in the first act that our hero can defeat the villain, there’s really no tension to be found in their third act re-match, is there?

Those are my most major problems with the film, but I have other complaints too.  It was nice to see Agent Coulson again (played by Clark Gregg) — I was worried that having Director Fury in the film would mean that we wouldn’t see Coulson — but he’s introduced only to tell us, in his next scene, that he’s been reassigned, and he exits the film.  I also didn’t understand how, when we first see him, he makes a big speech to Stark about how he’ll do whatever it takes to keep Stark confined in his home — and then five minutes later we see Stark in his car and driving away, with no one from S.H.I.E.L.D. making any attempt to stop him.  Huh?  I was also confused about how the events in this film square with Tony Stark’s cameo in last summer’s The Incredible Hulk.  In the scene in Hulk, it seemed like Stark was fully on board with Fury’s Avengers project — but in this film, it seems that S.H.I.E.L.D. is keeping him at a distance because they consider him a liability.  That doesn’t seem to jive .  I was also bummed that Jarvis wasn’t that heavily featured in this film.  I thought he was a wonderful creation in the first movie, and I completely loved the relationship that he/it had with Tony.  But in this film, Jarvis doesn’t have much do do other than spout a little exposition here and there about blood toxicity and new made-up elements.  That was a disappointment.  I’ll also mention how bummed I was that the 10 Rings organization, so subtly built up in the first film (and clearly connected to the classic Iron Man villain the Mandarin) was not mentioned at all in this movie.  I understand if the filmmakers weren’t ready to feature the Mandarin in this installment, but it would have been great to see that organization referenced (or at least to see even just ONE character sporting one of their over-sized rings) to keep that story alive.

OK, I’m starting to nit-pick, and I realize that.  But I think if the over-all story had worked more successfully in my eyes, those smaller problems wouldn’t be bothering me to the degree that they are.  But let’s not focus too much on the negatives.  There is still so much that I really enjoyed about Iron Man 2 that I haven’t mentioned yet:  I loved that Happy Hogan got more to do in this film.  I loved Garry Shandling.  I loved Stan Lee’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo.  I loved Iron Man’s fight with War Machine in Tony’s cliff-side home.  I loved Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury.  I loved the references to trouble in the mid-west.  I loved the choice of actor picked to portray Howard Stark (I won’t spoil it here).  I loved the look of Whiplash in his final confrontation with Iron Man & War-Machine (something that was, impressively, kept out of all the trailers).  I loved loved loved the way the filmmakers took the silly 1960’s comic book notion that Tony Stark kept his Iron Man suit in his briefcase, and turned it into a stunningly cool moment.

Iron Man 2 is a fun film, and over-all it is a successful second installment of this franchise.  It’s not a classic movie sequel, and it doesn’t surpass the first film.  But it’s a good time in a movie theatre, and it’s much more fun and intelligent than much of what passes for big-budget summer films these days.  I remain very excited for the expansion of the Marvel movie universe in next summer’s Thor and Captain America, and to The Avengers in 2012.  And hey, I’d love to not have to wait until 2013 for an Iron Man 3!

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