One of the better superhero franchises returns with the standard baggage of all superhero franchises
by Jack Kentala
It’s easy to bemoan sequels, especially for the so-called “superhero” franchise films. For comic fans, there are innumerable changes to the coveted Lore for the sake of making a compelling hour-and-a-half to two-hour movie, laden with ret-conning and character compositing and various rejiggerings that muddy the pure waters of the diehard. For the adult populace seeking to watch something slightly more entertaining than reality TV, there’s the barrier of the PG-13 rating, which requires all possible grittiness and swearing and sex to getting sanded down to something harmless enough for the 14-year-old boys in attendance, not to mention the latter usually resulting in a lowest-common-denominator, playing-to-the-moronic-masses dumbing-down of most everything. And for anyone just trying to enjoy a damn film, there’s the product placement, the unwieldy comic relief, and the nagging suspicion that they’re watching a two-hour commercial for action figures.
Rather miraculously, Iron Man has proved itself to be one of the more tolerable, watchable franchises, which I’ll just go ahead and say I believe is entirely the result of the inspired choice of casting Robert Downey Jr. and getting micro-indie (circa Swingers) turned big-budget writer-actor-director Jon Favreau to helm the show. Amazing how Favreau went from slumming it with the criminally-underseen, Swingers-spiritual-successor, small-budget mob movie Made to a gargantuan, multi-unit, multi-million moneybag like Iron Man in around fifteen years, which is about the equivalent of fifteen minutes in gated Hollywood.
Iron Man, however, is only two films in, which for most superhero franchises are baby steps. Film Number One is always easiest and, usually, most interesting, since the bulk of the runtime is devoted to the Origin Story. It’s why I think of the first Spider-Man as the best, and why 2 and 3 gradually worsened, and why I won’t even bother with 4 and/or the reboot now that all the players behind the trilogy have divorced themselves from any future movies. X-Men and its sequel were passable, but then the third was widely panned, as was the Wolverine spin-off. The Hulk has never really gotten a firm grip, given Ang Lee made what is arguably the first superhero art-film with his simply-named Hulk in 2004; reviled insofar as to make the recent The Incredible Hulk have no semblance to Lee’s version. And there’s the also-junior Batman reboot, with a decent first foray (again, most interesting as an origin story) and a bloated sequel that only gained a tinge of legitimacy because one of the leads decided to go and die.
Batman is a good case-study for comparison. While Batman is helmed by a veteran action/thriller director – Chris Nolan, who started with the cult-hit Memento and whose Batman off-years yield such ambitious works as The Prestige and the upcoming Inception – Favreau really came out of nowhere as a director, going straight from small-budget Made to the bizarro-Christmas pic Elf, after which he directed something rather forgettable before getting behind Iron Man. But Batman and Iron Man seem to share quite a few elements. Namely, the titular character possess no innate superpowers, but because of their genius (or use of geniuses) and huge masses of sitting-around money allowed them to make suits and gadgets that can tackle a city’s worth of crime.
The characterization of Batman, though, stalled in The Dark Knight, since the only aspect of Bruce Wayne’s mythos explored is the death of his parents, and Batman Begin’s follow-up starred a man in a black rubber suit who spoke in a well-practiced growl and who possessed the uncanny ability to disappear whenever someone is talking to him turns their back. (It doesn’t help that the Hero is massively upstaged by Heath Ledger’s depiction of The Joker, unanimously praised if only because of the different compared to Jack Nicholson, who was merely playing Jack Nicholson in a purple suit in Tim Burton’s Batman.) Iron Man, by contrast, delves more into genius billionaire Tony Stark’s self-loathing and depression; his drinking and womanizing; his narcissism and deep scars of a childhood living in the shadow of his father. Again, this is where the PG-13 rating pins it to the wall, and Iron Man 2 doesn’t get much deeper past Stark’s surface than the first.
So Iron Man 2 picks up with the finale of Iron Man 1, in which Stark publicly disclosed that, yes, he is The Iron Man, making himself even more of a self-absorbed egoist than before. The film’s start has Stark, as Iron Man, jetting into his keynote at the year-long Stark Expo and declaring that he’s basically responsible for world peace, despite other nations trying, and failing, to create their own Iron Men.
That’s really where the movie starts to coast on the formula largely carried over from the first. We introduce Mickey Rourke as some Russian physicist (also conveniently brilliant) who can make his own fancy arc reactor whatever and, eventually, his own Iron Man rip-off suit, but with whips. Iron Man doesn’t have whips! It’s the same sort of problem as the first, in which foe Iron Monger could only go toe-to-toe with Stark with a special suit. And, like last time, Stark’s buddy (this time Don Cheadle replacing Terrence Howard) suits up as Iron Man clone War Machine and joins in the foray. I’m no Iron Man scholar, but in a sort of universe where there aren’t superpowers per se, won’t every Iron Man film basically involve the titular character squaring off against a baddie decked out in similar armor?
