Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Iron Man 2

In many ways the antithesis to the Batman of Christopher Nolan's films, the Tony Stark of Jon Favreau's Iron Man franchise is everything a billionaire playboy should be. Compare him to Christian Bale's somber, sober Bruce Wayne — the men are equals in their respective comic book universes. Both are rich, both are surrounded by beautiful women and fancy gadgets, both lost their fathers at a young age, and both are mortals entering into the superhero game behind sheer chutzpah and a lot of armor. The difference is that Stark immediately shuffles off the onus of secret identity, going public with his superheroism at the first chance he gets. For a rich, fun-loving, womanzing alcoholic sociopath, this actually makes a lot of sense.

Tony Stark is a damn likable guy and he adores the attention, which makes it all the more remarkable how depressing an experience it is to sit through Iron Man 2. The central foundation to the franchise's success is the idiosyncratic narcissism Robert Downey, Jr. brings to the lead role. The actor has more fun with his words than his character does gadgets. So, I'm baffled at the choice to send Stark into a depressed funk through the majority of the runtime, slowly dying due to his worsening condition, drinking more and more heavily and itching from a severe flare-up of Daddy Issues.

The light bulb in his chest is no longer doing its job and several enemies (foreign and domestic) want to either steal or copy the Iron Man weapon-suit. This means the film will climax with a lot of Iron Man-like machines having it out with Stark – just like the last one, except now there's a plurality of evil iron men. I find myself wondering, knowing so little as I do about the Iron Man mythos, if there will ever be any bad guys in this series that aren't iron men trying to steal Tony's thunder.

The plot is incidental, though, really. We're here to watch Downey snark around and to maybe watch stuff blow up, and frankly there's not enough of either. There's a plethora of new characters — some interesting, some not, all rushed on and off the screen, all requisitely sexy — and the process of juggling them while seeing the second act through to the third proves an arduous task for director Favreau and his hired gun screenwriter Justin Theroux. Theroux can pun with the best of them, but I get the impression he didn't have a lot of room to get creative with anything besides wordplay. There are triple agents, lovers' spats, DUI Iron Manning, winking references to other Marvel superheroes, hot chicks, big guns and a cast of stellar underutilized actors, from Clark Gregg and Don Cheadle to supposed “lead” villain Mickey Rourke. Rourke has maybe thirty lines: he's there to look foreign and evil, and I suppose he does get the job done.

Maybe the only actor who does get his due is Sam Rockwell, playing an American arms manufacturer named Justin Hammer with some mean Tony-envy. He tries to build his own suit and he tries to sleep with the same women as Tony. He fails in both cases. Preening and peacocking without any feathers to show and armed with a supply of bizarre, hilarious non-sequiturs courtesy of Theroux, Rockwell manages to steal the film from Downey. This is no small feat, but it’s never something that should've been allowed to happen.

The audience of cheering fanboys gave up their biggest hollers of the night to the trailers for Inception and The Last Airbender and to the post-credit sequence exposing half-of-a-second of imagery promising a future release from Marvel Studios. The entire machine becomes about not what we're watching now but the anticipation of what's coming next. If there's an hour of downtime in the middle of the film, it's okay because we know both good guy and bad guy are working on their Iron Man weapons and will likely finish up around the same time so they can battle. "Iron Man 2 was great," they want us to say. "And it was so cool how there's going to be more." Second verse, same as the first.

This review appeared in a slightly different form in The Montague Reporter. Support your print media while you still can!

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