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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Iron Man 2 (review)

Irresistibly Magnetic

This is the metric by which I ended up measuring Iron Man 2: By the time it was over, did I actually want to see it again this weekend with my geek gang (only one of which I was able to bring with me to the press screening a few days ago)? And the answer ended up being Yes, I decided that I’m looking forward to seeing Iron Man 2 again. I decided that No, it will not be a chore to sit through Iron Man 2 again.

This is one of those movies that comes with a built-in wild swing of expectations: You hope with your geeky heart of hearts that it’s gonna be as awesome as the movie the awesomeness of which spawned this sequel in the first place, and you know in your geeky heart of hearts that it’s absolutely impossible for a sequel to be as delightfully surprising as that first film was. Robert Downey Jr. took us completely unawares in Iron Man with his deadpan-casual portrayal of genius industrialist billionaire playboy Tony Stark: just the description of the character reads like a huge joke, and Downey took it and walked a line between humor and pathos that was as startling as it was entertaining. But now we know his Tony Stark, and how could he — actor or character — be more than he is?
He can’t, and that greatly limits how much Iron Man 2 can surprise us. But sequels must always be bigger, faster, louder, whatever-er, and so of course director Jon Favreau (Elf) has crammed in more actionier stuff: more CGI guys-in-armored-suits fighting more CGI robot warriors in incoherently staged battles that range over air and ground. The faults of Iron Man 2 are those of Iron Man blown up in dimension — it’s mostly tough to tell who’s whaling on whom, and harder even to care about anything except who triumphs in the end, which is, of course, always a foregone conclusion. This is a superhero comic book movie of the most conservative stripe: the guy we’re supposed to acknowledge as “good” always wins, because that’s the formula.

If Favreau is content to ramp up the action by simply dolloping on more of everything — including the jumbled disjointedness — then screenwriter Justin Theroux is happy to let such plot as there is lazily write itself. Which may be the most disappointing thing about 2. (Other than the lack of a subtitle to make fun of. What? It’s just called Iron Man 2? Where’s the colon and the “Revenge of the Military Industrial Complex” or the “Rise of the Conflicted Warrior Playboy”?) The hints of something as complex as a Dark Knight or Watchmen are so tantalizing palpable here that I’m frankly stunned that Theroux, who cowrote the brilliantly subversive Tropic Thunder, didn’t see it… or maybe I should be angry that he wasn’t allowed to go where this story is quite clearly itching to go (though that’s hard to believe after we’ve seen that moral complexity didn’t stop The Dark Knight from raking in a billion bucks worldwide). The story is barely worth mentioning except to point out where it could have been so much smarter with so little impact on the extra-explosioniness a sequel demands.

It’s six months on from the events of the first film, which ended with Stark publicly acknowledging that he is Iron Man, and he is besieged on all sides. The little power plant in his chest is slowly killing him even as it keeps him alive. His relationship with Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow: Running with Scissors, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) seems to be stalled. There’s something at least as odd as alluring about his new assistant (Scarlett Johansson: The Spirit, Vicky Cristina Barcelona). His pal Rhodey (Don Cheadle: Brooklyn’s Finest, Hotel for Dogs), a Marine lieutenant colonel, is hounding him to share the Iron Man suits with the U.S. government, only slightly more nicely than is the weaselly head of the Senate Armed Services Committee (Garry Shandling [Over the Hedge, Town and Country], who is more terrifying, in a totally appropriate way, than funny, as we might have expected). His corporate competition (Sam Rockwell: Everybody’s Fine, G-Force) is trying to elbow in on his defense contracts. And an enemy he didn’t even know he had (Mickey Rourke: Sin City, Man on Fire) is out for his blood.

And none of it matters, because it’s all only excuses for CGI robots and robot suits to attack one another for your viewing pleasure. But it could have been so much more. In one moment, after all the pressures have finally pushed Stark almost to the breaking point, he takes off by himself to ponder his strange plight and eat donuts. Downey (Sherlock Holmes, The Soloist) here imbues Stark with an epic yet understated petulance, and it made me think: Wow, this is almost postsuperhero, in the most fascinating way. It’s hard to imagine Bruce Wayne seriously contemplating giving up Batman, but it’s easy to see Stark here actually throwing in the Iron Man towel. Because Stark doesn’t seem to have any ideology: he jokes about having “privatized world peace,” but what good does world peace do a defense contractor? He doesn’t actually care in either director, except as it gets him some attention form the world. As it’s sure as hell that as soon as Iron Man stops being fun and starts being work, Downey leads us to believe, that’s the moment Stark is done with it. But the film never really delves into either the ennui of the man who doesn’t want to shoulder the superhero mantle that’s been thrust upon him, nor the aphilosophical man suddenly forced to contemplate things he hasn’t had to think about before. And it’s only Downey’s mien — could that unflappability actually be a still-waters thing? — that lets us even broach the notion that there are genuine layers to Stark. It’s not there in the script.

