Iron Man 2
Difficult second album syndrome. So difficult, the main architect subsequently surrendered control to – or was tactfully pushed aside for – Shane Black, and the trilogy ended on a blissful high (although, mileage on that view varies). Iron Man 2 is as typically over-stuffed as has become the de-rigueur cliché for sequels, and you’d have hoped studios would have learnt by now.
Two villains (neither of whom quite come together, one through intent – he’s vaguely comic relief – and the other through being a bit shit). Two Iron Men (well, one War Machine and an Iron Man). The escalating involvement of SHIELD, and with it, Black Widow. Oh, and the inclusion, in part anyway, if not as habitually, of the fan favourite Demon in a Bottle addiction storyline. Where Favreau’s spit-balling command of the ship got the 2008 original over its bumps, he actively seems to get in its way here (or the demands of Marvel do), with the result that its mostly down to its very watchable cast that Iron Man 2 entertains despite itself.
Curiously, Justin Theroux is pegged as sole screenwriter on Iron Man 2, particularly so since he’s only ever mustered a co-credit on other pictures (Rock of Ages, Tropic Thunder, Zoolander 2). The resulting picture manages to be both very busy and fatally lacking in momentum. I suspect Favreau thought he had a slow build on his side, but the movie instead feels like it’s treading water most of the time. It exudes an unappealingly self-satisfied, bloated feeling, in no hurry to get anywhere, taking for granted that it has its audience captive already, so cutting itself far too much slack. It also, surprisingly, is thrifty on the action front. Fine, if you’re constantly building tension, but problematic when you’re casting about aimlessly (there’s the Grand Prix scene, a fight with Rhodesy, and the climax… and that’s about it).
Tony Stark: You know, the question I get asked most often is, ‘Tony, how do you go to the bathroom in the suit’… Just like that.
Where Iron Man 2 mostly lands on its feet is with Tony Stark. And that in turn is mostly because of Robert Downey Jr. It’s potentially dangerous territory, going straight from establishing your hero to puncturing his armour. Having Tony coping with dangerous levels of blood toxicity throughout ran the danger of weighing him down with the kind of The World is Not Enough-type injury that proved entirely off-putting. It isn’t, fortunately, and repositioning him as the underdog only ultimately falters because Favreau’s isn’t entirely successful in juggling the different elements he throws in his protagonist’s way.
Tony getting blotto to dull the pain is both amusing (going to the toilet in his suit) and dangerous (leading Rhodey to steal one). The scrutiny of a senate committee (the late Gary Shandling on top form: “Do you, or do you not possess a specialised weapon?”) and Tony’s resistance to its demands delivers probably the best scene in the picture. Which means it’s a shame Iron Man 2 is front-loaded, quality wise. More could have been made of the theme of Tony – reasonably – believing the government can’t be trusted with his tech while simultaneously illustrating that he can’t be trusted with his tech either. Instead, the plotline rather peters out.
Amid Tony’s tribulations there’s also a sloppy family heritage subplot – albeit, we get the first appearance by Tony Slattery as his deceased father, so that’s a positive – in which he must work out the legacy he’s to make good on and thus create his own periodic element… from a scale model of the 1974 Stark Expo that’s effectively a treasure map. No, I’m not really buying it either.
Pepper Potts: What do you mean you’re not dying?
Tony Stark: I was going to make you an omelette and tell you.
If that’s iffy, the Tony-Pepper relationship really scores on revisit. The chemistry between Downey and Gwynie is vibrant, and it feels entirely appropriate to Stark’s reluctant growth that the characters get together (regardless of Rhodey’s disenchantment: “You look like two seals fighting over a grape”). Paul Bettany is also a winner as Jarvis, obviously. And Don Cheadle’s a vast improvement over Trevor Howard as Rhodes, even if the character remains one of those second fiddle types (see also Hawkeye, Falcon) who fail to stoke sufficient interest to root for either way.
