Saturday, May 8, 2010

IRON MAN 2: The Heavy-Metal Review of Summer's Biggest Blockbuster!

IRON MAN 2 Review:

Warning: SPOILERS ahead.

- I love the experience of seeing a movie like Iron Man 2 opening weekend. Especially here in LA, you can't beat the atmosphere of a big movie like this playing in front of a packed house of rabid fans - clapping, cheering, laughing - thrilled to see their childhood heroes given life on the big screen. There's no question, Iron Man 2 was THE event movie of the summer, and honestly, half the fun was just getting caught up in the hype and spectacle, speculating on who or what would be in the movie, thinking about the fact that this film marked the next, long-anticipated step towards seeing the Marvel universe fully-realized on screen. And it's funny, because where Iron Man 2 most succeeds is as a bridge between the first film and this larger comic book world that Marvel Studios is trying to establish. If nothing else, Iron Man 2 creates a feeling of breathless excitement for what's coming next. But, as a standalone movie? Iron Man 2 is big and fun and full of super-cool action, but ultimately, it feels more like a breezy jaunt as opposed to truly epic superhero soap opera. Don't get me wrong though, it's bigger, badder, and crazier than the first - and for most, that will be reason enough to run out and see it as soon as humanly possible.

Iron Man 2 doesn't waste much time getting things rolling, and that's good, because it has a lot going on and a ton of characters to set up. Taking place six months after the first film, the movie finds playboy industrialist Tony Stark sitting on top of the world, now that he's gone public as Iron Man. He's a hero to the world, a veritable rock star, and business is booming - he's "privatized world peace," and is basically a one-man global peacekeeping force. But while he's outwardly king of the world, Tony is dealing with a couple of big problems. For one thing, he has the US government on his back. We see Stark forced to testify before a Senate subcomittee that has labeled him a dangerous and unstable walking weapon of mass destruction. The US miltary wants to co-opt the Iron Man technology, and is frustrated that Stark controls it and not them. To that end, they've forged an alliance with Hammer Industries, a rival corporation that's looking to build its own mechanized war-suits to rival that of Iron Man. Still, Tony has an even bigger problem - he's dying. The palladium that powers his artificial heart is also killing him, and the more he suits up as Iron Man, the faster he deteriorates. Stark is searching for an alternative power source, but in the meantime he's still donning his suit and saving the world - seems he'd rather go out in a blaze of glory than slowly wither away. Luckily, Stark has garnered increasing interest from the mysterious agency known as S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury, the eyepatched badass and Marvel comics staple, wants to help Stark find a solution to his power-source problems, all the while evaluating him as a potential member for his "Avenger Initiative" - strongly hinted to be a supersized super-team of heroes like Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, and Captain America. Fury has planted one of his top S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, Natalie Rushman, aka Natalia Romanoff, aka The Black Widow, as one of Stark's aides in order to better get a read on him. Oh, and did I mention Whiplash? He's Ivan Vanko, a hardened Russian criminal who's also a brilliant inventor in his own right. Vanko's father worked with Stark's father on all sorts of techno-wizardry, including the technology that eventually powered the Iron Man suit. Vanko's father was ousted from the team after he was found to be corrupt, but Vanko still holds a grudge against the Stark family. So Vanko build his own super-powered super-suit, this one with thunderous electro-whips, and sets off to kill Stark and settle a decades-old family feud. Somewhere in the mix we've also got Pepper Potts - Stark's on-again, off-again love interest, and new CEO of Stark Industries, Happy Hogan - his faithful driver, and most notably, James Rhodes - Stark's friend and rival, who also happens to be an army colonel and the man chosen to wield the War Machine suit modified from Stark's Iron Man designs.

Got all that?

