Review: Iron Man 2
The Summer 2010 movie season is officially underway, and too my admitted surprise (I wasn’t very optimistic about it), you couldn’t ask for a much better encapsulation of the summer movie spirit than Iron Man 2. Oversized, indulgent, and always entertaining, it takes the character created so effectively in the first film and gives him room to implode, with all manner of bells and whistles sounding off around him. This is a quality sequel in the tradition of the 1980s summer sequels like Die Hard 2 and The Temple of Doom, where we take an established protagonist and fling him against outsized enemies and a sea of outsized personalities.
In this case the hero is the most outsized personality of them all, and the joy that Robert Downey Jr. has in bringing Tony Stark to life is apparent is always scene. I couldn’t think of a better actor to take such an arrogant, obnoxious, and self-absorbed character and make an audience love him, but he continues to pull that off in these movies. Maybe the trick is that in this film, we get to see Stark collapse in on himself, both physically and mentally. He’s paying a price for his vigilante showmanship and his technological enhancements, and we get a certain degree of pleasure in that while still rooting for him to succeed. Heroes have flaws, but they must suffer for those flaws and overcome them in order for their eventual victory to provide a proper catharsis. Tony Stark loves being Iron Man. He loves being a super-being and he loves being smarter than everyone else, and watching him suffer for these character flaws ends up making him a more endearing character, and that’s what makes this film work.
What also makes this film work is that it avoids the dreaded sequel mistake of over-stuffing the story with too many villains and too many subordinate plot lines. Recent sequels like Spiderman 3 and Wolverine suffered mightily for this mistake, throwing everything and the kitchen sink into their plots and leaving the audience completely bewildered and emotionally removed. And it all but killed those previously powerful franchises. Iron Man 2 keeps the focus on Tony Stark’s story and provides villains only as a means of delving into his character’s development. Whiplash is the only real ‘bad guy’ in the piece, but he is a somewhat justified ghost from the Stark family’s past, and in the early going his violent rage seems almost righteous when contrasted with Stark’s narcissistic flaunting of his technological power. This makes the conflict much more engaging and gives the film a healthy shade of gray. Other characters exist only to affect and serve the journey of Stark from self-destructive scion to humbled (marginally) symbol of American resolve.
If Iron Man 2 suffers from any one thing, it is an occasionally childish self-indulgence. There are conversations and set-pieces that are downright silly and smack of a director not yet seasoned enough to take a big budget and know when to step off the gas pedal. Interestingly enough, this indulgence is found less in the mega-sized action orchestrations and more in the cheeky interactions between characters. As well-developed and well-motivated as these characters are, the script has a way of making them a little too cute with each other, and this leads to some awkward scenes that were better left on the cutting room floor. That said, it is that same nature of indulgence and excess that grants the film it’s more exciting moments and makes the whole product so incessantly fun. Gotta take the wrinkles in the package, in this case.
The acting is excellent across the board, perhaps the most surprising quality of the film. Downey is as charismatic as ever, and his Hollywood comeback in one of the best industry developments in years. Assisting him is a game supporting cast that features a consistent Don Cheadle (earnest as ever), and a highly effective Mickey Rourke who somehow manages to pull off a thick Russian accent in his grueling baritone. He makes Ivan, AKA Whiplash, both monstrous and oddly sympathetic, the two necessary qualities for a really good bad guy. But the jewel of this cast is Sam Rockwell as the enterprising weapons maker Justin Hammer. He’s not so much a villain as a competitor to Tony Stark. He’s actually working more for America than Stark is, and he wants so desperately to be as smart and cool as Tony that he goes above and beyond the usual military industrial complex sleasiness. Rockwell is amazing in this role, making this guy both formidable and pathetic, and always interesting. It’s a great turn that will surely go more or less unnoticed amid all the explosions and cleavage and Robert Downey running through the film.
This is no masterpiece, but it is a faithful platter of summer movie goodness that sets a pleasant tone for the coming season. We’ll surely get our intellectual meal later with Inception, but there’s nothing wrong with a little good ole American fun at the move theater. And Iron Man 2 delivers.