Pepper Potts: She is from legal, and she’s a potentially expensive sexual harassment law suit.
Talking of characters that are a bit of a bust, I’ve never made any secret of my lack of enthusiasm for dead-eyed ScarJo as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow. Emily Blunt would have killed it in the part, but you only have to see how alive Gwynie is in a scene with Downey and how… not Johansson is.
Her stunt double is kickass of course, but the main takeaway from her action set piece is Fav’s comic relief chops as Happy Hogan. Indeed, it’s only reaction to the character that allows her any kind of impact (“Are you blending in well here, Natalie? Do you even speak Latin?” quips Tony of her continued presence at Stark Enterprises, once her true identity has been revealed to him). I suspect one of the reasons we haven’t seen a Black Widow movie so far – despite the many vocal adherents of the character – is that deep down, Kevin Feige knows there’s no traction to her as portrayed by ScarJo. So when the solo movie does land, the lead won’t be the star of last year’s flop Ghost in the Shell.
You can argue the necessity of SHIELD as the glue that leads to Avengers, but it doesn’t make them feel any more vital to the proceedings or any less intrusive. Nick Fury is basically an exposition machine with an eyepatch, rather than a character (“Please step out of the donut” is a good line, though), and Agent Coulson’s essentially a twat. How could you not want him dead? What idiot thought he could conceivably headline a TV spinoff? Sir Ken’s teaser with Thor’s hammer is nice enough, I guess. But employing Ken as a director is a guarantee against greatness.
Ivan Vanko: If you can make God bleed, the people will cease to believe in him.
The biggest stumble with Iron Man 2 is probably the lead villain, though. Much hype preceded Mickey Rourke’s casting, on the basis of an Oscar nominated turn in The Wrestler. Unfortunately, he comes with so much baggage, not least his Rhett Butler tache perched atop a face that speaks a thousand misadventures, that he never really convinces.
Ivan Vanko has been retconned as vitally linked to Iron Man’s genesis (their fathers worked together, but Ivan’s was motivated by money… Okay…) Which just feels clumsy, and there’s never any sense that Whiplash/Crimson Dynamo is much of a mastermind, however much he may tell his erstwhile ally Justin Hammer to “Learn to let go”. We needed a villain who felt like an equal to Stark, but Ivan’s never remotely that. The character only ever comes across as faintly silly, while opening on his development of his father’s plans is a mistake; we aren’t invested in his revenge, so Ivan ends up something of an also-ran.
Tony Stark: I’ve successfully privatised world peace. What more do you want?
Favreau also comes a cropper at the Monaco Grand Prix opening set piece. Ivan with his electric whips are neither especially cool nor especially threatening; it’s just gammy old Rourke, stripped down and gnarly. Added to which, the choices for the destruction derby represent errors of cutting; you don’t show an F1 cut in two as a prelude to the same thing happening to Tony’s car; all the shock value is spent by that point. The suitcase suit is nifty, though.
But, if Hammer’s also no kind of serious menace to Tony, Favs was on the money casting Sam Rockwell; a guy as charismatic as Downey is hard to find, but Rockwell knows exactly how to deliver Hammer as Tony’s sleazier, inferior, not-really competition. Hammer’s sales pitch is the showmanship of a rich used-car dealer (“This is my Eiffel tower… I call it the ex-wife”), while his increasingly uneasy interaction with Ivan works a treat (just watch Rockwell trying to process Rourke’s pronunciation of “I want my bird”).
The big climax, when it gets there, rather underwhelms, once again stuck with going for suits (more and more suits, drones this time) fighting it out with each other. The only point where tension is derived is from Tony rescuing Pepper; that aside, it’s a big expensive bout of déjà vu. The unfortunate truth of Marvel Phase I is that the goodwill of its inception carried the next four pictures. And the unfortunate truth of Iron Man 2 is that RDJ carries a picture that has no real get up and go.