Sunday, May 9, 2010

New but Not Neccessarily Improved: The Flawed Yet Satisfying Enigma That is "Iron Man 2"

By Scott Tre

Sometimes we are lucky enough to start the summer movie season off with a film that is universally praised. That is always great as it gives us something be excited about. Then there are those troublesome oddities that while somewhat disappointing, are likable nonetheless. They aren't mediocre or middle of the road. They make the grade, though they don't score as highly as their predecessors. Such offerings are especially problematic in today's world, where fandom prefers things that are easily categorized as "great" or "horrible". There is little patience for something that is simply adequate.

Compounding the problem is just how spoiled superhero fans have gotten over the past seven years. Superior sequels have gone from being the rare exception to an expected norm. X-Men 2, Spider-man 2, The Dark Knight and Hellboy 2 seemingly made the sophomore slump a thing of the past by arguably being "better" than their respective predecessors. While all of those titles (save for the bland and overly mannered X-men 2) are deserving of the praise they have gotten, it should be remembered that they represent something that is a rarity out of necessity. A sequel doesn't have to outdo the original in order to be good. Alas, people expectations are determined by how high the bar is set.

That mentality goes a long way in explaining some of the vitriolic reactions to Iron Man 2. The detractors are voicing there disappointment with such passion that it's easy to forget that by all accounts, the reception from critics has been fairly warm. The film currently sits at 74% positive over at Rotten Tomatoes. Though that percentage drops to 66% when counting only the "top critics", it still maintains a passing grade. Yet message boards are filled with reactions that compare the film to Spider-man 3. One wonders if people are capable of recognizing quality in anything that isn't resoundingly great, or in any franchise that doesn't maintain an upward trajectory indefinitely.

The fact of the matter is that there is a lot to like in Iron Man 2. It bounces along with a spirited step, showing off its glossy machinery with the exuberance of a sports car salesman. It is permeated by the presence of it's star, Robert Downey Junior, who lets Tony Stark's narcissism shine in all it's glory. Neither he nor the film itself make any apologies for Tony's spoiled rich boy quirks. He is the anti-Bruce Wayne: plagued by demons and trauma, yet still able to get a thrill out of bedding a beautiful young lady or tsking a swig of choice liquor. He fights the good fight but manages to enjoy himself along the way. He embodies that very American trait of indulging the spoils of war and easing his conscience with overtly "heroic" deeds.

Then there is Ivan Vanko, a Frankensteins monster of smarmy charisma. From a logical standpoint there doesn't seem to be much meat to the character, but Rourke's Russian mafia shtick is thoroughly fascinating. His every appearance onscreen infects the film with an oily grit. You sense that there is no way Stark would be able to best him a in a straight ahead fight. Rourke's bar brawler image is a huge help in that regard. There should have been more of him.

We also have Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer, the "anti-Stark". Imagine if Tony was a socially inept ego-driven nerd. Justin lacks Tony's looks, charisma and sense of humor. Where as Stark is charmingly narcissistic, Justin is obnoxiously so. His egotism makes him prone to ignorance and shortsightedness. He possesses none of Tony's brilliance and has to depend on others to win. Aside from his deep pockets and pushy fast talking demeanor, he's got nothing to offer. We sense that his rivalry with Stark is much more personal than he lets on and is perhaps rooted in childhood insecurities.

The Downey-Rockwell-Rourke triple threat keeps the films blood pumping, while some of the supporting cast threatens to stop it's momentum cold. While no one protested that absence of Terrence Howard initially, his version of Captain Rhodes actually seemed alive. Don Cheadle is much too mannered. He never inhabits the role in a real way. He is believable as a stern military officer, but not so much as Tony's keeper and running buddy. That relationship is essential to the closing action sequences, and Cheadles stiffness robs those scenes of any true resonance.

Samuel L. Jackson plays Nick Fury as yet another variation on his much parodied onscreen persona. He neither adds nor takes anything away from the proceedings. Scarlett Johansson is even more inconsequential as Black Widow. Her presence in the film amounts to little more than a superficial guest appearance. She has nothing to do until the final act, and even that could have pulled off by a completely indistinct character. She simply isn't necessary.

Even more detrimental is the disorganized midsection of the film. Scenes of dialogue drone and on and on with no end in sight. Serviceable attempts at humor are sprinkled throughout, and Director Jon Favreau smartly allows his actors to indulge themselves. Unfortunately, none of this manages to distract us from just how extraneous it all feels. Iron Man 2 could have easily been trimmed down to an hour and half and loose nothing of real consequence. Those trims would have made a difference between getting a great film (what we could have had) and getting a good one (what we ended up with).

One or two more of the joyously destructive one on one confrontations would have been welcome. Faveraeu excels at those. They play out like well choreographed professional wrestling matches. The confrontation between Stark and Vanko on a race track is especially effective, as is the alcohol fueled spat between Tony and Rhodes. Both expertly incorporate humor into the thrills without losing the all important sense of danger (which is quickly becoming a lost art). One wishes that Jon was a bit more liberal with the application of action being that he seems have a knack for it.

Iron Man 2 is a sturdy if not well oiled machine. It is a bit too confident at points and not willing enough to jettison the excess baggage. it would have benefited from a bit more tinkering in the scripting and editing stages . The pieces were all there to deliver a more satisfying film than the first. That being said, one has to have sympathy for those who are unable to be at least mildly entertained by Iron Man 2. It's flaws are in no way fatal.

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