You can pretty much guess most of the film from there. Or, if not, you probably don’t care about these sort of things when seeing this sort of movie.
There is, however, the Baggage of the superhero franchise film that, fortunately, doesn’t weigh the film down too much. There had to be a b-line setting up The Avenger, set to come out in 2012, mostly present in Samuel L. Jackson lingering here and there and bringing up SHIELD, with various degrees of wanting and then not wanting Stark’s Iron Man to join up. Added to the mix is Scarlett Johansson shedding even more of her indie cred by taking the role of superheroine Black Window (which is never mentioned by name in the movie – I had to Wikipedia it). Whereas a worse film like, say, Transformers, would cast a Maxim-approved sexpot like, say, Megan Fox, to play such a character, I suppose I can credit whoever’s decision it was to get Johansson on board, given she has a resume that shows off some acting chops. (Though IMDb’s trivia shows she was in the middle of a rather long list of actresses wanted for the part.) She doesn’t really interfere with the not-really-established love triangle of her, Stark and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, and, again, it’s more self-serving to establish the upcoming Avengers movie than actually adding much to the plot. But, as the theme of this piece is, the watchability of Iron Man 2 is aided by getting to ogle Johansson in various tight outfits.
I just went over the last few things and it might sound like I’m railing on the film. I’m not. It’s just that it’s hard to sit through something that is tethered so tightly to a formula that all hard-plot elements come off rather stiff. Like the inevitable end showdown and the surprisingly-quick takedown of Rourke’s metal-suited combination of the Crimson Dynamo and Whiplash (again, quick Wikipedia check).
And where Iron Man 2 shines (oh god, that’s a pun, isn’t it?) is the same as the first. There’s an apocryphal story about the first in which the producers and VFX army spent most of their time figuring out the action sequences that Favreau and the cast had pretty much free reign to create their characters and dialog. It created, egad, some nuance in the performances (regardless of how much the nation collectively wants to punch Paltrow in the face, et cetera) largely absent from the genre, and, in the sequel, many Altmanesque sequences with overlapping dialog that I’m sure gave nightmares to the dialog editor. So while something like The Dark Knight suffered from one-note performances by Christian Bale and his wooden Batman, here things go a little more loose. Though one could probably argue that Downey Jr. is delivering rapid banter as Downey Jr. instead of Tony Stark.
It’s all part of what makes Iron Man the most adult of these comic book films (despite some guffaw-inducing product placement and the money-machine spitting out an Iron Man video game simultaneous with the movie) and – say it with me now – quite watchable. And, hell, I find Iron Man’s brand of racing-through-the-sky action a lot more interesting than a dimly-lit, cut-too-fast Batman fistfight.
Dovetailing on the above-mentioned fast cuts, which can cause even the most MTV-raised moviegoer a migraine, another thing I seem to notice in a lot of these movies is the attempt to one-up all the others with regards to computing interfaces. I think it’s a result of a post-Minority Report world, in which VFX guys decided that keyboards and mice were really boring, and in an iPhone and iPad age we’re all figuring that touchscreen interfaces are the future and shit. Iron Man 2 has a few scenes in which Stark is sitting in his quasi-lair, surrounded by holographic computer screens that seem to fill the whole room, in which he walks around and flails his arms and the magic screens pop up and fly around and disappear at a pretty annoying, ADD-addled rate.
Oh yeah, and there’s a really stupid scene/plot point in which Stark manages to invent a new element (you know, like hydrogen) by building what looks like a particle accelerator in his workspace and directing a laser at a magic triangle of… something. I’m sure comic fans would point out how it was better in ink, but in the movie it plays pretty ridiculous to anyone who stayed awake for at least fifteen minutes during high-school chemistry.
This is the part where this last paragraph, for those who skip the big chunk of text above, look to find some ultimate judgment, so I guess I’ll give it a shot. Iron Man 2 is a good movie. It’s a lot better than its contemporaries, and by the looks of the Rotten Tomatoes scores of other summer blockbusters, you could do a lot worse. It manages to navigate the tricky minefield of comic book superhero franchise movies by not treating the audience like idiots, though it’s also burdened by the obligation to set up not only a sequel but also an entirely new franchise (coming in 2012!). What sets Iron Man apart from the rest is that it dares to be adult (because, hell, the kids just want to see the action anyway), has some actual characters, and is directed by someone as concerned with said characters as with, to use the colloquialism, blowing shit up.