I liked watching this movie while I was watching it, and I think it's a much better film than its predecessor. It had rhythm and a sense of humor, and I felt like I got my money's worth, despite the unforgivable sin of not having Jeff Bridges on a Segway smoking a monster cigar.
This is an actor's film, and most everyone comes to play. Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow do their best His Girl Friday impression, Sam Rockwell mugs for the camera and steals the show, and Mickey Rourke shows up from a different film entirely, filthy, intense, terse, and visually and viscerally the most interesting thing on screen. Most of the best parts of the film are little character moments delivered aside from or in spite of the shambling plot.
It's not a perfect film by any means. The actual plot mechanics are cartoonish and clumsy, and there are scenes that I'm sure would drag on way too long on a second viewing. About halfway through the film Samuel L. Jackson just shows up out of nowhere and starts babbling about the Avengers, and if you didn't stay past the credits in the last "Iron Man" film, good luck knowing what the hell's going on. Some people have criticized the film for not having any real villainous threat for most of the film, but I actually consider that a strength. I like that the majority of screentime is taken up with Robert Downey Jr. just floundering around being alternately glib and self-destructive, and that there's not much plot to speak of outside of the obligatory motions. When it comes to spectacle cinema, I really don't care to pretend that anything important is going on just so I can feel smart
. I'd prefer to just goof around.
Favreau utilizes a lot of improvisation, and it serves some actors better than others. I've always thought Gwyneth Paltrow was best in the mannered, controlled setting of a "Royal Tenenbaums," and when called on to go toe-to-toe with Downey in rapid fire improv, she doesn't seem to be able to quite clear the bar. Scarlett Johansson does her a solid, though, by showing up with the apparent goal of making Paltrow look like Lawrence Olivier in comparison. Any misfires from an over-reliance on improv seems worth it for the simmering, chaotic energy the process gives the whole film.
Seriously, though: Scarlett Johansson may be the nicest person in the cast to look at, but every time she opens her mouth the film comes to a grinding halt.
I'm a little bit uncomfortable that I'm quick to throw love on all the male actors and can only muster a qualified compliment and a full-on dismissal of the two main female actors. I would really like to like more major female movie stars than I do. Maybe the ingrained sexism in the industry and culture has resulted in there simply being more bankable male stars than female, so that even if I like the same percentage, I end up liking more men than women. I can't even adequately name women I'd rather see in poorly cast roles without resorting to the same handful of favorites, whereas if asked to do a fantasy re-casting of the male roles I could give you a half dozen different scenarios. It's troubling.
I like Don Cheadle a lot more than I like Terrence Howard. That said, does it seem pretty messed up to anyone else that the main black guy is so interchangeable? Yeah, Cheadle's opening line, "It's me; I'm here; deal with it," is a pretty funny meta-textual joke, but it's also a nod towards how much the film doesn't care who plays Rhodey so long as he's a sufficiently "name" actor and has the proper skin tone. Maybe it's just my white liberal guilt, but: hmmmmmmm.
This is not a political film. Except "everything is political, and all acts have political consequences," or so the saying goes. Jean-Luc Godard had a notion that a film that conforms to the status quo of how a film should look and sound and act ends up subconsciously reinforcing the societal status quo, regardless of any professed message in the film. "Iron Man 2" professes no message, and does as good a job as any other film upholding the status quo of style and form.
There are nods towards politics in both "Iron Man" films, but they are not actually political elements. They're topical elements, like the plot of an episode of "Law and Order," "ripped from the headlines" but for no greater reason than to stoke the base spark of recognition from the audience. The first "Iron Man" film had American soldiers fighting some undefined conflict somewhere in the Middle East and a terrorist group with undefined grievances and unclear goal. Similarly, "Iron Man 2" has visual nods to the infamous espionage photos Colin Powell presented at the U.N., weird back room dealings between the military and defense contractors, a debate about the merits of manned combat and drone warfare, and a hilariously absurd Senate Hearing that plays out like the last five minutes of a coked-out Perry Mason episode, with witnesses being called to testify back and forth at each other while the lead Senator shouts "F--k you!" It's all window dressing, though, vaguely topical references sprinkled throughout for mock relevance. The film never really questions any institutions or authorities, just uses them as backdrop for armored antics.
When does "Iron Man 2" even take place? I mean, I know it's supposed to be taking place approximately nowish, and the actual years given in the film place it somewhere in the mid-2000s (it's supposed to be about 30 years since the 1974 Stark Expo, so circa 2004?) But the particulars of the film throw a lot of confusion into the chronology. There's a shot early in the film of a magazine cover that reads "IRON MAN STABILIZES EAST/WEST RELATIONS." ...What? When was the last time "East/West Relations" described any major foreign policy issue? The Iron Curtain fell. We totally have stabilized relations with Russia. We look into each other's eyes and see each other's souls. That's a thing we do now.
