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Iron Man 2

There’s a lot going on in this movie.

I’ve heard it said that there isn’t enough happening in this movie, particularly during the second act. This is totally wrong. Indeed, the movie clips along at a very good pace, constantly setting up dominoes and building tension. The trick, however, is in realizing that the conflict during the second act is almost completely internal.

There’s a ton of emotional turmoil going on here, most of it revolving around three themes:

  • Responsibility: The last movie was about Tony Stark — and Obadiah Stane, for that matter — reacting to their parts in creating weapons that kill innocent people. This movie is about how Tony Stark’s actions affect the world, affect his company and affect himself. In the last movie, responsibility was subtext. In this movie, it’s plain and clear text.
  • Legacy: Another subtle theme from the last movie that takes front and center in this go-round. Iron Man 2 begins with a speech from Stark about how imperative it is to consider what we leave behind. The importance of this concept is shown through the posthumous involvement of Howard Stark. More on that later.
  • Mortality: This is a new one to the film series, as Stark begins the movie with knowledge that his arc reactor is rapidly poisoning him. Stark is thus faced with many hard decisions. What to do with his possessions, how to say goodbye, how to break the news to others and how to enjoy his final days. On a related note, it’s worth pointing out that Stark had a similar predicament in the comics, but stemming from alcoholism. In the movie, he’s not facing an external threat that he fell into by choice, but by something that he himself created out of necessity. That makes the threat much more powerful, in my opinion.

In case it isn’t obvious, Iron Man is at the center of every internal conflict in the movie. The entire film thus rested on Robert Downey Jr. and the man carried the film and his role without flinching. Once again, RDJ does wonders with the role of Tony Stark. But he’s not the only main character.

Second is Ivan Vanko, played by Mickey Rourke. This man is truly the dark reflection of Tony Stark. Both are brilliant scientific minds, heavily influenced by equally brilliant fathers. In fact, there’s a point in the movie where Stark makes an offhand comment that Vanko uses against Stark at the climax. In other words, he benefited from Stark’s cockiness. Stark’s weakness became Vanko’s strength.

Finally, there’s Sam Rockwell in the role of Justin Hammer. In the run-up to the movie, this character was described as “Tony Stark without a conscience.” It goes way deeper than that. Hammer resembles Stark about as much as would a kid with an Iron Man mask. It’s important to remember that despite Stark’s playboy reputation and cavalier manner, he remains powerful because he is a brilliant man with great courage. Hammer is a wannabe who has the outer self-assuredness, but he doesn’t have the brains or the guts. Hammer is a hollow facade and nothing more.

In regard to the three themes mentioned earlier, Stark comes to fight his mortality and embrace his responsibility so that he can leave the world a better place. Vanko cares only for taking Stark to task for transgressions long past, completely at ease with taking whatever life he has to along the way — even his own. And Hammer just doesn’t give a fuck. There isn’t a thought in his head about who his weapons are going to kill, he doesn’t care about what world he’s creating and he sure as hell hasn’t given a thought to the matter of his own death. It’s this short-sightedness that makes him a much weaker man than either Stark or Vanko (not a weaker character, understand, but a weaker human being).

To sum up:

  • Tony Stark represents preservation.
  • Ivan Vanko represents destruction.
  • Justin Hammer represents apathy.

It’s also worth noting that all three of these men are living under the same shadow: That of Howard Stark. Hammer even says as much when he calls Stark Sr. “a father to us all” near the movie’s beginning. Kudos to Jon Favreau and John Slattery for crafting Stark Sr. into a powerful and omnipresent ghost, affecting all three of our main characters.

Then there’s the supporting cast. Naturally, Gwyneth Paltrow returns as Pepper Potts, whose banter with Stark is every bit as energetic and perfectly delivered as it was before. Paltrow also gets to serve as this movie’s excuse for keeping Stark out of the boardroom and away from the responsibilities of running a multi-billion-dollar international conglomerate. Speaking of which, the movie very glaringly neglected to mention what Stark Industries has been doing to keep afloat since they stopped making weapons. That was a huge missed opportunity and an explanation sorely needed.

