Monday, May 10, 2010

Like: Iron Man 2

In my mind, I equate Iron Man as Marvel's variation on DC's Batman. He's the regular guy. The insanely wealthy, quick witted, possibly a super genius, regular guy whose wealth allows him to become a superpower through technology. The difference is, of course, that where Bruce Wayne is a vigilante fueled by dark secrets and a desire for revenge, Tony Stark is Iron Man largely just because he can be. He's all superego, driven by a daddy-issue need to be loved, a short attention span, and the constant search for an easy thrill or a round of applause. Iron Man is a selfish showman. The first of Jon Favreau's Iron Man films showed us Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) at a turning point. He went from Randian, nihilistic weapons monger to a self-aware playboy in need of penance. Consequently, and in large part because of Downey Jr.'s undeniable charisma, the audience fell in love Stark and all his flaws. With Iron Man 2, Favreau allows Stark to both progress and regress, balancing the character's dangerous traits and keeping him human. Though he wears the suit and keeps the peace, Iron Man is a risk. Stark is caught up in a war between his indulgent, egomaniac, selfish nature and that which the public, and the people in his life, needs (and demands) him to be. The groundwork layed with Stark's character keeps Iron Man 2 above the pitfalls of so many action flicks with bigger and better sequels, without skimping on the explosions.
Iron Man 2's best scenes are not the action sequences.  Favreau seems to know he doesn't have a great knack for staging those and they're relatively few and far between.  The entertainment value here comes from the interactions of the cast and the characters they play.  Robert Downey Jr. knows Tony Stark, inside and out, he is a reformed Tony Stark.  At one point in the film, Stark stands and announces that "never has a greater phoenix metaphor been personified in human history", and you can't do much other than agree.  He twitches and struts and his banter with everyone from Paltrow to Cheadle has an ounce of believability.  It doesn't matter if someone else turns in a wet blanket, no personality performance here because you'd never notice, it would just serve to even out Tony Stark's inflated persona.  For the most part, though, Iron Man 2's added and exchanged line-up of talent is nothing if not underused.  Scarlett Johansson, here as an assistant (*ahem*) "from legal" manages not to ruin the movie or lazily perform.  Mickey Rourke gets downplayed in favor of Sam Rockwell's Justin Hammer, but is allowed some amusing lines and a grimy presence.  Proof of Gwyneth Paltrow's ability to still be likable in the era of GOOP and her non-sensical travels with Mario Batali comes in the reprisal of her come-back role as Pepper Potts, Stark's loyal assistant newly appointed CEO of Stark Industries.  Nobody becomes what Katie Holmes was for everyone who loved everything else about Batman Begins, but several of them definitely don't get enough screen time.
Part of the reason for this is that, while the characters are doing their job, the actual plot of the film is a little....absent.  There's something scattershot about Iron Man 2.  It's building, like films tend to once they've become franchises, to something else and tossing around villains and future heroes at rapid speed.  This is what killed Spider-Man 3 and X-Men: The Last Stand.  They got ahead of themselves, sacrificing the present story in exchange for integration of the origins that would lead to future sequels and unfinished business.  Yes, it's obvious that Iron Man 2 has some of these problems.  The opening sequence, a dingy Russian science experiment that parallels Tony Stark's construction of the arc reactor in a terrorist cave, ends with Ivan Vanko (Rourke) howling to the heavens after his father's death, is not at all promising.  In most films, once would be too many times for that to occur.  Five minutes in would be far too early.  It's too much in this film, too, but somehow, seconds later you forget it ever happened.  It's a shaky beginning, and moves swiftly into organized chaos.  We get snippets of Pepper Potts in power.  Little bits of Stark's personal life.  Military court cases and black ops.  A sudden rush to start pushing the Avengers.  Stark Expo and elder Stark's home movies. Tony Stark creates a new element (!) that no one seems concerned with. Weird flirtations and tensions between Tony Stark and...everybody.  The core of the film is supposedly Stark vs. Vanko's supervillain Whiplash, but that's almost a non-issue.  It's as though at some point they realized that everyone knew the inevitable outcome and decided to partially dodge the comic book cage match of good vs. evil.   
The whole film seems to adopt Stark's perspective.  Something major happens, but it's cool, no big deal.  This is the life, right?  Wake up early, discover a new element, figure out a way to produce it, fly around a bit, business as usual, no need to stop the presses.  Usually I'd say that's sloppy, overeager  film making. Somehow, though, even with its non-plot, the film is relentlessly entertaining and more than a little fun.  It's sharp and funny and keeps you so diverted that you won't even care (maybe not even notice) that it's opening up subplots and creating remarkable deus ex machinas it occasionally has no intention of explaining away or following through with.  Somehow, it works.  Maybe it works simply because it reflects the identity issues and brash confidence of its character in not knowing quite what it should be, but forging boldly ahead anyway, maybe that's just a fluke.  Either way, while there may be very few surprises, there's a lot of joy to be found in the unveiling of each expected turn and comic frothy detail and somehow Iron Man 2 becomes a worthy sequel to the original. 

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