More iron, but not as shiny ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Friday, April 30, 2010

More iron, but not as shiny

Iron Man 2
My rating:

The first Iron Man movie in 2008 made me realize something about comicbook superhero movies: the script isn't the most important thing about them. And yes, as a former aspiring screenwriter, this was quite a revelation to me. Iron Man's script was a pretty standard-order origin story - serviceable but not outstanding, and it had its share of plot holes and bits of lazy writing. No, when it comes to superhero movies, the most important thing to get right is the tone - and that's what director Jon Favreau did, aided by a pitch-perfect performance by Robert Downey Jr.

But now its sequel proves that you really can't neglect the script too much.

Having outed himself as Iron Man, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is now an international celebrity as well as a weapon of global military deterrence. He is constantly fighting efforts by the U.S. government to confiscate the Iron Man suit, aided by his loyal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his best friend and military liaison Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), and the mysterious new Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson), who is more than she seems. At the same time, the villain Whiplash, alias Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), emerges with a grudge against the Stark legacy, and he soon joins forces with unscrupulous arms dealer Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) to destroy Stark. But Tony is also hiding a secret from everyone: he is dying. The arc reactor that's keeping him alive is also slowly poisoning him, and this leads him to reckless behaviour that may leave him with no allies when Whiplash strikes.

Okay, let me elaborate a bit more about this "tone" thing. (This might as well also serve as a Retro Review of Iron Man, which I really did want to do but for my packed reviewing schedule.) Y'see, superheroes are inherently goofy. The costumes, the superpowers, the monikers; it's all very hard to take seriously. What a superhero movie needs to do is create a world in which all of the above fits right in, and that's what Iron Man accomplished. There's just enough verisimilitude in the arms trade milieu to make it believable, for one thing. For another, the origin story is handled with the appropriate seriousness, making Tony Stark a sympathetic and believable protagonist; which in turn makes the goofy superheroics believable. Even the gaudy colours of the Iron Man suit are believable, because it made perfect sense for Tony to casually say "Throw a little hot rod red in there."

But while believability is crucial in a superhero origin story, its sequel requires a bit more than that, and this is why Iron Man 2 isn't as good as its predecessor. The storyline is, frankly, a total mess. Look at that synopsis above - Tony Stark has three things to contend with: the government, his mortality, and Whiplash/Hammer. The plot switches willy-nilly back and forth between all three, and without a clear focus, the film often feels draggy. And then halfway through, another subplot shows up, this one about how Tony never felt like his daddy loved him. Yes, it's yet another movie about daddy issues. This is a movie in desperate need of a theme; it has about three or four to choose from, but it never makes up its mind. (The one I found most interesting was the government one. What if, say, Bill Gates possessed the world's most powerful nuclear bomb, and says only he knows best what to do with it?)

Throughout the film, I got the distinct impression that Favreau and co. are just pouring on the fanservice. Tony delivers stinging quips. Tony is surrounded by hot babes. Tony is Tony, the smug rich douchebag we can't help but admire because we want to be him. Tony bickers with Pepper. Tony bickers with Rhodey. Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson) shows up and drops hints about the Avengers. And then Natalie Rushman turns into Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. Black Widow, and that's when the fanservice goes through the roof. Hey, I like looking at Ms. Johansson too, but I'd like there to be a better reason to have her around besides that she's nice to look at. Part of the reason why it feels draggy is that all these bits feel like they're just there because they're the stuff everyone liked from the first movie.

Well, actually, they are. And that's what makes Iron Man 2 enjoyable despite it all; it is fun to watch Tony be Tony. Also, the gratuitous fanservice also includes more and bigger action scenes than its predecessor, which to me is a clear improvement. I risk hurting my film critic cred by saying this, but you can never have too many superpowered action scenes in a superhero movie - they are essentially what we go to see them for, as I believe I have mentioned before. Iron Man had a somewhat short and disappointing climactic fight scene, and the sequel makes up for it with more Iron Man vs. War Machine vs. Hammeroid vs. Whiplash action. There is no lack of metal-on-metal pounding and 'sploding here, and it's aaaall goooood.

The chemistry between Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow is as charming as ever, and the director gets more in-front-of-camera time as Happy Hogan, Tony's chauffeur. Don Cheadle doesn't really make an impression, but then again neither did Terrence Howard, and Rhodey is still playing second fiddle to Tony. Johansson is appropriately badass, but the movie really could've done without her. The villains are really kinda disappointing - for some reason Vanko has very little dialogue, so Mickey Rourke doesn't really have much to do except look mean. (Not that he can do much with the dialogue he does have either - his "Yu comb from a fyemily ov tiffs en bootchess" speech is cheesy as hell.) Sam Rockwell provided a few laughs, but after The Losers, my tolerance for cartoonishly smarmy villains is kinda low at the moment.

So yes, it's still good, but it's definitely a step down from the first. A pretty worrying step down, actually; the more I think about it, the more I wonder if Favreau and his team really know what they're doing. A superhero movie sequel is supposed to expand the world, deepen the characters, further explore the themes and concepts and introduce new ones. Iron Man 2 feels like it's spinning its wheels and treading on the goodwill of the first film. With Downey Jr. and the rest of the cast, there's plenty of it left, but it's not an infinite supply. We all still remember what happened with Spider-Man 3.

(Oh, and yes, this one also has a post-credits scene. And yes, it'll raise Marvel fanboys' expectations sky-high. No pressure, Kenneth Branagh.)

Expectations: Juliana Evans *drool*


profwacko said...

hmm... the Avengers is in THE SHIELD right??
the one tries to recruit Tony on the 1st film...

Alexandra Wong said...

I loved the ori. Walked out of no 2 disappointed, despite the low expectations. Mickey Rourke was under-utilized. Justin Hammer was too campy to be menacing - he was like a poor imitation of the Joker. And like you said, there was just too much going on to hold my attention.