On one level, the movie does a nice job of balancing all those characters and plotlines and keeping everything cohesive and easy-to-follow. On the other hand, there is so much going on that there's rarely time to pause and hit any real emotional beats. Things just sort of happen, and there's not always proper build-up. Whiplash's feud with Iron Man is perhaps the movie's most glossed-over aspect. He's the movie's big super-villain, and yet the stakes never feel all that high between Vanko and Stark. Vanko tries to kill off Tony, sure, but what villain worth his salt just attacks you a couple of times and calls it a day? Vanko pulls off some impressive feats of badassery, and yeah, the climactic fight in which he controls an army of super-robots is pretty awesome. But there's not much emotional punch to it all - Tony is much more concerned with his poisonous power source than he is with Whiplash - and even that he seems to take mostly in stride. This same lack of depth carries over into the relationship between Tony and Pepper. You're never quite sure how he feels about her - certainly, he seems more interested in Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow for much of the movie (and for that, you can't really blame him). But again, there weren't quite the emotional story beats that made you really root for Tony and Pepper. One more example of a storyline that suffers from the movie being overstuffed - James Rhodes and his transformation into War Machine. The War Machine suit is completely awesome and badass, but the way in which Rhodey blatantly and casually steals the tech from Tony and turns it over to the military is one of the movie's lamest plot points.

Robert Downey Jr. is once again a lot of fun as Stark / Iron Man, but I was also disappointed that the script constantly had him riffing and bantering with barely any moments of real seriousness or gravitas. I guess that might be expected considering the movie was written by Justin Theroux of Tropic Thunder fame, but still ... as funny and charismatic as RDJ can be, I still felt like, overall, the movie was *too* lighthearted and breezy. Again, I really enjoy RDJ's fast-talking, manic take on Tony Stark, but I felt like the first film mixed that more comedic tone with moments of real drama and intensity. I don't know if Iron Man 2 was a very intense movie, to be honest. Part of that is RDJ being too flippant and not slowing down to take a breath, and part of that is a script that never really ups the ante for our heroes. Stark is dying, but he figures it all out before things ever get too dire. Whiplash attacks him, but doesn't cause much damage - physical or emotional - aside from some cuts and scrapes. The Black Widow tempts Stark with some fliratious double entendres, but nothing happens between them that might really drive a wedge between Tony and Pepper. Meanwhile, certain scenes, like one in which Tony drunkenly dances at his birthday party - in the Iron Man suit no less - were just too goofy for me and brought back memories of the horrid Spiderman disco-dance in Spiderman 3. No, things never get to that level of suck, but I do wish Iron Man 2 had taken itself a bit more seriously and established a more real and tangible sense of danger for its heroes.

(And by the way - one universal complaint about this and almost all superhero movies - let the heroes leave their masks on! Ugh! When we see Iron Man with his full suit on, he looks uber-cool. When we see him with the suit on, but the mask off, RDJ looks like a total goofball. One scene in particular in this one, in which Stark and Rhodes have a long conversation with suits-on but masks-off, is particularly lame-looking.)

Luckily for Iron Man 2, the cast is so talented and fun that many of the actors are able to make an impact even with minimal screentime or character development. Whiplash is a prime example - the character arc feels rushed, and yet, Mickey Rourke makes it work simply because he is Mickey Rourke. We don't need a lot of exposition to set him up as an evil badass - one look at Rourke in a Russian prison and we get the picture. Seeing Rourke and RDJ square off is awesome throughout the movie - it's a true clash of cinematic titans - and two polar oppossites on-screen and in real life. I don't think Whiplash is the next Joker or anything, but Rourke does his best to make the character feel like an A-lister. Another big standout is Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer, Stark's sleazy corporate rival. Rockwell is a scene-stealer, mugging and hamming it up in many funny and fun scenes. I think the writers fell a little too in love with Justin Hammer - sometimes he simply talks too much, and you feel like the character is taking up a lot of valuable time from the rest of the plot - but still, Rockwell is great in the role. Believe it or not, another scene-stealer is Scarlett J as The Black Widow. Scarlett kicks a ton of ass in the movie, and her character has perhaps the best action scene in the whole film. Scarlett has the right look and attitude - she plays a character that will make fanboys drool and clamor for an unrated director's cut with an extra-helping of Natalia on the side. So yeah, bring on the Black Widow movie, and Scarlett, thanks for the memories.