2 ignores, too, its own undertones of creeping fascism. Much of the story revolves around the Stark Expo, a militaristic World’s Fair-type event set in a fantastical version of Flushing Meadows, the Queens, New York, park that hosted the 1964 World’s Fair. Iron Man arrives at the Expo as the film opens, flying in amidst enormous American flags and almost naked dancing girls to roars of approval from Stark’s fans: the corporate defense contractor as rock star at his own Nuremberg rally. (You get the sense that the Senate Armed Services Committee hearings Stark is compelled to testify at regarding the Iron Man suits are just as likely to be airing over on MTV as well as on the C-SPAN feed we see them on.) Garry Shandling’s Senator is cast as a villain for daring to suggest that it’s not wise that world peace be left in the hands of one wealthy industrialist with a fancy toy, but even an only slightly more complicated version of this very same story would acknowledge that that’s true: Just because Tony Stark is handsome and charismatic and makes the Senator look like a fool doesn’t mean it’s a good thing that he is now king of the world. But the film can’t be bothered to send up the cheerful, rah-rah nationalism on display nor even to embrace it. It doesn’t even seem to notice it’s there.

And yet… the movie’s fluff-headed ignorance of its own self is so merry that it’s almost impossible to get upset about it. Downey’s Stark may no longer be surprising, but he’s still a helluva lotta fun to hang out with for two hours, and he’s got a lot of electric competition from Sam Rockwell and Don Cheadle. The three of them — and to a lesser but still potent degree the rest of the cast, too — are so dynamic and so engaging that they’re worth overlooking Iron Man 2’s many flaws and disappointments in favor of. All happily dumb movies should be so lucky as to be peopled by their like.


MPAA: rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, and some language

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine
  • Ben

    but what good does world peace do a defense contractor?

    I guess you missed/forgot the bit in the last film where Stark gave up being a defense contractor?

    The conflict between him and Hammer isn’t about Hammer needling in on his defence contracts, because there is no sign that Stark Industries even does defence contracts anymore. The only reason Hammer has the contracts is that Stark has pulled out, thus the source of conflict – Hammer is only there because Stark has made a moral choice not to be , not because he (Hammer) is the best.

    2 ignores, too, its own undertones of creeping fascism. Much of the story revolves around the Stark Expo, a militaristic World’s Fair-type event set in a fantastical version of Flushing Meadows, the Queens, New York, park that hosted the 1964 World’s Fair.

    Ok, here my memory is more hazy. But I am sure at the start when this expo is being introduced its framed as being about bringing the best scientists and engineers in the world together to work for the betterment of humanity (or something like that). Its not a military fair.. its TED talks on steroids – with funding.

    Why therefore Hammer gets to present his drones there later seemed out of place with me, but at that point Stark seemed to have lost a bit of control about what was going on – and therefore wasn’t able to turn down the US government backed Hammer.

  • judy

    I am so glad you hit on the point that so many reviewers are missing…. there is no way Iron Man 2 could surprise everyone like the first Iron Man movie did. That first one came out of nowhere and it was so original and engaging that it won our hearts over big time.It was like no superhero movie we have ever seen before. So Iron Man 2 comes to us now with this huge built in disadvantage from the beginning. It sounds to me from most of the reviews that I have read that it could have been better but it is very enjoyable which is enough for me. I have friends who have seen it at midnight and they agree. They loved it but it was not quite as awesome as the first one. I am seeing it tonight with my big box of popcorn and will probably see it a few times since I am a huge fan of RDJ. Thanks for pointing out something that many critics are not talking about.

  • MaryAnn

    I guess you missed/forgot the bit in the last film where Stark gave up being a defense contractor?

