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.