Monday, July 18, 2011

Iron Man 2 is um...

Updated as of 1:30 this afternoon: sorry, but a 2nd-to-last draft was posted by accident this morning. Sometimes I prefer to do my last editorial pass after I publish, because it's easy & I don't think anyone reads these right away; this review was missing whole paragraphs, tho - sorry. Let's go over the film now...

I was really taken by the first "Iron Man," as was almost everyone else. I like Robert Downey Jr. a lot, and I laughed hysterically alongside my brother at the Ziegfeld Theater. I didn't seen it coming, but "IM" was very much a slapstick superhero movie, and it all worked beautifully. Now I've seen its sequel, which uses all the same beats while upping the action. So why does it feel inferior to the original?

"Iron Man 2" picks up soon after the first movie: Tony Stark, a wealthy genius/mechanic/physicist/weapons manufacturer has built a suit of armor that's strong, fast and powerful. He's using it to stop unlawful armed combatants and militant terrorists around the globe. But he's got problems: the US gov't wants his tech, his main competitor will do anything to one-up Stark's business, and the hero himself is despondent as he's being poisoned by the device that powers his machine and protects his injured heart. Wheh!

Too much? Yeah.

Into all this steps Mickey Rourke. His introduction, as Ivan, is ludicrous and clich├ęd - in Moscow, Rourke holds his dying father and a bottle of vodka. No joke, Ivan's actually holding a bottle of "wodka" while his pops dies. That's not Russian, dude, that's straight-up alcoholic! And while that would actually be thematically correct, what wins out here is another theme of this Iron Man pic - "family loss is just a plot device."

See, dying daddy leaves "his knowledge" to his child. It's not hockey statistics, either - it's knowledge that lets Rourke build a super-weapon to attack Iron Man. Whole parts of Ivan's story are barely addressed or handled in 2 sentences. This fourth element, added to everything else, is too much for our metal hero.

This picture would be overwhelmed with problems if it didn't have such a reliable cast, as well as consistent, well-defined characters. The characters are defined way too bluntly, but I'll give the film credit. Let's look together, shall we?

Gwyneth Paltrow returns as Annie "Pepper" Potts, Tony's long-suffering aide who shares an unspoken love-thing with her boss, albeit one that's constantly deflected by his wantonness petulance, and stupidity. Sam Rockwell, whom I often despise in pictures, appears as the pornographically-named Justin Hammer; he's the Anti-Stark - a rival businessman who's just as egotistical as RDjr's character, but without the hero's confidence and success. Don Cheadle (replacing Terrance Howard) is Lt. Col. Sam Rhodes, a man who's not afraid to fight best buddy Tony when he seems out of control.

Actually kind of a funny reference to the 1st pic.

Those support parts get the most screen time, but there are more still: Scarlet Johansson appears as masturbatory fan-bait for teens, as well as to tie in with future spin-off, "The Avengers." She's too pretty and noticeable to be a good covert op, but can apparently incapacitate people with the slightest contact from her 110-pound (?) frame, and can also make computers do anything. Clark Gregg returns as Agent Coulson, and he might be my favorite person here, he's there to tie the pic to "Thor" as well "TA." Samuel Jackson pops up again as Nick Fury, the one-eyed head of a covert task force who also ties in with "The Avengers." And Jon Favreau returns as "Happy Hogan," absurdly-named bodyguard and driver for Mr. Stark.

Yeah, she uh... types really fast.

It's an embarrassment of riches, really, a cast like this. Each of these characters has excellent charisma, and some/most are fine actors. Still, I've just described a movie with 9 major roles, which ends up working about as well as it sounds. Note that three of those are there to cement this pic to the "Marvel Cinematic Universe," and that works about as well as it sounds. Of course, a slightly different kind of "bloat" may be the film's ultimate problem.

Before I discuss that problem, I want you to know that I did my homework here. I took the time to run through the Iron Man comic character's wiki page. Every event in "IM2" actually fits the spirit of the comic, and is directly based on events in the source material. It's a pretty cool fact, and I wasn't sure if I should be surprised or not. What I didn't predict, then, is how the movie would manage to ring false while staying oddly true to its origins.

I guess the real issue is that the film takes everything that worked in part 1, and then gives it amphetamines. It really became a case of "too much is way too much."

People loved RDjr's brash, narcissistic playboy - like what if Batman didn't "pretend" to be a reckless partying billionaire. Here, his arrogance and self-centeredness is a problem, partly because of what it suggests: that he hasn't changed much/at all since the person he was at the start of the first movie. There was a whole thing with capture and torture and seeing people die and I guess it didn't change him> Undermining the movie you're directly picking up from and undoing its character development is... is a bad idea.

And apparently, it only takes Tony Stark 6 months of being Iron Man before he totally burns out? Wow, our hero!

With everything getting amped up, the suit-on-suit fights are excessive as well. They look fantastic, but the moment I think about them, I realize it's all just impossible.

Viewers also loved the heavy cynicism on display in "Iron Man," and now it's so cynical that it's overwhelming. It's a movie that brings up the spectre of the Cold War with an American defense contractor going up against a Russian scientist! The US armed forces appear repeatedly in this picture, and they puts everyone in danger. Sure, it's from lousy politicians and military men, but it's obvious that the movie could try to say something about any of this.

It doesn't even try. It just plays off of the elements and sticks its tongue out at them. And once you combine that with what might be the message of this movie - "everybody sucks" and/or "I'm gonna do what I want" - you realize that it's just incredibly shallow. All things considered, it's not bad, but it's not as good as the first movie.  The one that actually seemed to do all that stuff.