    The conflict between him and Hammer isn’t about Hammer needling in on his defence contracts,

    I’m simplifying a little bit. And all those cheering people at the Stark Expo aren’t cheering for scientists and engineers: they’re cheering for the guy in the robot suit who kicks ass. And they cheer just as loudly for Hammer and his military toys, too.

  • Erik Goodwyn

    Not to quibble, but shouldn’t it be “who’s wailing on whom” instead of “who’s whaling on whom”–or was that intentional?

  • MaryAnn

    Not to quibble, but shouldn’t it be “who’s wailing on whom” instead of “who’s whaling on whom”

    Nope. They’re not yelling at each other: they’re hitting each other. That’s “whaling.”

  • …more CGI guys-in-armored-suits fighting more CGI robot warriors in incoherently staged battles that range over air and ground.

    Did you watch this with 3D glasses on by accident? These battles were among the most expertly staged in superhero film history. The action scenes in Iron Man 2 were visceral, exciting, and easy to follow.

    I think you’re confusing “fast” with “incoherent” and those two words are not synonyms.

  • Knightgee

    The odd thing about the Iron-Man movies for me is that the most entertaining parts are not the fights, which I thought were much better in this one than the first, but other scenes. Obviously watching Downey interact is fun, but also him in his lab making things, those are the scenes I always like. It’s nice to see this genius being a genius. One of my only complaints about the new Batman movies is that we get very little of the detective side of him and he is supposed to be the world’s greatest detective. With Iron-Man, Favreau has enough sense to not only show his exploits as a playboy or a business man, but also as a technological genius.

  • Shadowen

    I’m simplifying a little bit. And all those cheering people at the Stark Expo aren’t cheering for scientists and engineers: they’re cheering for the guy in the robot suit who kicks ass. And they cheer just as loudly for Hammer and his military toys, too.

    No, not really. It was pretty clear that a) the audience for Hammer’s presentation was more…upscale, shall we say?…than the rowdy crowd at the beginning, and b) they mostly seemed to be clapping politely due to Hammer being a (magnificently played by Rockwell) smug, condescending, uncharismatic jackhole…until Iron Man showed up, at which point shit went bananas, B-A-N-A-N-A-S. They cheer for the guy in the robo suit who kicks ass that they know and like.

    I would also agree with Newbs that the action sequences were very well done and relatively easy to follow…and with Knightgee that the action sequences almost weren’t the point.

    I must admit I kind of dislike the missed political potential from both this movie and the previous. For example, I had hypothesized before the first movie came out that he would balance his desire to help directly as Iron Man with his need to help in a broader sense by, say, providing high-tech armor (not on the level of Iron Man, of course) to protect the troops instead of weapons that were more and more pointlessly powerful and, as he said, cleaning up his company’s shady practices. But that didn’t happen. Nor did it happen in this one. I suppose that was nixed, if it was even brought up, by the Defense Department consultants they doubtless had.

    All that said…good damn movie.

  • Charles

    So you’re saying the film is emotionally inert and shallow, with little character development or substantive plot, coasting on the lead’s charm to cover over a shoddily constructed apologia for military expansionism.

    Bravo to the courageous film reviewer who is intelligent enough to recognize shit but unwilling to call out her heroes for producing the aforementioned shit.

  • MaryAnn

    I don’t think it’s shit, and “heroes”? What?

  • Meanwhile, this is what got me all excited:

    http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/movies/

    Joss Whedon directing the Avengers… but it’s not coming out until 2012. I hope the end of the world holds off. With any luck, the four horsemen will want to watch it, too.

  • amanohyo

    Going in, I feared it would be too many characters and too much plot. It’s the opposite – too little of everything. Cheadle and Johansson don’t really play characters; it’s more accurate to say that they have action scene cameos . The few scenes with Rourke suggest the outlines of a far more interesting movie that the writers ran away from almost every chance they got.

    There was very little plot to speak of, just a string of aborted attempts to find one. The filmmakers clearly built a script around a series of action scenes, George Lucas style, and in order to get it to flow at all, they had to force large inconsistencies into Cheadle’s “character.” Even with those forced shifts, the pacing is lousy; in particular the “inventing a new element” (isotope maybe?) scene is a real yawnfest.

    Ultimately, the only character you care about is Rourke’s Ivan (Downey’s schtick works for about half the movie, then the charm fades), and the film commits the ultimate sin for a summer blockbuster – the climactic finale is actually boring. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that my first thought at the end was, “That’s it?”

