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Iron Man 2 (Revisited)

It’s been three years to the day since I started writing this blog. Three years of movies, articles, live blogs, birthday series, review countdowns, and clapboards. I never would have guessed I’d be doing this for so long back when I started. Now, I can’t imagine what my life would be like without this little creative exercise. I know that I’ve grown as a person through my regular attempts to criticize, analyze, praise, and detract certain movies, and this blog has certainly grown with me.

As of this writing, the Movie Curiosities Facebook page has 97 Likes. The Twitter page has 22 followers. And I don’t even know who all of them are! My blog entries are being reposted on CHUD and Manic Expression, with retweets by LAMB, all of whom continue to gladly welcome my articles. Granted, such an audience may not be much in the grand scheme of things, but it’s certainly larger than I ever thought would be interested in the ramblings of some random dime-a-dozen blogger.

Anyway, in honor of this auspicious occasion (and totally not because of a certain blockbuster coming out in a few days), I think it’s 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 written at a time when I was still trying to find my voice as a writer and as a critic. Plus, I was only just starting to hone my entirely self-taught skills at film analysis.

In the end, I’ve spent the past few years feeling like I tried too hard to look for praise that the movie hadn’t earned. I came to feel like I had pulled an overwhelmingly pretentious graduate thesis out of my ass without ever coming back to the central question of “is it good?” Now, with three years of hindsight and experience, I wanted a chance at correcting that.

However, after watching Iron Man 2 a second time, it turns out that my first write-up was actually quite accurate. There is indeed a lot going on in this movie. The themes of responsibility, mortality, the legacies left to us, and the legacies we leave behind are all very prominent from start to finish. In fact, there’s one more very prominent theme that I neglected to mention the first time around: Ego.

The crux of Stark’s conflict is that the knowledge of his own mortality clashes terribly with his own overwhelming narcissism. As such, Stark has to get over his urge to go out in a blaze of glory and get to his responsibilities on the mortal plane. At the same time, he must gradually come to the realization that he isn’t the center of the universe after all. In the process, he has to strengthen his relationships with Pepper Potts, Rhodey, and the people at SHIELD. It was actually quite a brilliant way for the franchise to respectively further the Stark/Potts romance arc, introduce a partnership with War Machine, and establish SHIELD as a major player in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Elsewhere, we have Hammer. Here’s a character so full of himself that he completely fails to realize just how deeply he’s in over his head. More than that, he flat-out refuses to believe that he’s dumber and weaker than either Stark or Vanko, no matter how much evidence is staring him in the face.

As for Vanko, this guy is all wounded pride. He’s so determined to make Stark pay for Howard Stark’s sins that no thought of reconciliation ever occurred to him. A review I once read posited that if Stark and Vanko had just sat down to work out their differences over some top-shelf liquor and high-class hookers, the two of them might have been working wonders together in a laboratory somewhere just as soon as the hangovers wore off. But the thought never comes to either of them, and that’s the real pity.

Like I said in my initial review, there is a lot going on in this movie. What I failed to realize at the time, however, is that there is too much going on in this movie.

I blame the two films that came before, really. When Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk were in production, no one ever knew this whole thing would get to be as big as it was. No one had yet thought of combining the two franchises, much less The Avengers. Sure, there was enough time to put in a few paltry breadcrumbs before the films hit theaters, but if the planning for a vast inter-franchise continuity had started sooner, maybe the earlier two films could have done more to establish SHIELD and alleviate some of the clutter inĀ IM2.

Still, SHIELD is just a minor problem. By far the bigger issue is just how badly this film leaned toward the more introspective themes. So much time is spent on the personal issues and petty squabbles among the main trio of Stark, Vanko, and Hammer that precious little is left for the spectacular action that we’ve come to expect from blockbusters and superhero films.

