Iron Man 2
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Mickey Rourke, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Don Cheadle, Samuel L. Jackson, Garry Shandling
Director: Jon Favreau
Iron Man, aka Tony Stark, is dying. And as he dies, he multiplies.
In the original Iron Man, the technological Tin Man replaces his heart, both physically and emotionally, to make it through his military-industrial Wonderland. In the sequel, the electronic heart that provides life is now poisoning his blood.
From its opening speech, Iron Man is a movie about legacy. Slowly owning up to the specter of his own death, Stark gets a glimpse of the world he’ll leave behind. He watches movies of his industrialist father laying out a perfect Disney-like planned city of the future, stressing the virtues of better living through technology. We learn that Stark, to a degree, has fulfilled this vision and achieved the Weapon-Makers Dream – a peaceful world through perfect deterrence.
As he dies, Stark watches his personality splinter. His enemies are uncomfortable shades of himself – a wannabe business rival (Sam Rockwell); an estranged techie best friend (Don Cheadle) who steals an Iron Man suit; the evil son of his father’s Russian ex-partner (Mickey Rourke), who has fashioned his own supersuit while in a state of exile. The Russian channels his feelings of rejection into two electrified whips for hands. As the technology spreads to the wrong hands, Stark foresees his legacy of peace melting into a legacy of more destructive warfare. The struggle in Iron Man 2 is that of a man fighting the future he has created.
Now, with money-making expectations, Iron Man 2 will get too distracted and diffuse to fully satisfy this careful subtext. After all, Iron Man is a blockbuster franchise. It has important landmarks to reach as it stretches into the future – on-set feuds, contract disputes, disinterested performances and eventual self-parody. That some of these things already are creeping into the second film is a little disappointing. And so these meticulous emotional and thematic battlefields are only sporadically matched by what’s on screen.
The original Iron Man was an awaiting dud lifted to watchability by Robert Downey. After a decade in small indie films working his way back into the picture, Iron Man was a perfect crossroads performance. Returning to major stardom, Downey now has earned the right to slack off when the material isn’t there. That’s about half the time here.
Director Jon Favreau has established a slo-jam sort of pace, unusual for a modern action film. Yet notice how perfectly this pace builds up the film’s best action sequence – with the whip-handed Rourke slowly, dangerously, slicing up race cars at the Gran Prix of Monaco. The scene doesn’t hurry, and it’s a model of blending comic book action and a realistic setting. The film might have made more of this sort of thing. Yet a lot of the film, too much of it really, is dedicated to Stark looking for a remedy for his heart situation, not the most lively plot point.
If Tony Stark is multiplying, so are the stars who want in on the deal. There are too many faces asking for screen time. Take one head-scratching transition of Paltrow and Johansson exiting a car and walking up stairs; it seems so unnecessary as to exist solely to satisfy a contract. In fact, Johansson has little to do until she and her stunt double get a sexy little action sequence near the end. First thought: Wow! Second thought: Where has this been for the past two hours?
With so many known faces signed up, Iron Man 2 still fails to pick a satisfying bad guy from among too many bad guys. Cheadle is ultimately a pal who’ll be around for the next film. Rockwell’s character is too comic to be a threat. Rourke disappears for too long and has not much to offer besides a Russian accent. As a result, the obligatory big final battle focuses mainly on a legion of military robots, designed from captured Iron Man technology.
Intellectually, that creates a perfect existential vision of a man confronted by his own disposability, reproducibility and ultimate insignificance. As action, we know in movies that robots can never resist doing something stupid enough to get their asses shot up. If Tony Stark only had a heart. If his enemies only had a brain.