The pitfalls of being a superhero are dissected in Jon Favreau’s divisive sequel.
Who made it?: Jon Faveau (Director), Justin Theroux (Writer), Kevin Feige, Jeremy Latcham (Producers), Marvel Studios/Paramount Pictures.
Who’s in it?: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Mickey Rourke, Scarlett Johannson, Sam Rockwell, Samuel L. Jackson.
IMDb rating: 7.0/10.
It was only natural that when Tony Stark revealed his alter-ego at the end of Iron Man, it would have ramifications on his personal and professional lives. Iron Man 2 builds on that revelation and makes it the driving force of the plot. You could almost give it the subtitle, “Why Superheroes Have Secret Identities.”
Like the great comic book story Demon in a Bottle, the film sees Stark confronting a harsh truth. In the comic’s case, it was alcohol. Here, Stark’s confession results in the government attempting to take away his all-powerful suits, and when the arc reactor keeping him alive becomes toxic, his handle on the situation as well as his relationships begin to crumble. Amidst the embarrassments and triumphs, there is also a story about two sons trying to live up to the legacy of their fathers. Director Jon Favreau’s sequel isn’t quite the lazy, misguided mess some critics argued in spite of its flaws, and while I was ambivalent toward it on my initial viewing, it has only grown more appealing to me over time.
Upon release, Iron Man 2 got a lot of criticisms, some of them warranted, others overblown. While it does spend a fair bit of time setting up The Avengers, this is a logical continuation of the film that preceded it. Nagging caveats aside, Iron Man’s second solo outing might be one of the more ballsy entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date. Reason number one being the unconventional tone. Comic book sequels of the past usually conformed to the same basic rules: Bigger, faster-paced and more explosive. The credited writer of Iron Man 2, Justin Theroux, tosses conventional wisdom aside and creates a film designed more as a comedic examination of Stark’s foibles than a typical summer blockbuster. He does have a villain (or two) to face, and there are some pyrotechnics, but this unforgiving portrait of the man beneath the iron mask attempts to cover topics no other Marvel movie has. For that, I must give it some credit.
Courage, dear readers… this is going to be a long one.
The film opens in Moscow, where Russian television shows Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) revealing his identity as Iron Man to the world. Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), who watches his father Anton (Yevgeni Lazarev) die in poverty, sees this and begins building a weapon based around Tony’s arc reactor technology. The blueprints he uncovers also suggest a tie to the Stark family. Six months later, we find Tony opening the Stark Expo in Flushing, New York to continue his father’s legacy. Senator Stern (Garry Shandling) demands that Stark turn over the Iron Man technology to the government, who see it as a potential security risk (but really, they just want soldiers in high-tech body armour). The stubborn playboy refuses, claiming that no-one in the world is able to replicate his designs. Rival weapons manufacturer Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) is trying his best, however.
Adding to Stark’s worries is the fact that the palladium core in his arc reactor is slowly poisoning him. Nevermind that palladium was never a part of the gizmo in the first movie, meaning that this entire plot thread was a retcon deigned purely to give the new suit a triangular chest-plate (don’t forget Marvel needed to sell some new toys). We’re supposed to care because Tony is unable to find an element to replace it. Because of this, he appoints his reliable assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) as the new CEO of Stark Industries. He also gets a new personal assistant in the shape of Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson), who may be more than she appears.
With death more or less assured, Stark throws caution to the wind and ends up in Monaco for the Grand Prix, where he can’t resist jumping into an F1 car and racing for his own company. However, Vanko shows up with his patented weapon, a brutal pair of lacerating whips, and almost kills Stark. With a little help from Pepper and his driver, Happy Hogan (Favreau), Tony manages to suit up and take Vanko down. Sensing an opportunity, the corrupt Hammer breaks Vanko out of prison, determined to kill Stark with the villain’s help.
As you’ve no doubt guessed, there is a lot of story threads for one movie to contain, and I haven’t even covered them all. Iron Man 2 is frankly all over the place, but the fractured narrative has never once affected my enjoyment of it. That’s a testament to Favreau’s ability to dazzle with the effects, and Downey Jr.’s fantastic performance. There are some serious problems here, admittedly, the biggest probably being that arc reactor storyline. It’s a great idea for a film of its own, and a novel excuse for Tony’s recklessness, but the resolution is shockingly poor writing. His salvation comes in the form of a secret left by his late father, Howard (John Slattery), and the synthesis of the new element is both jaw-droppingly illogical and somewhat easy. Tony Stark the genius is also spoon-fed this information from SHIELD Agents Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Natalie, who turns out to be undercover spy Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow. They even give him a serum to counter-act the symptoms, which Tony should have found on his own. In the grander scheme of things, this entire story thread is completely pointless.
The SHIELD presence brings me onto another popular pet-peeve: The Avengers tie-ins. I will admit that they break the flow of the movie (the pacing is an issue generally), but they are amusing and make the transition into the 2012 blockbuster smoother. Seeing Stark in a diner with Fury and Black Widow is a funny visual that almost turns the scene into a wacky play on Pulp Fiction. I can live with such silliness. If the characters are problematic, it’s because they are poorly-defined. Fury literally just shows up with no fanfare. The audience is expected to know exactly who he is. Did Marvel believe the entire world had seen the post-credits tag on the first film? Romanoff is also the most underdeveloped character in the movie, played by Johansson as pure (appreciated) eye candy. She looks pretty great in a skin-tight leather suit, but I couldn’t tell you a single thing about her character in this particular chapter. Apart from a fan-pleasing fight in the final reel, she has no real connection to the plot(s).