Of course, it’s hardly a bad thing that this movie tried to have some amount of thematic depth. God knows that too many summer blockbusters have suffered from the opposite problem. Additionally, Iron Man had a similar focus, as it was mostly about Stark learning more about himself and what he was doing. The difference is that the previous film was an origin story, so we expected our title character to have a few growing pains as he learned how to be a superhero. Moreover, that film still treated us to Stark’s breakout sequence, the assault in Gulmira, and that jaw-dropping flight in the Mark II. By comparison, this film offers us the showdown at Monaco and the Stark/Rhodey armored fight in IM2 as breaks from the inner conflict, neither of which are remotely as exciting as the action in the original.

For another point of comparison, let’s take a look the film that many consider to be among the greatest — if not the absolute greatest — in superhero cinema history, Spider-Man 2. There was another sequel that focused far more on the conflict of “hero vs. alter-ego” than “hero vs. villain.” However, that movie was way more focused than this one was. In Spider-Man 2, the focus was kept squarely on Peter Parker and his question of whether it was worth giving up his super-powers to live a normal life, or even if that trade was one he really needed to make in the first place. Compare that to Iron Man 2, in which we’ve got three characters lugging around all of their baggage while exploring myriad emotional themes.

Also, I’d point out that Dr. Octopus was a far better villain than Whiplash is here. Not only was Alfred Molina’s Dr. Octavius a more sympathetic villain, but he was also more powerful, more threatening, blessed with better action sequences, and just more fun to watch in general than Mickey Rourke as Whiplash. To be clear, I get that Ivan Vanko (who, by the way, was made pretty much entirely from whole cloth for this movie and bore little resemblance to any iteration of Whiplash from the comics) plays as a dark mirror of the same themes that Tony Stark is dealing with, and I can understand how a weaker and less prominent villain would place a greater emphasis on the character-driven conflicts. All the same, I think that was the wrong choice to make.

Stark’s daddy issues and questions about his legacy were all abundantly clear even without Vanko. There was no reason to make the villain a part of all that. Instead, the villain should have been someone strong enough and powerful enough to represent Stark’s looming mortality. Even better, he should’ve been someone who causes so much destruction that Stark is finally motivated to go out and save lives instead of dying in drunken madness.

Funnily enough, Mickey Rourke has said in interviews that he was interested in playing a more fleshed-out bad guy. And for a time, he was allowed to play Vanko with several layers. Unfortunately, he alleges, Marvel left the best parts of his performance on the cutting room floor because they wanted a more straight-up action hero. And to be honest, I believe him.

This movie reeks of being made by committee. I can just see so many producers and filmmakers in a room together arguing “We should focus on Tony’s relationship with his dad!” “What about the American military-industrial complex and how they feel about Iron Man? We’ve got to make that a huge part of the movie.” “Well, what about Tony’s struggles with personal responsibility from the last film? We’ve got to carry that over.” “Well, in any case, we need to make this a huge CGI action blow-out.” “But will we have enough time to set up the other Marvel films?”

It’s obvious that there were so many people involved in this film, all of whom had different ideas about what this movie was supposed to be and accomplish, and none of them had any kind of restraint. There was no one in the room to say “Whoa, let’s take a step back and think about what will actually fit into a story.”

As a result of the film’s unfocused nature, there are way too many storylines for the film to manage effectively. This is how we wound up with a climax that was far too sprawling and rushed for the film’s own good. It’s also how we wound up with an attempt at getting the Ten Rings involved, which turned out to be so half-assed that it actually did more harm than good to the movie as a whole.

Perhaps most importantly, the film had to create colossal plot holes to get everything they wanted. Need to make Whiplash a more badass villain? Let him survive repeated car crashes even though his suit has no armor to protect him from such attacks. Need Rhodey to steal the Mark II armor? Let him bypass all the security measures in the suit and get access to his own miniature arc reactor even though there’s no way he should be able to do either. Stark is under house arrest and he’ll be tazed if he tries to leave the property? Well, he needs to go talk with Pepper, so screw that!