I'll give them credit, I can see why the filmmakers would want the hero to be that close to the edge. And I admit it makes sense that power would corrupt this protagonist. So I almost think it sucks that it's so fun to watch, because "Iron Man 2:Jacked to the Extreme" didn't get the job done for me.

I kind of got the feeling that the producers really wanted to play up "extreme narcissism" and its place in modern American culture. Like getting drunk and driving fast, this part of "IM2" is trying to hard to be entertaining or cool.

Or maybe I could stand the way the picture uses multiple deus ex machina (is it "dei," "machinae," or both?) to just get magical science stuff done. Rourke's Ivan Vanko can single-handledly massacre and hang two guards. Please remember, he's a physicist whose gadgets rival Iron Man, but he can also write impossibly-complex computer code to do, um, anything. Tony just creates a whole new element for the periodic chart with something that looks big, dangerous, and expensive. The US military decides to both steal Stark's armor and then just gives it to his biggest competitor? It didn't even make him sign an NDA.

Rourke ends up with a "Tetris, Tetris, Tetris" Russian accent

When you add up what I've written in the last two paragraphs, you end up with diminishing returns both for this movie's story and for its character development. It's a bit unsatisfying as a film lover, and especially so when the first picture handled them much better.

On and on, things just keep happening. But the events don't feel credible individually, so they feel rather loose when added together. It's a tribute to Favreau's smart film-making here that it all still works as well as it does. It's also aided by the fact that "IM2" doesn't have a higher goal than being the biggest popcorn blockbuster out there.

And add to all this: a son connecting with his long-dead father, another man who's out to avenge his family's supposed tragedy, and the hero's best friend acting as his combative, slightly-traitorous super-ego. So, you've really got a lot going on, but the emotional parts of this are too weighed down by the film's cynicism. This isn't bad in and of itself, necessarily, but it has a bad effect here.

What it means is that "Iron Man 2" brings up many issues - Tony's drinking problem, the possibility that he learned it from his father, the idea that Stark is mostly acting up because he expects to die soon. "Iron Man 2" touches on all these issues, but it doesn't actually deal with them.

And, in perfect keeping with the worst kind of cynicism, it doesn't actually have anything to say about those issues. It just shows them. And that means it's wasting time and being shallow as hell.

Look at that! Another huge US flag! Is there a point?

Here's the lead character arc for Iron Man 2 - "Iron Man learns to be more considerate, less irresponsible, and less self-centered. Which he also learned in the last movie from a dying doctor, a personal/professional betrayal, and having an awful medical condition." Wow.

As much as Mickey Rourke's character doesn't work, he still gets some good beats. Actually, I liked Rourke's interaction with Sam Rockwell, especially a genuinely hysterical moment with a bird. The problem is that Rourke's big plan - to show the world that Iron Man can be hurt, encouraging others to go after him - is still a pretty stupid idea. Again, I don't know that it would work, but Ivan just says it out loud and the movie decides to make it true. Yet this isn't empowering, or a sign of strategy, it's a liability for the audience.

How? Let's look at Ivan-related story issues that make no sense: Why does Vanko's dad wait until he's literally passing on before handing on his "knowledge?" His physicist son surely could've used it before, and it looks like they needed the money such technology could bring. & why do we get the impression that Ivan & his pa are living in something like poverty, when both Vankos would be sought-after geniuses, men who write their own ticket? If Ivan's so poor, how did he buy the parts to build his super-weapon? How much time even passes in these various scenes of people movie?

No, wait, there's more - Why did Tony stand around and fight a bullwhip using villain, when Iron Man can fly and shoot lasers and missiles? Why didn't the cops shoot a madman who's using electrical whips to shred racecars? What made Vanko think that Stark would try to stop him personally? And what kind of "great revenge" is weakening someone publicly so they'll be defeated later by another person? Why does stuff just happen here? & these are only the flaws for that 1 character!

All of the above complaints mean that the big villain that's supposed to drive the hero and the story is actually in no condition to be operating a vehicle, much less advancing a plot or developing 1-2 characters. The energetic scenes with Whiplash sure are big, mindless fun, tho. But, like everything about the role, it doesn't really work or hold up to scrutiny.

My action-based problems with Ivan Vanko are on display in a sequence with Happy Hogan and Pepper Potts (god, it sounds like a Seuss story) trying to save Tony's life. It works as an action scene, but you know that (a) other people in danger would've been warned early on, (b) Happy would not have gone against traffic like he did, (c) Whiplash would've died early from severe injuries to his totally unprotected legs, and (d) the cops pour into a war zone within a second of the fight's end, so why didn't they interfere earlier? That's one long sentence, but I guess so is this film.

Ivan's dead at the knees, Tony's dead bc that suit comes on too slow!

What I've described is a scene that, like Stark's hyper-narcissism, feels like it was made to just gratify the audience, not to tell a good story. Too much of "Iron Man 2" plays this way, yet without the real heart that was actually present in the first installment. It's so weird to make these statements, considering the sequel's technical success, both in use of source material and in what it put onscreen. And it was still sort of a good time, like eating so much Halloween candy that you get sick.

"IM2" is too overblown and shallow, and that makes it an inferior sequel. For those of you in love with Robert Downey Junior, it's a mixed bag too - most of his lines are delivered in a hard-to-hear mumble. It's actually so bad, I wish Netflix offered subtitles for this one; I would've turned them on within 20 minutes...

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