SPOILER WARNING: The following contains spoilers for "Iron Man 2."
|"Iron Man 2" opens May 7|
When Tony Stark first appears in "Iron Man 2," which opens May 7, he falls from the sky onto a stage in a wondrous display of CG prowess. Once there, Stark is surrounded by dancing girls and emerges from the Iron Man armor in a tuxedo. "It's good to be back," he exclaims. It is a sentiment the movie most valiantly holds onto even when it begins to strain its own credibility.
There is a lot going on with Tony Stark in this installment. The technology that saved his life is now killing him -- making him even more reckless than before his time in Afghanistan. The United States government desperately wants to take control of the Iron Man technology while Tony prattles on about privatizing world peace. Add into this mix a mad Russian with an old grudge, a sexy new secretary, and the mysterious S.H.I.E.L.D. Somehow, “Iron Man 2” covers all this ground in two hours.
All of these individual pieces are interesting, dynamic, and fun, but they rest next to one another in a rather uneasy way. At one point in the film, Col. James Rhodes, Tony's best friend, gets a hold of the Mark II armor. He is ordered by his superiors to allow weapons contractor Justin Hammer to augment it. Hammer arrives at Edwards Air Force Base with a couple of crates filled with guns both practical and ludicrous. Sam Rockwell as Hammer gives a riveting and hilarious performance as he describes each weapon to a deadpan response from Don Cheadle's version of Rhodey. It is a great moment for two characters that might otherwise never appear together in a scene ... and yet, it feels like it is only there for just that reason.
Though Hammer later uses his contact with the Mark II armor as a chip against his partner Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), the scene itself plays oddly in the middle of the film. In fact, much of the material with both Hammer and Vanko plays somewhat detached from Tony's primary struggle against himself. Many of the villains' scenes take place in a lab at Hammer's company and generally see them slowly building Iron Man-esque drones. Together, Rockwell and Rourke are fun to watch, but the threat they pose to Tony never seems to coalesce or appear as immediate as the jeopardy inside Tony's own body.
This problem truly comes to the surface during the finale. The real dramatic tension is between Tony and Rhodey as they repair their friendship while the War Machine armor is remotely controlled by Vanko. Once Rhodey is in control of the suit and the two heroes talk, the movie is essentially over. Vanko doesn't seem to think so, and the three characters have one final bout, all of them in Iron Man suits.
|Scene from "Iron Man 2"|
Like the first "Iron Man," the story of this film seems to lose its way in the climax. Both films feature an overly long fight on a freeway; though in this film, much of the action happens under a freeway. Both films also feature the headline villain in a gray, drab, perversion of Tony's sleek design. Both are bulkier and larger, intended to give the villain greater menace, but neither Obadiah Stane in the first film nor Vanko in "Iron Man 2" come off as menacing in their guises as the Iron Monger or Whiplash. In fact, both villains are more interesting when dealing with Tony eye-to-eye -- that is to say, when the actors are performing together without any sort of Hollywood trickery getting in their way.
"Iron Man 2" repeats most of "Iron Man's" mistakes, but they appear more glaring. The thrill in the first film was watching the progression of the armor and Tony as a hero. Those aspects gave the film its narrative thrust. "Iron Man 2" offers no similar discovery. The film wants to ask, "What if Tony could not be Iron Man?" but never quite gets up the nerve to really dive into the idea.
Instead, “Iron Man 2” tends to focus on its greatest strength: the character dynamics. Put any two characters in a room and magic happens. A short moment between and Tony and Clark Gregg's S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Coulson is full of charm even as it appears to only be there to set up Gregg's role in "Thor." Similarly, Samuel L. Jackson's two scenes as Nick Fury are great just for the mere fact you are seeing these two actors in these roles playing a scene together. The scene following Vanko's first assault in Monte Carlo is nothing but Robert Downey, Jr. and Mickey Rourke in a concrete room, but the wattage of these two actors light up the scene. Vanko gives Tony his statement of intent and, and a later sequence bookends this moment with the two now truly enemies, but their discussion is more effective than their actual power-suited confrontation.
|Scene from "Iron Man 2"|
In fact, the most thrilling action set piece in “Iron Man 2” is the fight between Tony and Rhodey at the Stark Mansion. Both are in armor and do plenty of damage to the house, but there is a real tension in the sequence because Rhodey only suits up to talk his best friend down. Convinced he cannot get through to Tony, Rhodey falls back to his duty as an officer and takes the armor back to base. It helps to watch the first "Iron Man" before going into "Iron Man 2," as Rhodey's frustration with Tony gets more time to breathe in that film. The conflict between these two really deserved more screen time in “Iron Man 2.”
Also deserving of more time is the true jewel of the film: Tony and Pepper. Building from the by-play in the first film, Downey and Gwyneth Paltrow take the "His Girl Friday" dynamic full tilt. The two talk over each other's lines, completely miss what the other is saying, and are just generally so full of romantic tension, it all comes off as a big budget Howard Hawks film. You can tell the two actors really enjoyed the material as the spirit of one-ups-manship leaps off the screen. It is a true pleasure to watch.
In many ways, "Iron Man 2" is more a character piece than a summer blockbuster. The people are engaging even if you do not always know why they are being thrown together. The reactions of Tony's stunts are always enjoyable and, of course, Robert Downey, Jr. continues to delight as the coolest cat with a heart of steel. While the story of “Iron Man 2” sometimes loses its way, it is fun to visit with these characters. It is hoped that as Tony finds renewed purpose, the inevitable third film will follow suit.