Legacy. It’s all about legacy. What we leave for our children and what we inherit from our parents. Sometimes it’s bitterness and hatred, sometimes it’s more than we think. Iron Man as a concept is inherently linked to the Cold War and American foreign policy, so it’s a fitting theme for the sequel to tackle. Fathers and sons dominate the film, as does the simple and haunting fact that the now is shaped by the then. Some of us get to change the world, some of us simply leave big smoking craters behind us. Even the bad guy, a Russian, consciously evokes conflicts fading from memory that shaped our modern world.
“If you want to hurt Tony Stark,” industrialist Justin Hammer observes, “go after his legacy.” What we leave behind – the footprints we make in the sand. There’s no coincidence that one of the movie’s far too many plot threads centres on Tony’s mortality – we’re informed early on that his power source is toxic. Infecting him. Corrupting him. As all power eventually must. Stark insists early on that his suit is not a weapon, but that ignores the central fact that it is killing even him, the pilot inside.
Favreau’s film lacks the political complexity of its superhero rival The Dark Knight, despite conscious allusion – you want a prison interrogation, we got it; a chase sequence through a carpark under an overpass, ours is louder. Still, its commentary is fascinating. Tony Stark has, through monopoly of power, ensured the longest period of global stability ever – at least according to the opening montage. However, despots the world over (specifically Iran and North Korea) are attempting to produce weapons of similar scale and power, but there is no need to worry – we’re assured that they are “twenty years” away. Tony – reckless and immature Tony – has the power and is attempting to do good with it, even though he isn’t entirely ready to handle it himself. However, the problem with this sort of power is no longer necessarily rogue states – that sort of thinking is fueled be an old-fashioned mindset we received from our parents – but arguable individuals and groups. In one of the year’s best action sequences, Tony is brutally humbled at a hugely public event. He isn’t brought to heel by a country or an official, but by a private individual carrying a grudge for actions lost in the past. It isn’t a particularly subtle analogy for the strife of the world’s sole superpower, but it’s effective.
I liked Iron Man 2. More than I liked Iron Man. But there are serious flaws here. The movie does too much. It’s indulgent – bloated, even. The story remains, shrewdly enough, that of Tony Stark, but Favreau offers too many side orders for us to enjoy the meal as well as we should. Speaking of a central plot point above (that Stark is being slowly killed by his power source), there’s a scene near the end where he mentions it in passing, only for Pepper to catch on and demand, “You’re dying?” It’s a little worrying to get a sense that not only could she have missed that thread, but it’s also entirely possible that – with everything else going on – the audience could be forgiven for missing it too. Those looking at the cast list may suggest that there are too many villains – but there aren’t. Tony is his own worst enemy, even though - like the original – the film allows itself an outside threat, but never offers an adversary. There are too many characters, though.
The problem is that not all the characters are necessary, and exist not to serve the story, but the wider universe the film is set in. This is a relatively new approach to storytelling in film, but one that I have found distracting in comics. Give me a function that Nick Fury serves in this film that could not be fulfilled by Agent Coulson? Or explain to me why we need the Black Widow at all, other than to muddy the water and set up her inevitable appearance in an even bigger film? The movie alludes several times to a plot function for Natasha it wisely avoids (the third point of a romantic triangle), but that only draws attention to how ridiculously pointless she is.
Still, the movie is – despite this excess – called Iron Man. And it has an ace in the hole in the form of that man. “I am Iron Man,” Stark declares in a press conference that plays over the credits, but he may as well be speaking as Downey. Tony Stark is given more character and life than any other four-colour hero brought to the screen before him. The movie alludes to his drinking problem (and even suggests that, like his genius, he inherited it from his father), but he is his own worst enemy in many more ways. He’s arrogant, drunk with power. He displays “textbook narcissism” the movie suggests at one point. He believes he is entitled to hold that unquestionable authority and doesn’t feel the need to share with others – he has legitimate reasons for not wanting to share his technology with the United States government, but his attitude is provocative and snide; it would seem that it’s this self-righteousness which really provokes a lot of his trouble. Even more than that, Stark is stunted, emotionally. He doesn’t know quite how to express his feelings for Pepper. And he hasn’t quite got a hang on this Iron Man thing, either. Superman knows how to be Superman. Despite his dorkish modesty, Sam Raimi’s Peter Parker knows how to be Spider-Man. Only Nolan’s Batman shows hints he’s ad-libbing, but he’s still reacting pretty well to external threats. Tony Stark does not know how to be Iron Man. Would you?