    I’m very happy that I decided to watch Kick Ass first and then hop to Iron Man as the former is a superior summer comic book action movie in every way except for the average skill of the actors. Compare Hit Girl’s goon-fighting scene to Natasha’s; it’s not even close, and it’s not just the gore that makes it more involving – the shots are more imaginative, the choreography is smoother, and you actually have some emotion invested in the character. I still don’t understand the appeal of Johansson – it seems like they tried to write their way around her blandness by making it a part of her personality, but Paltrow and Downey still act circles around her.

    The first one was okay, but this is a sub par movie with a (mostly) great cast. The producers would have done just as well in my book if they had scrapped Cheadle, Johansson, and the corny make-my-father-proud and my-suit-is-poisoning-my-blood subplots, and just focused on Stark, Ivan, Hammer, and Potts. Maybe that would have given them the breathing room to build some compelling characters and find something interesting to say.

  • Mathias

    I was dissapointed. But i realize now just how surprisingly swesome the first film was.

    That had an engaging story arch; Tony going from destroyer to savior. But the plot of the sequel is so thin, jumbled, scattershot and driven mostly by revenge.

    It’s just a good film but it should’ve been much more.
    I give a 7/10.

  • AsimovLives

    And yet, in the final scene, it’s the senator that gets the laugh laugh and makes the last quip. Maybe the movie acknowledges, after all, that Tony Stark does need indeed a leach. Ence, Rhodes breeding down on his neck, Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury organization antics their the infiltrated spy.

    I have seen lots of reviews for this movie which are either “it’s great” or “it’s shit”. There seems to be balanced reivews about this movie. weither they are exagerated love letters proclaiming IRON MAN 2 is better then THE DARK KNIGHT (an absurdity so big words fails me tod escribe it) or they proclaim the movie is one of the worst movie ever made. Both this attitudes are wrong. Both this opinions are wrong. Wrong and absurd. It’s out of control mindless geekism… which is all the same thing, i guess.

    No, IRON MAN 2 is this rare beast, a sequel that is the equal to the first movie that spawed it. For good and bad, IR2 is no different from the first movie. And the first movie was pretty good. IRON MAN 2 can be enjoyed for the good movie it is without needless and dumb hyperboles. And those who can’t enjoy it, it’s their problem. There’s always some Michael Bay or JJ Abrams’s piece of shit movie for them to enjoy.

  • amanohyo

    AsimovLives, I don’t think the movie is shit; it’s just below average making it a bit worse than the first. The internet does tend to breed hyperbole and polarizing generalizations; however, stating that everyone who didn’t enjoy this movie would enjoy the idiocy of Michael Bay is just tossing another log on the eternal flames.

    It’s not actively unpleasant like a Bay movie, but Mathias touches on a big part of the problem – the lack of a strong story arc to get the audience involved. Except for Rourke, who seems like he’s in a different movie, it’s a soulless roller coaster devoid of thrills interspersed with too many soap opera developments that aren’t given any time to develop before they’re resolved. I’m sure they were hoping for some kind of resonance between the father-son relationships of Stark and Ivan and maybe they would have liked to chart the razor thin line between the selfishness of Stark and Hammer, but they just weren’t willing or able to put the work in to connect the pieces.

    Did anyone actually feel anything when Stark’s dad delivers his speech from the grave? Did you feel anything when Stark makes his new isotope/element? How about when his friend flies off with his suit? During Potts’ hops on the corporate ladder? During any of the conversations with Sam Jackson? During the rock em sock em robot finale? The kiss? Maybe my standards are too high, but if you’re going to entertain me, you have to make me care at least a little.

    The best scene revolves around a conflict with a kinetic structure on an office desk which, like the film, is a lot of seemingly random motion with no apparent purpose other than distraction.

  • Quick question to anyone who plays City of Heroes online: did any of you shout “Tony’s got the exploration badge!” when the film spotted him sitting in the donut? (to the non-gamers, it’s a bit of an in-joke)

    Good movie, but problematic. Cheadle’s a good serious actor and the part where he claims the War Machine chassis was believable, but he just didn’t do as good a job as Howard did conveying “old buddy” friendship with Downey’s Stark.

    I also got the feeling there were additional scenes buffing up the Black Widow character but were left aside for the longer DVD director’s cut.

