Iron Man 2 (Paramount)
“I have successfully privatized world peace,” gloats Tony Stark, the man inside the metal suit—the man who is Iron Man. Through dogged pride and sheer mechanical machismo, Iron Man has singlehandedly rid the world of conflict.
What, then, is a superhero to do when the fate of the world is secure, when there are no bad guys left to defeat, when there are no lives that need saving?
For Tony Stark, it’s party time! Bright lights, loud music, and plenty of booze are on the agenda. Stark floats among bountiful bodacious babes, each entirely encumbered by his star-power.
Idle hands are the devil’s playthings, and Iron Man quickly sprouts horns. He spins innuendos and basks in self-importance. A birthday bash becomes a night of drunken hijinks, and Iron Man, once a formidable force keeping evil at bay, blasts watermelon bits over a horde of adoring coeds. Were he not the most celebrated man on the planet, Tony Stark would be a bull’s-eye for tabloid fodder.
Narcissism culminates at the “Stark Expo,” a multi-venue public event engulfing the borough of Queens, where Stark can further display his awesomeness against a stage show of flashy dancers and pyrotechnics. An aerial view recalls the complex constructed in Beijing for the 2008 Summer Olympiad.
All this, and as little more than one man’s massive self-congratulations.
Robert Downey Jr. fills the Iron Man suit well, just as he effortlessly embodies Tony Stark’s cool assuredness. But even he cannot create a dependably likable hero out of such arrogant ostentation and general disregard.
Others are invited to the Stark Expo to give Iron Man a run for his money as the World’s Greatest Everything. Here is where Iron Man faces his biggest threat, and where the film mines its only conflict.
A US Senate committee attempts to confiscate Tony Stark’s arsenal of armor, claiming that the Iron Man suit and all related technologies qualify as unauthorized weaponry. Stark turns a hearing regarding the matter into a circus ring and walks away standing tall, looking all the more invincible.
Justin Hammer, the pathetically unmenacing head of a rival technology company, wants to prove that his guns are just as big, long, and strong as those of Iron Man. Hammer is not a convincing villain, and neither is Sam Rockwell, appearing uncomfortable and unsure in the role.
Mickey Rourke plays Ivan Vanko, an undomesticated Russian scientist-of-sorts seeking retribution for his father, wronged at some point by Tony Stark’s father. Vanko brings the fight to a racecar track, using two electric tentacles to slice through metal and pavement. But he proves no match for Iron Man.
Vanko regrettably spends most of his screen time detained, or otherwise contained, but Rourke injects just the right amount of eccentricity into his performance to seem dangerous and unpredictable.
Hammer recruits Vanko to help him assemble bigger, longer, and stronger weapons, and, he hopes, to dethrone Iron Man as the current reigning Mr. Universe.
Yes, Iron Man battles embittered politicos and policy makers. Yes, Iron Man spars with jealous competitors suffering major penis envy. Yes, Iron Man even has to sidestep a madman with a deep-seated personal vendetta. But no, not once does Iron Man fight to save the world; he fights to save only himself.
In Iron Man 2, the rest of the world doesn’t seem to matter. As fiery bits of wreckage scatter across the racetrack audience, as glass fragments and explosive materiel sprinkle over Stark Expo attendees, so long as Iron Man and all principal relations are accounted for, there is no reason for worry.
An alleged superhero has never felt so fundamentally detached from his populace.
At the very least, Stark’s steadily disintegrating status, from protector of the people to inebriated scrap metal, would be cause for public concern. Instead, Pepper Potts gives him a half-hearted scolding and a figurative whap on the fanny.
Like Downey, Gwyneth Paltrow is able to balance unfavorable characteristics, here fretful and disapproving, with a basic sweetness, yielding a strong and sympathetic Pepper Potts. She is always a welcome, even relieving, presence; Stark finally appears vulnerable when she is around, and her grasp on reality foils well Stark’s heedlessness.
Ms. Potts is joined by a team of secret agents in rounding out Tony Stark’s nanny squad. Samuel L. Jackson, armed with his expected Pulp Fiction flippancy, has to ground Tony until he finishes his science homework: an assignment that will both save his life and further secure, you know, world peace and all that. Tony would rather go outside and play.
Meanwhile, a typically succulent Scarlett Johansson crafts a compelling female heroine. She gives Mr. Stark (and us) another illustrious form to drool at, but she uses her deceiving exterior to seize the upper hand, pretending to be manipulated whilst manipulating the entire time. And then, her sting is swift and deadly.
Director Jon Favreau is so taken by Ms. Johansson that he pairs himself with her as often as possible (he plays Stark’s wingman/boxing-buddy/chauffeur). A particular side mission seems more like an excuse for Favreau to realize a fan-boy fantasy, and to get a little closer to the hot girl on set. Kudos to Scarlett for bringing her A-game to what could have been a throwaway role, and for making Favreau look foolish in his vanity.
Indeed, Iron Man 2 is a wholly vain exercise—a superhero who knows he doesn’t have to be a hero anymore, in a sequel that knows it doesn’t have to repeat the triumphs of its predecessor to bring in big returns at the box office.
The film showcases the talents of a few sharp performers against a barrage of special effects and general filmmaking competency. Nothing too spectacular, though. And Iron Man gets lost in smug satisfaction, digging his own potholes and then requiring additional aid to fill them back in, smoothing out simple glitches and promptly neutralizing puny opponents along the way—all while the rest of the world remains unaffected.
Personally, I prefer my superheroes, and my superhero movies, to be a little more super than that.
Directed by Jon Favreau. Written by Justin Theroux, based on the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee, Don Heck, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, and some language.
Runtime is 2 hours, 4 minutes.
TIP: Stick around for an extra scene, and a probable peek at Iron Man 3, after the credits!