For those who are wondering, I don’t count Stark’s miraculous discovery of a new element among the plot holes. Yes, I know that anyone with a passing knowledge of chemistry would find the notion utterly laughable. Even so, this is a comic book film. It isn’t even a Nolan-style comic book film that tries to call itself “realistic” with a straight face. The main character’s got a suit of armor that put a couple of F-22s to shame in the previous film, he’s got holographic technology beyond anything we’ve got right now, and he’s got an AI with all the sentience and intelligence of an average human. Hell, we already knew at the time of this film’s release that Tony Stark was sharing a universe with a thunder god and a guy whose overdose of gamma radiation lets him shapeshift into a 10-foot behemoth. Somehow, I think we can let this scientific impossibility slide.

Ultimately, it’s the cast that really sees this movie through. Rourke may have gotten the shit end of the stick when all is said and done, but it’s still obvious that he’s trying. We’ve also got Sam Rockwell, whose performance perfectly embodies the word “backpfeifengesicht.” Don Cheadle was given something of a raw deal, stepping into a role that had already been established, but he’s still Don fucking Cheadle. Guy’s certainly a trade up from Terrence Howard, and that’s saying a lot.

Scarlett Johansson is sadly the weak link of the cast, though she still gets one flat-out awesome action scene to establish herself as the Black Widow. Unfortunately, that one action scene in a rather messy climax is the only chance she gets to really show the character off. Natasha Romanoff spends so much of the movie undercover that we never really got to know Black Widow until The Avengers came along. She’s a character who could have used some screen time in Iron Man or The Incredible Hulk, I think.

Though of course Samuel Jackson and Clark Gregg are always a treat to see in their respective roles. Goes without saying, really.

But of course, it’s RDJ and — to a lesser extent — Gwyneth Paltrow who really see this movie through. Their banter is wonderful, their chemistry is effortless, and these two play their characters like it ain’t no thing. Hell, RDJ practically carries this whole film on his shoulders and he does a phenomenal job of it. This is — as I’ve already said countless times — a hugely introspective film that really puts Tony Stark in some dark emotional places, and RDJ plays every scene brilliantly. I know in my heart that Robert Downey Jr. won’t be the last one to play Tony Stark, but it’s still gonna be a sad day when he passes the torch. No matter how much money and fame comes with the role, no way will I envy the guy on the receiving end.

Getting back to the movie, as much crap as I give the film for its climax, it had some great moments as well. The “ex-wife” made for a neat little throwaway gag, the Stark/Potts banter was good, the Stark/Rhodey banter was even better, Happy Hogan got a wonderful little moment, and I’ve already said my piece about Black Widow’s awesome fight scene. Speaking of which, she used these weird little disc-like gadgets in her fight scene here. Why didn’t she use those in Avengers, I wonder?

Finally, I’d like to say that the filmmakers made a huge mistake when they didn’t bring Ramin Djawadi back to compose the score. Aside from the wonderful “Black Widow Kicks Ass” and the neat selection of classic rock songs, the music in this film sounded bland. As a reminder, the last film blended a full orchestra with rock sensibility, lending the score a kind of novelty and energy that were sorely lacking in the sequel. Sorry, but if I’m asked to choose a definitive theme for Iron Man, this is what I’m going with.

Iron Man 2 is quite clearly a “transition” picture. It was obviously made in a time when Marvel was changing directions and laying down the groundwork for their massive and revolutionary inter-franchise continuity. Unfortunately, they had to reconcile their far-reaching and interlocking plans with a film series that was initially designed to stand on its own, and the two approaches didn’t exactly mesh. More than that, the movie suffers because of all the themes and events and characters that the PTB felt like they absolutely had to get in by any means necessary. And the “action spectacle” side of things suffers greatly because of it.

With all of that said, it’s not like the movie is a trainwreck. Not by a longshot. For how much crap had to get crammed in, heaven knows the direction and the screenwriting could easily have been far worse. It also helps tremendously that the actors are all so damned entertaining in their roles.

In the end, the movie is just a stepping stone. It’s certainly watchable, and it proved to be a vital step in Marvel’s world-building efforts, though it still isn’t nearly as entertaining as Captain America or its prequel. Here’s hoping the third film has some better luck.

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