Not returning is Terrence Howard, who has been replaced by Don Cheadle as Lt. Col. Rhodes. I was expecting a lot from Cheadle and he didn’t disappoint. In this movie, Rhodey was torn between allegiance to country and friendship with Stark. Cheadle played that beautifully and with great pain. But there are two moments in particular that I’d like to address. The first is during the second act, in which Stark and Rhodey are fighting. Stark is raging drunk and Rhodey is trying to calm him down. It’s a fight that would be common among two best guy friends, except that they’re carrying out this fight in mechanized armor. The second moment is a brief scene in the third act, in which Stark and Rhodey are debating tactics. The banter between these actors is wonderful in that scene and I can’t imagine Terrence Howard doing it any better.

Another supporting actor is Jon Favreau himself, playing Stark’s loyal chauffeur and bodyguard, “Happy” Hogan. He was a background character in the first film, but Happy gets a lot to do in this movie. It’s tempting to consider this inflated role an act of egotism on the director’s part, but I wouldn’t agree. Instead, I think that this character was expanded upon because Stark needed another crutch. Happy, Rhodey and Potts all play crutches to Stark in the second act, and he leans on them all until they break.

Then the third act comes. If you were wondering where all the CGI-heavy set pieces had gone to, the answer is that they were pretty much all crammed in there. But what spectacles they were. I thought that Vanko took an unusually heavy amount of punishment for someone so unshielded, but the fight sequences were still high-energy, wonderfully shot, beautifully choreographed and very tense, with masterfully strategic placement of comedy relief. A pity those fight sequences couldn’t have been sprinkled more evenly through the movie, though. Come to think of it, that was a problem the last movie had, too.

I should also mention the trio of SHIELD agents that play a part in the movie. 1) Clark Gregg is still playing the straight bureaucratic cipher that he was in the last film. 2) It’s a good thing that Sam Jackson can play Nick Fury in his sleep, because that’s pretty much exactly what he does here. 3) Scarlett Johansson is totally unremarkable when she’s not beating the ever-loving fuck out of some guy.

Jarvis makes a return (once again voiced by Paul Bettany), though he seems much more empathetic and prone to expository dialogue than he was in the previous movie. Nothing particularly wrong with that, though I found the difference to be rather jarring. The Ten Rings organization is back, but in a role so subtle that you really wouldn’t be able to see it unless you knew where to look. I was expecting Ten Rings to play a more overt role in this movie, setting the stage for The Mandarin to appear in Iron Man 3. No such luck. Last but not least, John Debney provides music that is far inferior to Ramin Djawadi’s work in the first movie. I found more fun and energy in one song from the original movie than in the entire soundtrack for the sequel.

When all is said and done, I would put this sequel on par with its predecessor. I hardly mean that to be a bad thing, since Iron Man was a damn good movie. Nevertheless, I still feel that the only real accomplishment of Iron Man 2 was to set up Iron Man for something greater. I don’t say that because of the build-up to Avengers and I sure as hell don’t say that because the movie ends in a cliffhanger like the last one did (it doesn’t). I say that because at the end of the movie, Tony Stark’s physical health is regained, his suit and arc reactor are more advanced than ever before, his emotional baggage is eased considerably and everything that made him a social pariah is swept away. I feel that Iron Man ends the movie ready, able and chomping at the bit to take on his next great challenge.

I can’t wait to see what that challenge will be.

8 Comments

  1. Ping from tbone:

    I believe you know me from somewhere? Anyway really good review but how do I follow your blog? I can’t find the link 😛

  2. Ping from AYBG:

    Damn, now I want to see it again, but I thought the first was mediocre so par with that isn’t good enough for my cinema monies. Will probably borrow someone’s DVD when it comes out, though…

  3. Ping from AYBG:

    tbone, if you want to follow via rss there’s a subscribe button at the top right…

  4. Ping from Smuts:

    Good review.
    Where was the ten rings reference?

  5. Ping from SkaOreo:

    You really should be a writer since you seem to have the ability to make movies seem much deeper than they really are. But even though I obviously disagree with your opinion, nice review.

  6. Ping from Dr. Brooklyn:

    Following what ‘Smuts’ says “Where was the Ten Rings Reference?” Where was it? I mean I was waiting for something subtle, but I just missed it, care to enlighten us?

  7. Ping from Curiosity Inc.:

    That guy who handed Vanko the passport and tickets to Monaco? Yeah, Favreau says that he was supposed to be a Ten Rings agent.

    Couldn’t have made that a little clearer, Johnny?

  8. Ping from Iron Man 2 (Revisited) » Movie Curiosities:

    […] time to address a film that I’ve been meaning to revisit for ages. My blog entry for Iron Man 2 was one of the very first that I ever wrote, and I’m honestly quite ashamed of it. It was […]

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