Some might say that three months is too long to wait to review a movie. Of course some people don’t have the foresight to consider that eventually that movie will be released on DVD, and people will NEED TO KNOW THE TRUTH. We are never not looking out for you at Lifting Fog.
It is one of the great truths of Hollywood that barring some fortuitous circumstance — as in the involvement of Francis Ford Coppola, Pixar, or Boba Fett — a sequel will never quite live up to its predecessor’s mantle. Stuff it full of name actors and spike the budget all you want — it doesn’t change the fact that things are different this time around and the chances of recapturing the magic of the original are slim. Which is not to say that this sequel will always be BAD or POINTLESS, just that there is a reason “2” follows “1” in any sort of medal ceremony: not quite good enough. And so it goes with Iron Man 2.
By now you know the basic plot: Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has revealed himself to the public and in the process put something of a target on his back, both professionally and personally. The former takes the shape of his weapons manufacturing rival, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell); the latter, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) shows up at a car race in Monaco to kill him. Even best buddy Jim Rhodes (Don Cheadle) is pissed at Tony, mostly for his awesome facial hair and the fact that he don’t care about nothin’. Oh, and Tony almost dies but then discovers a new element and saves himself. There is also somehow time for Iron Man dancers…
and an homage to Eminem’s “Stan” video.
I wondered watching this thing if Jon Favreau had forgotten what made the first one such a fun superhero movie when it came out in 2008. Surrounded by epics like the Batman and Spider-Man series and even also-rans like The Incredible Hulk and Hellboy, Iron Man distinguished itself by taking the whole comic book credo somewhat less than seriously. It was such a weird, fun little movie. I mean not LITTLE (the thing cost upwards of $150 million to make) but maybe small-scale? Even like an independent comedy, at times, in the way it focused less on set pieces and more on character interaction. Little scenes between Downey and Paltrow (their little game of “Operation”), or Downey and the press, or Downey and his WORKSHOP ROBOTS — really! — are what gave Iron Man such a unique heartbeat. The Dark Knight and Spider-Man 2 remain “Best in Class” of superhero movies for the foreseeable future, but in taking a cast that’s (on paper) totally wrong for the genre and letting them sort of do their own thing, Iron Man at least deserves a “Fresh New Thing!” stamp.
#2 by comparison just feels HEAVY with everything you’d expect from those other types of superhero movies. After #1 made boatloads of money, the onus was obviously on Favreau to make the sequel a true summer tentpole, one that leaves no cinematic — or hell, demographic — stone unturned. Something for everyone. What he came up with is not the kitchen-sink-awful Spider-Man 3, necessarily, but definitely more bloated than necessary. Iron Man testifies before Congress. Iron Man races a car in Monaco. Iron Man gets drunk (in the suit). Iron Man fights fifty robots. Iron Man nearly dies.
(Oh right, Iron Man nearly DIES. Turns out the stuff he uses to power his suit — Palladium, for you nerdbags reading this — is actually killing him and the only way he can survive is to synthesize a TOTALLY NEW ELEMENT. And quick.
Just a few more inches and…
Yeah, we’re good here.
Science in six easy steps! Just don’t forget your designer protective glasses.)
The biggest evidence of fat in the movie, though, is the introduction of Nick Fury and SHIELD. Technically, Fury was introduced in the last movie…but it was over the closing credits, which not everyone saw. To bring him in halfway through this one (“oh hi!”) as though the audience has been appropriately prepped for his arrival is poor dramatic form, and transforms IM2 from a mostly cohesive movie into…well, kind of a comic book.
Let me explain. 20 or so movies have come out in the last decade based on comic books that more or less successfully brought characters and images to life, but few have tried to actually capture the EXPERIENCE of reading a comic book. Before IM2 (and what appears to be the true launch of Marvel’s film universe), only Ang Lee’s HULK attempted that recreation. And people hated it. Why? Because movies are different than comic books — they behave differently as art forms, with rules unique to their medium — and to attempt a cut and paste in either direction is missing the point of adaptation. But IM2 does just that. Like you might see in an ongoing comic series, there’s a superhuman initiative being formed in the background of the story that we’re just EXPECTED to know about. Abrupt resolutions, bordering on soap operatic (Pepper’s going to die! Pepper’s saved! Toss-off joke!), allow the movie to switch story gears on a dime. You half-expect thought bubbles to appear above Happy Hogan’s head.
Marvel Studios is trying to do something unprecedented and establish a fully-formed, inter-connected cinematic world for their characters. That’s awesome. I respect the hell out of producer Kevin Feige and everyone involved for even trying. But again I come back to the “what movies do” and “what comics do” divide, and I can’t help but think they’re sacrificing some level of cinematic artistry to try and jury-rig this whole thing together.
…I’m 1000 words into this review and have yet to mention the performances (great, as expected!), the special effects (f*cking sweet!) or the winking nod to Don Cheadle’s replacement of Terrence Howard (yanks shirt collar sideways; grits teeth with “uh-U-uh-U-uh” noise), but that just proves — to me, anyway — what fundamental problems IM2 wrestles with and how essential it is to nail STORY FIRST. However awesome your briefcase armor might be.