Unfortunately, I can also say the same for our main bad guy, Vanko, who is a composite of two Iron Man villains. He’s as one-dimensional as they come, and lacks understandable motivation. Why would he have such hatred for Tony when it was Howard Stark that crossed his family decades earlier? And if he could faithfully recreate Tony’s arc reactor technology, why not sell it on or make suits of his own? While his modus operandi is non-existent and confusing, Rourke gives it his all, making the most of a thin archetype (as do Jackson and Johansson).
Which leaves us with Stark’s best friend, Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle replacing Terrence Howard), who spends most of the movie worrying about Tony and waiting for his cue to become War Machine. His involvement in the government’s bid to claim Stark’s technology isn’t very well-developed, and the moment he puts on one of the suits isn’t dictated by character evolution but as an attempt to smack some sense into Tony, who gets spectacularly drunk on his birthday and causes a scene. The resulting skirmish, which decimates Stark’s Malibu pad, is a great deal of juvenile fun but lacks relevance. That last bit might sum up the movie, because for every mistake Iron Man 2 makes, it also gets a lot very, very right.
As expected, Downey Jr. walks away with the film. He’s as sharp and engaging as he was last time, keeping us invested in the intertwining stories and making the heavy-handed comedy work. While it never goes anywhere, the arc reactor business gives the actor some dramatic moments to play with, and the scene where he watches a recorded message from his late father becomes the emotional highpoint of the picture. We never doubt that he will ultimately prevail, but Downey has a field day playing an out-of-control Stark. His unpredictability is what makes the character so fascinating. The chemistry is still there with Paltrow, too, even though he spends most of his time with Pepper in this outing arguing.
It must be said that the whole cast elevates the material, with a particular shout-out to Rockwell, who gets the comic relief role as Hammer. His big scene, where he outfits Rhodey’s stolen suit with military hardware, is almost like cutting to another film entirely as he highlights each weapon with a shit-eating grin and quip. I found this particularly funny. That slightly off-the-wall vibe is present in a few scenes, such as a suited Stark eating junk food in a giant doughnut, or appearing on stage with a host of scantily-clad cheerleaders in Iron Man garb. It really is unlike any other Marvel-related movie released.
You’ll also be hard-pressed to quibble with the technical credits, with heavily-upgraded CGI that makes the battles more exciting than before. Vanko’s Grand Prix assault could be the action stand-out, and how often do you see explosions and Formula 1 side-by-side? The scene also manages to incorporate Tony’s improbable suitcase armour that ticks off another box on the geek checklist. There’s no denying that Favreau did his absolute best in getting this film released a mere two years after the first, and while it was foolhardy to enter production without a completed screenplay, he does pull off the set-pieces with a degree of panache. We won’t go into the brevity of the climactic fight with Vanko, however…
Iron Man 2 is a rip-roaring bit of bombast that doesn’t possess the smarts of its predecessor, but it tries so very damn hard to impress. The plot-lines, while never entirely coherent, are interesting for the most part and tied off neatly. There are several action scenes that might not carry emotional heft, but entertain due to their ruthless efficiency. And the flaws are made easier to bear by the game efforts of a cast who are clearly enjoying themselves. It doesn’t soar to the heights of the first film, but how many comic book movies have? When it concentrates squarely on Tony Stark, Iron Man 2 is a rare peek at a superhero who makes all the wrong choices and has to live with the consequences. It turns out that was enough for me.
Iron Man and War Machine vs. the Drones is the most bad-ass moment in the entire film. A shame it’s so painfully brief.
- In the comics, Tony Stark possesses a suitcase containing a portable suit of armour. This famous “suitcase armour” has been revised for the film: the suitcase converts into a series of plates that slide over a wire framework.
- The character of Ivan Vanko is a combination of Iron Man’s enemy the Crimson Dynamo (Dr. Vanko, who wears weaponry/armour that can control electricity) and the supervillain Whiplash (who possesses a specially designed razor/acid whip). In addition, the character is portrayed as the son of Anton Vanko, who was the original Crimson Dynamo in the comics, and assumes the identity of B. Turgenev (Boris Turgenev, in the comics the second Crimson Dynamo).
- In the comics, Justin Hammer was a shrewd but elderly businessman. He was re-worked as a younger character in the film to make him a contemporary rival to Tony Stark. The original purpose of the character in the comics was to explain why the various enemies Iron Man fought somehow gained unique and extremely advanced weapons, but usually kept them for themselves to commit violent crimes instead making money by bringing them to market. Iron Man eventually discovers the reason is because Hammer gives the weapons to various criminals as part of their contracts to become his mercenaries with the agreement that they hand over a percentage of the loot from their crimes.
- Black Widow’s alias of “Natalie Rushman” is inspired by “Nancy Rushman”, a SHIELD cover identity she has used in the comics.
- The action sequence of the Historic Grand Prix of Monaco had to be shot at the parking lot of the Downey Studios in California as though initially allowed to film at the Grand Prix circuit, Bernie Ecclestone retracted permission. By the time permission was retracted, one Rolls-Royce Phantom was sent there where driving sequence on the circuit was filmed.
- When Tony goes through his father’s case an old Captain America comic book can be seen inside; later he uses Captain America’s shield (a prototype) to prop up his reactor.
- Writer Shane Black recommended that Tony Stark’s characterisation be inspired by J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who led the team that developed the atomic bomb. After witnessing his creation’s destructive potential, Oppenheimer defamed himself as “the Destroyer of Worlds” and sank into depression. Black directed Iron Man 3.