    I liked the movie. I did think there were scenes of emotional import (I did care during Tony’s re-watching his dad’s old films, amanohyo) and there were a handful of funny moments that worked (Hammer’s “Ex-Wife”… yeah kinda figured that would happen, but hey there’s a pill for that now!). Also, the New Mexico thing at the end caught me off-guard: I was expecting another cameo, but then I remembered “oh yeah they’re releasing that guy’s movie next…”

  • Charles

    When I say it’s shit, I don’t mean it’s Razzie-worthy or even Phantom Menace/Matrix Revolutions/Transformers 2-level stupid. What I mean is that a group of talented people made an excellent origin story movie that was highly successful and came back with a bigger budget and a fantastic cast and creative freedom and massive audience goodwill- and they made . . . a mediocre, overstuffed, uninspired sequel. What I hate is the making excuses, this “we couldn’t have found it so charming the second time around” bullshit. It’s excusing the filmmakers’ laziness in not coming up with a story that moves the characters forward. It’s excusing the degree to which IM2 is a lame cash-grab by artists who have the ability to produce something moving and powerful.

  • uunkoke

    I liked the movie and agree with your review. Though I think both missed their potential. I was surprised that you didn’t comment more on the Movie’s parodies to real life, such as mentioned in an earlier comment how the Stark expo was really a year long version of TED, and Stark himself is sort of the weapons contractor version of Bill Gates (who has abandoned running his company to manage his Gates Foundation, and is a major sponsor of TED). Like you did suggest, IM2 could have really fleshed out this conundrum; should/could a benevolent capitalist be better for America than our corrupt and neutered democratic government?

    I also got a kick out of some of the cameos that really were digs at current socio/political situations. Specifically, how they had O’Reilly posting verbatim his “talking points” on his show so the “echo chamber” had them available to parrot back. And the 8 second Elon Musk cameo(CEO of Tesla Motors, the fledgling electric sports car company) where Tony leaves us pondering on the likelihood of an electric car in our driveway with his one liner to Musk about the 100% electric airplane. And even Cheadle’s opening line that had a double entendre for any audience member still feeling that Terrence Howard got cheated.

    These little nuggets tucked into the background of the main thrust of IM2’s story line where what raised IM2 from mediocrity to worthy for me. These, and Downey’s dependable and thoroughly enjoyable snark. Your review captured his skill and portrayal perfectly.

  • mike

    MaryAnn—Don Cheadle (Rhodey) is an AIR FORCE Lt Col!!!!! He was an Air Force Major when he was played by THP in the last movie. Now he has gotten a promotion. In fact I don’t think that there was one Marine in either Iron Man 1 or 2…it’s definitely an Air Force movie! Sorry but I had to set the record straight for us Air Force folks.

  • Jim Mann

    I have seen lots of reviews for this movie which are either “it’s great” or “it’s shit”. There seems to be balanced reivews about this movie. weither they are exagerated love letters proclaiming IRON MAN 2 is better then THE DARK KNIGHT (an absurdity so big words fails me tod escribe it) or they proclaim the movie is one of the worst movie ever made. …

    No, IRON MAN 2 is this rare beast, a sequel that is the equal to the first movie that spawed it.

    But, if Iron Man II were equal to Iron Man (I don’t think it is — it’s good, but not as good as the first film), then claiming it was better than The Dark Knight would not be “an abusudity,” since the first Iron Man film was better than The Dark Knight (a good but overdone and very overrated film).

  • c

    I love Iron Man!! Robert Downey Jr. is charming and endearing and made me love this movie! Normally I’m not a comic book fan, usually I go for more dramatic stuff like the movie Cycle (you can check it out at http://www.myspace.com/cyclethemovie), but because of Downey I’m a convert and loving it!! But Scarlette Jo has got to go I just find her annoying.

  • As always, a comprehensive and insightful review. But I think the film very deliberately “chooses to ignore its own overtones of creeping fascism,” as you wrote. You also say:

    The hints of something as complex as a Dark Knight or Watchmen are so tantalizing palpable… maybe I should be angry that (Theroux) wasn’t allowed to go where this story is quite clearly itching to go…

    I think Faverau goes out of his way to avoid the overblown conceit of Nolan’s BB and especially TDK, to the IM franchise’s ultimate benefit.

    I explore these ideas in my latest “DeFlip Side” radio feature, “Man of Iron, Man of Bat” if you’d care to listen. I’d love to know what you think:

    http://DeFlipSide.com

    Thanks!
    Chris

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