Review: Iron Man 2

[Starting last week, continuing today, and finishing next Thursday, I will be taking a look back at the three movies that are leading up to the release of the Avengers. Today I look back at Iron Man 2.]

So Tony Stark and Iron Man are back.   I have to say right up front that I was baffled by the positive reaction to the first Iron Man in 2008.   People really seemed to love it: it was a surprise hit at the time, and it has a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But when I watched it, all I saw was a fairly serviceable superhero action movie.  Nothing risible, but nothing special, either. Two years later, in 2010,  Iron Man and the all-star cast returned to put in basically the same performance in Iron Man 2.

Let’s talk about that cast. You’ve got Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark/Iron Man, Don Cheadle as Col. Rhodes/War Machine, Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer, Mickey Rourke as Ivan Vanko/Whiplash, Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan, Samuel L. Jackson as Col. Nick Fury, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson, John Slattery as Howard Stark, and Garry Shandling as Senator Stern.  That’s a pretty great cast. Paltrow, an unfortunate holdover from the first film, is the only real misstep–unless, of course, Pepper Potts is a shrill, deeply unpleasant person in the comics. Here, she shrilly nags her way into the Stark Enterprises CEO position by bitching about modern art (really).   Scarlett Johansson, on the other hand, seems well cast as the sexy double agent, but she proves once again that she cannot act at all.   Look, she’s plenty sexy here, coming on to Tony Stark and getting changed in the back of Happy Hogan’s Audi (given the amount of times I saw the Audi logo, I’m pretty sure they funded the entirety of Iron Man 2), etc, but she turns in all her lines in a wooden monotone that suggests she’s reading them off cue cards for the first time.

Downey Jr is fine as Tony Stark, though the whole hyperarrogant, one-liner machine thing seems less revelatory than it did the first time around.  John Slattery is woefully underused as the Stark patriarch; he doesn’t have a single Mad Men-esque crack and doesn’t hit on a single woman.  Don Cheadle is fine doing his usual Don Cheadle thing as War Machine.   Of all the good guys, only Samuel L. Jackson seems to be doing more than going through the paces, clearly enjoying himself as the mysterious one-eyed head of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury.  (Although he does look as though he’s struggling to keep from punctuating most of his lines with a hearty “motherfucker.”)

Meanwhile, Sam Rockwell and Mickey Rourke, as the baddies Hammer and Vanko (Whiplash), seem like they’re in a much more fun movie with a higher energy level.   The two have a lot of fun back and forth as Hammer tries to cajole Vanko into making something that will embarrass Tony Stark with. Vanko switches to Russian at whim, and they have some nice bits about Hammer’s bird. Garry Shandling is great as the smarmy Senator Stern, absolutely nailing the self-serving, self-important ignorance of the modern American senator.   If only he could have put an anonymous hold on a minor political appointee, he would have hit the trifecta.

I’ve spent a lot of time on the cast here,and that’s primarily because there’s nothing in the plot that is especially interesting or original or that hasn’t previously been done better in some other movie.  Basically, Vanko is mad because he feels that Howard Stark screwed his dad back in the day, so he’s out to get Tony Stark.   They have a tussle, the public turns against Tony Stark for some pretty ill-defined reasons, and then Stark mopes around for a while because he’s dying.  There’s actually an interesting kernel of an idea here.  It seems that Tony Stark’s fake heart/energy source thingy is killing him, and using the Iron Man suit is only exacerbating the problem.  Maybe there could have been some interesting business here about the cost of “privatizing world peace” and what it was costing Stark to save the world.

Instead he just uses his condition as an excuse to be an asshole at his birthday party and then get into an armored suit fight with his buddy Col. Rhodes, who steals the suit that will turn him into War Machine.   This is all pretty ill-defined too–maybe Rhodes is under orders, or maybe he thinks Tony Stark can’t be trusted anymore; it’s never really clear.  At any rate, he steals the suit and has Rockwell’s military industrialist stick weapons all over it.   Tony Stark mopes about and gets a visit from Nick Fury, who lectures him about his dad and gives him a filmstrip.   The filmstrip leads to the utterly unsurprising revelation that Stark Sr’s little model town is actually the model for an, I shit you not, all new element.  Tony Stark does some Minority Report shit in his bat cave and creates the new element that will power his suit and keep it from killing him. Problem solved.

From here Vanko betrays Hammer  and turns his robot drones loose on the weird military industrial expo that Stark puts on every year (oh yeah, apparently a whole year has gone by).  It seems that in “the most peaceful time the world has known,” high society gets together to have a big rollout party for billion-dollar weapons systems.  There’s a big CGI battle that goes on and on, and eventually Iron Man and War Machine defeat Whiplash (he’s never called this in the movie, I assume it comes from the comics), and then Whiplash tries to Predator the two good guys by blowing himself up.  They run off and unfortunately save Pepper Potts along the way.

Going forward, Iron Man 2 sets a lot of the groundwork for The Avengers.    Johansson turns out to be a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, Agent Coulson is around for a good chunk of the movie, and Nick Fury has his three scenes, including one at the end where he brings Stark on as a consultant for “The Avengers Initiative.”   There’s also some nice nods to the other movies: Stark uses a half-built Captain America shield to prop up a bit of his particle accelerator, and Coulson gets called off to New Mexico to tend to the events of Thor.   There is also apparently a third Iron Man movie in the works, though I cannot for the life of me imagine anything new or original that could be done with these characters.   I suppose it’ll be a Transformers 3-style, CGI battle-filled, cash in.

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