He’s learning and growing – we know that he’s trying. In fact, we know he’s succeeding. Batman’s tragedy is the perpetual cycle of escalation he finds himself in – he may have made his world worse, for extra pathos. Instead, this bright and cheerful world allows Stark a hint of success. It’s great to see that a superhero movie doesn’t feel the need to be “dark and gritty” in the wake of The Dark Knight’s success, but also that eschewing such an approach does not equate to narrative simplicity. Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece asked its audience whether yielding our own authority to such figures could deliver the peace and security that it enticingly promised, and explored the notion of “blowback” as a consequence of definitive action – Favreau feels comfortable to propose that, even if they could (without question) herald such global peace security, perhaps there are still questions to be asked.
To Favreau’s credit, these aren’t conventional superhero movies. They’re more talky. There are long bits where nothing gets blowed up good. I’d even argue that the supervillains are sidelined. Those expecting an action-fest will be disappointed that there are only three action sequences (each, in fairness, beautifully choreographed – particularly the first combat sequence at the Grand Prix). This franchise is clearly its own beast. It’s something you have to respect, even if – like Tony – it falters along the way.
The acting was a mixed bag. Do I even need to praise Downey? And Sam Rockwell is amazing. He steals the movie’s best scene (“I call it… the ex-wife”) while offering the movie’s best lines and delivery. If the movie wasn’t content to give us Stark, it should have given us more Hammer. Paltrow has improved. She’s great, even if her character gets a little lost. And we get more of Favreau as Happy Hogan, including an awesome boxing sub-thread (which climaxes with a superb little refernce) and an… inventive way of dealing with supervillans. Sure he’s given himself a bigger role this time around, but you don’t mind – because he seems like the kinda guy who’d help you move if you asked him too.
On the other hand, Mickey Rourke’s whips aren’t the only thing taking lumps out of the scenery. Not that it’s inappropriate – he’s a comic book villain, so scenery chewing is sorta demanded. It’s just that there’s little truly memorable about his performance and nothing that will really stay with you in the way that great movie villains do. Scarlett Johansson, as ever, has one mode – pout. Don Cheadle does okay, but is too busy channelling his predecessor, Terrence Howard, to offer his own take on the role of Rhodye (which is much meatier this time around). And Samuel L. Jackson is… wasted. He’s every part the clichéd “badass with a heart of gold” as top secret agent Nick Fury. I can only hope that the role gets a bit more complexity as the Marvel universe expands further.
It’ worth taking a moment to explore exactly how the movie contributes to the expanding “Marvel universe” on film, because it’s really the first film with some heavy groundwork to lay. This notion of a shared universe was only really alluded to in the original Iron Man and confirmed in The Incredible Hulk, but Iron Man 2 is the first film created to advance this thread going on – building up to 2012. In some ways it’s restrained. Unlike the original Iron Man, no huge characters debut – though it does establish the Black Widow. Unlike The Incredible Hulk, no leading characters cross over from existing (or scheduled) adaptations. There are some nice touches though – a certain iconic piece of weaponry (glimpsed in the background of the original) gets a brief moment in the sun (“Do you know what this is?” a pencil-pusher asks Stark, who replies with, “It’s exactly what I need”). However, it seems like large chunks of the movie exist sole to set up a movie more than two years away. Indeed, the movie spends about half-an-hour reinforcing something the original film told us in thirty seconds: there’s a superhero team being put together and Iron Man is wanted for the team. I hope the remaining Marvel movies can handle this with a little more nuance.
I liked it. It’s a good film. Not a great one, but one just about charming and intelligent enough to get away with its flaws. It isn’t a classic, but it’s a good start to blockbuster season.
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | black widow, blockbuster, don cheadle, film, iron man, iron man 2, ivan vanko, jon favreau, justin hammer, marvel, Mickey Rourke, Movie, natasha romanov, nick fury, non-review review, review, robert downey, robert downey jnr., robert downey jr, sam rockwell, samuel l. jackson, scarlett johansson, tony stark, war machine, whiplash