Sunday, May 9, 2010

"Iron Man 2" (2010)

"Iron Man" set the bar high for its inevitable sequel to come. Other superhero movies have done the same before. Christopher Nolan set the bar with "Batman Begins" and then subsequently made the triumph of "The Dark Knight," which made the first one feel like a mere warm up. Sam Raimi, on the other hand, set the bar with "Spider-Man 2," what was at the time the best superhero movie ever made, and then crashed and burned with the release of "Spider-Man 3." So, now there's Jon Favreau and "Iron Man 2." How does this superhero sequel fare among the others? It unfortunately falls to the fate of the latter example by being a disappointment, plain and simple. As the first blockbuster to kick off the summer, though, it does its job just fine, and so it's not that it doesn't deliver but that it doesn't deliver on what really matters.

It really is hard to pinpoint what went wrong with "Iron Man 2," but I'm willing to place the blame on the script by Justin Theroux, the writer-actor who helped write "Tropic Thunder." The snappy and witty writing allows Robert Downey Jr., returning as the lead role of Tony Stark, to shine. His gleeful narcissism pervades the entire movie, and he adds twice the snarky attitude to Stark since last time around. But when the script isn't giving Downey his breathing room for enhanced egotism, it meanders without any forward momentum. In these slow slumps, even Downey seems desperate in figuring out what to do.

Unfocused is the word that comes to mind. It's not that the screenplay tries to fit too much in but rather that it isn't sure of what it even wants to do. There's a painfully slow and dull midsection of the movie that almost entirely ruined it for me where actors trip over each other's lines and the story simultaneously goes everywhere and nowhere. There's something about Stark's father who brought Stark Industries its success. And Stark has a failing heart from high blood toxicity after wearing the suit too long, but he drinks and parties like a teenager inflated with the excess of celebrity status. He needs to discover and create a new element to fuel him. All of this pseudo brooding doesn't add emotional depth; instead it just drags down the fun.

The movie's villain, Whiplash, is introduced in the very best scene near the beginning. It takes place at the Monaco Grand Prix where Stark decides to drive his own sponsored car. Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), the tattooed Russian, shows up on the track slicing through the cars like paper with his powerful electric whips. Rourke proves to be a fine villain delivering his lines with cold assurance. The problem is that his villain is never really put face to face with Stark for a final showdown. Rourke is accompanied by Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), another weapons developer like Stark. He wishes to exploit Vanko and create an army of iron suits to rival Stark's own Iron Man. Rockwell gives a dastardly comedic performance that complements Rourke's well. If only these characters were put to more effective use.

The cast is big with great performers all working together with a smart sense of humor. This star power feels underused, however. Gwenyth Paltrow returns as the delightful Pepper Potts as Stark's assistant, now CEO of Stark Industries, but this time she is just bickering and shoved to the sidelines. You know that scene in the trailer where she kisses the Iron Man helmet just before Stark dives out of the back of the airplane? Yeah, not in the actual movie. Don't you hate when that happens? Especially with such a scene. Don Cheadle replaces Terrence Howard as Stark's buddy Rhodey with a role that gets beefed up but to no useful purpose except to have another metal suit blasting away at enemies in the action sequences.

The action looks great and escalates to an impressive final set piece. The movie itself looks great, too, with the Iron Man suit shining as it soars around in the night sky. There's a moment, though, where Rhodey and Stark get into a brawl while wearing the suits that is muddily motivated and comes off as a sorry excuse for just a bit more action.

Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury working for whatever organization it is they work for should've been saved for the next sequel because they're altogether wasted. Johansson is sexy, as is the norm with any role she's in now, and she gets one shining stunt wearing her tight, leather jumpsuit. Jackson gets only two scenes sporting that eye patch of his. These two showing up is a faint side note.

While it may think it's satisfying the requirements of a sequel, "Iron Man 2" is no "Iron Man." It's too in love with its newfangled hardware and less in love with its characters. Here's to hoping they figure this out in time for "Iron Man 3," inevitably to be shot in 3-D.

My review of the original "Iron Man"

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