During the Senate hearing, Tony Stark barks, "I'm your nuclear deterrent!" which... why is that important, at all? Nuclear weapons are our nuclear deterrent, first off, and second, nuclear deterrence hasn't been a pressing issue for 20 years? Taken in combination with Mickey Rourke's very Russian villain, it feels like the filmmakers wanted to make a good old-fashioned Cold War action film, but with the technological and cultural accoutrements of 2010. "Iron Man 2": Most Exciting Film of 1988!
Sometimes the film feels less like an action film than like a campus comedy. Larry Sanders is Dean Wormer, Mickey Rourke is the Jock Thug, Sam Rockwell is the Evil Trust Fund Kid, and Robert Downey Jr. is the too-cool-for-school Clever Bastard Who Wants To Party. The ultimate triumph of the film isn't in defeating the villain, it's in scoring a hip job with the Avengers and embarrassing the out-of-touch Senator. One of the longest sequences is a drunken fight at a house party. Throw in George Clinton and this is basically "PCU" with armored suits.
Super-hero fans get a lot of grief for holding too tightly to the icons of their childhoods, for being unwilling to relinquish their adolescence. The previews in front of the showing of "Iron Man 2" I saw included "Shrek 4," "Grown-Ups," and "The A-Team." An 8-year-old kid who saw the first "Shrek" in the theater would be 17 now. "Grown-Ups" looks like Adam Sandler's man-child version of "The Big Chill." And "The A-Team"... well, "The A-Team" trailer featured an airplane cockpit ejecting from an exploding jetliner and turning into a parachuting tank in mid-air that then shot back at enemy aircraft. Which was actually maybe the best thing I saw on that trip to the movie theater, and made me laugh really hard. The problem might be a little bit more widespread than just comics fans, is what I'm trying to say.
What is it about Marvel and the second film? "X2," "Spider-Man 2," "The Incredible Hulk," "Punisher War Zone" -- each of these takes massive strides away from the flaws of the first films. Maybe it's that the first films are so origin-obsessed, giving away so much time to set-up and explanation, that they don't leave themselves enough space for a fun movie afterwards. With the second films, that's all dispensed with, and they can get on with the show. Then, of course, they can mess it all up with the third films, which stink like proper sequels.
A big part of Iron Man's story in the comics is his alcoholism, and while Tony Stark is hardly a teetotaler in the films, Downey Jr. is (I believe) on record expressing at least a bit of squeamishness at exploring that side of the character too explicitly. Understandable, since Downey just escaped out from under his own personal story of substance abuse and became one of the biggest stars in the world, and surely is in no rush to re-align himself with that narrative. The film cleverly sidesteps the issue by creating an impending-mortality terminal-disease storyline for Stark, which sends him down a similarly self-destructive spiral, but without directly adapting "Demon in a Bottle." Rourke's character Whiplash is similarly tailored to reflect the actor's own fall from grace and climb back to the spotlight. In the comics, Whiplash is a nothing, throwaway character. The Russian physicist out for revenge that Rourke plays in the film is a creation of (presumably) screenwriter Justin Theroux, and seems obviously crafted to echo Rourke's own boy-genius-hit-bottom life narrative. On some level, this film is about these two actors, their respective journeys through, away from, and back to fame and success, and how one of them won out way bigger than the other.
The best fight in the whole film is the first one between Rourke and Downey, mainly because for the majority of it, everyone involved is in flesh, not metal. There's a terrific sequence with Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan and Paltrow as Pepper Potts ramming the animalistic, greasy, bare-chested Rourke with a car repeatedly, as Rourke flails about with his electric whip-arms, cutting the car to pieces trying to get to Downey Jr. on the other side, who is comically trying and failing to reach his travel-sized Iron Man suit. The human bodies coiled inside and ricocheting off the machinery is perfect chaos. Every subsequent fight in the film sees its participants in full armor -- that is, not there at all, but supplied by a computer. The armor fights are like watching an animated film without the grace. I'll take the bloody, sweaty, exposed Rourke over that any day.
One of the weirder choices in the film is to stick Rourke and his simmering physicality in a lab at a computer for most of the film. I'm simultaneously annoyed and amused by the perversity of it.
There's no way I'm making it to 20 without some padding. Here, look at Jeff Bridges on a Segway again: