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Wednesday, July 25, 2018

RECENT WATCHES: Iron Man 2 (2008)

Marvel's “Iron Man” gamble paid off big, the film becoming one of the highest grossing of the year. That same summer, the studio also released “The Incredible Hulk” to a somewhat more muted but still substantial box office reaction. Both movies featured explicit connections to each other. It looked like this crazy idea, of a cinematic shared universe, might actually work. Films based on “Thor” and “Captain America” were greenlit, paving the way for “The Avengers.” But Marvel wasn't going to march forward without a sequel to their now-flagship franchise. “Iron Man 2” immediately rolled into production after the first one's success. Jon Faveru was back in the director's chair with most of the original cast returning. The sequel would be another huge hit. The critical reception was less positive and “Iron Man 2” remains one of the most divisive of Marvel's movies.

The main problem with “Iron Man 2” is that it's trying to do too much. The script, written by Justin Theroux for some reason, is pulled in too many directions. Tony Stark, celebrated world over as Iron Man, is slowly being poisoned by the arc reactor in his chest. He's also being pestered by the government, who question whether a private citizen should own a weapon of mass destruction. Also, some guy named Ivan Vanko – the son of the Russian scientist who worked with Tony's dad – has a personal grudge against him. He creates his own arc reactor, turning himself into the supervillain Whiplash. In addition to all this, the movie also has Tony's pal Rhodey donning his own metal suit, becoming War Machine, and has Black Widow spying on him. Oh yeah, Nick Fury shows up again to further set up “The Avengers.” Needless to say, this is a seriously overstuffed sequel.

A script that is trying to do too much is, sadly, not “Iron Man 2's” only problem. The film begins with Tony Stark dropping out of an airplane and landing at the Stark Expo, a showcase for technology that his company funds. He then brags about how much Iron Man, as in him, has made the world a better place. Soon afterwards, he belittles some senators and rivals. In other words, Tony is a smug asshole at the film's beginning. In order to humanize his ego, the script has him struggling with his fatal condition. It's a messy attempt to justify the protagonist's asshole behavior. It's also a fairly facile attempt to continue a hero's journey that more-or-less concluded in the first movie. Robert Downey Jr. is still massively entertaining in the role but even his charms can't overcome a sloppy screenplay.

Further muddling the waters, this is not the only story point the movie cooks up for Tony. Daddy issues is a reoccurring theme in the sequel. (And, we'll later discover, in pretty much the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe.) In the first scene, Tony presents footage of his dad, who has been re-imagined as a Walt Disney-like figure. This is an odd move for a weapons designer but it shows how Tony still lives in the shadow of a distant, controlling father. His father's mistakes revisit him in the form of Vanko, who is punishing Stark for his dad's sins. Despite all the resentment Tony feels towards his dad, the elder Stark still comes out on top. He saves his boy's life from beyond the grave, in an especially unlikely plot turn. Maybe the sequel should've just admitted that sometimes dads' fucking suck for no reason?

The first “Iron Man” had slightly shaky politics. It almost made the idea of a weapons manufacturer making the world a better place by building the coolest weapon ever seem plausible. The sequel, however, doubles down on the wobbliest aspects of the first's philosophies. Iron Man is apparently enough of a deterrent that wars the world over have slowed down. I guess that answers the question of why the Iraq War, a big part of the first film, is never mentioned again. When the government not unreasonably wonders if one person should have that kind of power, Tony refuses to relinquish the suit. This leads to some maybe unintentional, maybe not Randian undertones. The film mostly abandons politics after that but seems to stick with the thesis that extraordinary individuals – like, I don't know, egomaniac billionaires – should just be allowed to do whatever they want. Which is okay, I guess, in a fictional superhero universe but absolutely makes things worse in real life.

The movie also has fairly weak villains, a problem Marvel's movies would have going forward. Ivan Vanko mashes together two characters: Crimson Dynamo, Iron Man's Soviet counterpart and one of his greatest foes, and Blacklash, a guy who thinks a whip is an appropriate weapon to fight Iron Man with. Vanko is essentially Crimson Dynamo with a heavily modified version of Whiplash's trademark weapon. And, yeah, it looks cool. Electro whips are a memorable visual. The character has almost no personality though. He only interacts with Stark three times, his motivation is explained via one montage, and makes almost no impression on the audience. Mickey Rourke mumbles in a heavy accent throughout the film. The supporting villain is Sam Hammer, played by an entertaining Sam Rockwell, but he's a buffoon that's never meant to be taken seriously.

Over the course of future films, Scarlet Johannson's Black Widow would become an iconic character. After becoming a fan favorite over several sequels, it looks like she's finally getting her own movie. You'd never expect that reaction from her scenes here. The loaded script gives Johannson little to work with. She has a few personable scenes, such as a charming exchange with Downey, but she's mostly just pushed around by the whims of the script. We really learn nothing about Natasha Romanov's personality throughout “Iron Man 2.” Other than her being a total bad ass, portrayed during a fluid melee with some security guards. Ultimately, that's a factoid we could've gleamed on account of her being a superhero. Future films would largely establish Black Widow as a character.

Though it has the appearance of being a fine-tuned machine, the Marvel Cinematic Universe had to work out a few kinks in its early entries. The first of a few high-profile re-castings occurred here. Don Cheadle steps in for Terence Howard. It's a considerable improvement. Cheadle is way more charming and funny than Howard and also has far more chemistry with Downey. Sadly, Cheadle is also jerked around by the script. Cheadle dons the War Machine suit because Tony gets drunk at a party, which naturally only escalates things. All the fist fights and alliances with subpar villains are forgiven once the explosion-filled last act kicks in. It's kind of like Marvel just insisted War Machine be in “Iron Man 2,” regardless of whether it made much sense or not.

Despite all the many problems “Iron Man 2” has, it's action scenes are consistently awesome. The first fight between Whiplash and Stark occurs on a race track. Race cars being cleaved in half make for a memorable sight. So does Tony slipping on a suit that can fit inside a suitcase. The drunken brawl between Rhodey and Tony might be hard to justify for plot reasons. Watching two guys in super-suits toss each other through a mansion is a lot of fun though. Once Vanko activates an army of heavily-armed robot drones, “Iron Man 2” kicks really features some high octane action. There's an impressive air chase, winding through the concrete pillars of a parking garage. The huge showdown between Iron Man, War Machine, and an army of robots is by far the coolest action beat of the film. Favreau's skills as an action director have improved considerably from the first film, as there's no shaky-cam here at all.

After making up for a lot of its flaws with those whiz-bang action scenes, “Iron Man 2” totally chokes at the last minute. Ivan Vanko continues to be a lame adversary up to the end. Whiplash's final fight with Iron Man and War Machine is underwhelming. He snares the heroes with his whips a few times. They then knock him out by combining their laser blasts, after which he commits suicide. Lame. The fight doesn't even satisfy as a nerd-pleasing spectacle. We got to see Iron Man fight an evil dude in another suit of robot-armor in the first movie. Marvel didn't even go to the effort of Vanko wearing red armor in the last scene, making the character a failed adaptation of the Crimson Dynamo.

This would not be the last time one of Marvel's high-profile sequels would be scrambled by setting up future films. When you're laying the bricks for an on-going universe of adventures, it seems some entries will inevitably be bumpy. “Iron Man 2's” likable cast goes a long way. The few scenes Robert Downey Jr. has with Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts are really charming. It's action scenes are mostly really fun. However, the sequel is badly hampered by a messy, overcrowded script and a forgettable antagonist. [5/10] 

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