A couple of other smaller roles are also a lot of fun. Samuel L. Jackson finally gets some lines to sink his teeth into as Nick Fury, and it's about flippin' time. Can we just see him kick some ass already? Seriously though, you can tell Sam is having a blast as the new maestro of the Marvel Universe. Gary Shandling is also funny here as a slimy Senator who has it in for Stark. John Slattery is Mad Men cool as Stark's father, appearing via old film footage. Paul Bettany brings a dry British wit to Tony's in-house computer system, Jarvis. And hey, director Jon Favreau even gets in a couple of hard-hitting punches as Iron Man's dutiful sidekick Happy Hogan.

Less great is Don Cheadle as James Rhodes, aka War Machine. Cheadle is a fine actor, but he just doesn't feel like War Machine. The role calls for a total badass-type, and Cheadle just seems too straight-arrow and soft-spoken for the part. Gwyneth Paltrow has some good back-and-forth banter with Tony, but her character didn't quite pop as much as she did in Part 1. She and Tony felt like two old friends rather than star-crossed lovers - there was just something off to me about their chemistry.

The action in Iron Man 2 is pretty kickass. The highlight is definitely the first showdown between Iron Man and Whiplash in the middle of the Monaco Grand Prix, which features some spectacular collisions and a brutal smackdown between Stark and Vanko. A fight between Stark and Rhodes is visually amazing, even if the setup to the friendly-fire was a bit lacking. And finally, the big finale, featuring hundreds of marauding mechanized metal menaces on the attack, is just big, overblown, comic book action at its best. I give credit to Jon Favreau and co. though. They just "get" certain things that other superhero movies don't. They get how to make Iron Man look straight-out-of-the-comics and yet cutting edge and ultra-badass. They get how to stage bigtime action while also emphasizing character. When we get to The Avengers, I'll be looking for a bit more of an epic, universe-spanning scope to the story and action. But for the purposes of these movies, Favreau has proven himself the right man for the job.

That said, there are a couple of things about the action and pacing that I have to nitpick. One is that the CGI in that final scene is a little cheap-looking. There's still plenty of great-looking robot-on-robot action, but it does become noticable that, the more action fills up the screen, the blurrier and less tangible it becomes. Secondly, the resolution the that final brawl is definitely a bit anticlimactic. Vanko is dispatched with relative ease, and we never get one last mano-e-mano brawl between he and Stark. Iron Man 1 had a similar issue, so I was expecting Part 2 to go all out to make sure to put that final exclamation point on the action. Almost, but not quite. Finally, I would have liked a couple more scenes of Iron Man being, well, a superhero. One token scene of Iron Man saving a small boy made me realize how little of that we've actually gotten in the movie. The whole superhero mythos is built on the concept of selfless sacrifice for the greater good, and we rarely get those scenes of Iron Man actually saving anyone except himself.

And that's why, in many ways, Iron Man 2 works best as a sort of teaser for bigger and better things to come. I left Iron Man 2 feeling semi-excited by the movie I had just seen, but feeling ultra-pumped-up to see Thor, Captain American, and ultimately, The Avengers. Iron Man 2 is one hell of a setup for the Marvel movie universe to take shape. And yes, that final, post-credits teaser image of The Mighty Thor's mystical hammer of the gods was sweet, as was the cameo by Cap's red-white-and-blue shield. Iron Man 2 delivered on the fanboy moments - I'm just not sure it 100% delivered as a bar-raising, standard-setting movie in its own right. Still, I doubt many other movies this summer will be able to match Iron Man 2's big-time blockbuster feel. Sitting in the theater, in that packed house full of eager fans chomping at the bit to see Iron Man fire his repulsor rays, I couldn't help but feel like I was right at the epicenter of the summer movie universe.

My Grade: B+

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