SHORT TAKE: “Iron Man 2” (**1/2)

Posted by · 6:34 am · May 3rd, 2010

“Good is the enemy of Great,” wrote Jim Collins, in one of the more high-maintenance self-help plans you’re likely to encounter. As nice a thought as it is, this law appears to have no place in the world of the Hollywood franchise blockbuster, where Crap is the enemy of pretty much everything, and Good is usually one courtesy too many for time-strapped, dollar-eyed producers.

With myriad noisy-yet-joyless “Transformers” types littering the release schedule each summer, then, the bar for commendability is set rather low: it often takes but one redeeming feature to launch such products into critics’ good books in addition to the box office charts.

It’s in this way that Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man” carved a reputation as one of 2008’s pleasant surprises: narratively choppy, technically perfunctory and indifferently performed in support, it nonetheless boasted a star turn from Robert Downey Jr so fleet-footed and gleefully off-message that it made all the surrounding elements seem wittier by sheer association.

It should come as no surprise to students of the Hollywood mainstream that Favreau’s swiftly delivered sequel, already raking in the cash on its European release, aims no higher, and reaches no wider, than its predecessor. By and large, Favreau and his collaborators have figured that the shortcuts they got away with in the first film are still fit for purpose.

As such, aggravatingly few demands are again made of cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s ample gifts, the effects are as plentiful but plasticky as before, and no attempt has been made to (forgive me) iron out lingering script issues, as the film remains in doubt over such issues as the simple wherefores of Tony Stark’s mission, or the purpose of women in general.

Oddly, considering it has one writer (actor Justin Theroux, for reasons unclear) to the original film’s four, the script is even vaguer and more distended this time around, hurriedly cramming in extraneous villains and subplots, giving the sense of an all-star cast drafted ahead of their characters. Separate conflicts between Downey Jr’s Stark and his girlfriend, business rival, sidekick, rather randomly inserted Raw-shun nemesis and even his own body are mashed together so haphazardly, it’s some time before we figure out they’re not terribly related.

But if this in a film both overpopulated and slightly unmoored – not too mention a good 20 minutes too long – there’s still fun amid the clutter. Mickey Rourke’s leering, thickly accented Whiplash may not be all that motivated or necessary a presence, but in a crude entertainment likes this one, he’s better in than out; much the same goes for Scarlett Johansson as Stark’s illegal-looking, ass-kicking PA, even if she serves no purpose beyond rendering Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts even more dour and cheddary by comparison.

The real MVP here, however, is Sam Rockwell: marvelously unctuous and in possession of all the best lines as rival magnate Justin Hammer, he makes the strongest case for a return in the inevitable third instalment.

Lording supremely above it all, of course, is Downey Jr, as uninterested as before in the mechanics, physical and otherwise, of the Iron Man persona, and once more wilfully – and successfully – constructing a character entirely from his own star magnetism. If he’s not breaking the lightest of sweats with this sly assembly of smirks and asides, it’s because he knows this offhand irony is precisely what the film runs on.

Tellingly, “Iron Man 2” lags most when Stark dons his iron mask and the film enters all-action mode – save a zippy early set piece at the Monaco Grand Prix, the film never bridges the discontinuity between actor and faceless superhero in these scenes, and the former’s absence is sorely felt. The film may be no friend of Great – indeed, it’s barely one of Good – but Downey is happy to serve as the go-between.

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28 responses so far

  • 1 5-03-2010 at 7:17 am

    AmericanRequiem said...

    im not a fan of downeys smug attitude and i dont get why everyone claims it to be great acting, too bad this film isnt good but i wasnt expecting much ayway

    one question though Guy, is it worth seeing at all?

  • 2 5-03-2010 at 8:00 am

    Lev Lewis said...

    I was really put off by the politics of the first, so I’m hoping 2’s focus will be elsewhere, and I’ll just get to enjoy Downey Jr. being brilliant.

  • 3 5-03-2010 at 8:21 am

    the other mike said...

    didnt like the 1st film at all but Scarlett might make this one worth seeing.

  • 4 5-03-2010 at 8:58 am

    Kevin K. said...

    Guy, I’m going to have to completely disagree with you on this one. I saw the film at the Alamo Drafthouse fan screening in Austin TX last week, and it was 2 hours of pure awesomeness for me. I get the feeling you weren’t much of a fan of the first film, mostly for the reason that it’s kind of a fast and loose style of filmmaking with a really breezy tone. For me, that’s what works so well for both films, is that it’s a nice breath of levity amongst over-serious, over-the-top action flicks. It never once takes itself too seriously, and that works in the film’s favor. Plus, the direction they take Stark’s story in this time around was really cool. In a sense, he hits an all time low point, despite having had this major turnaround from being an arms dealer and instead fighting for peace, and yet he’s getting lost in the newest monster he’s creating. There’s a lot of really cool subtle things throughout the film, themes of identity, etc that the story plays with so well. But to each their own. The film is tracking through the roof. It’s going to do gangbusters business. And I couldn’t be happier.

  • 5 5-03-2010 at 11:23 am

    Fitz said...

    There’s always something worth watching in a character, whom in his means of turning to good only succeeds in making things far worse than ever imagined.

  • 6 5-03-2010 at 12:10 pm

    Kevin K. said...

    Well said, Fitz. It reminds one of the themes of escalation in The Dark Knight, where the main character’s presence has done some good, but made things worse before they get better. That, and honestly, the movie just rocks.

  • 7 5-03-2010 at 4:06 pm

    geha714 said...

    Saw it today. It was fun, like a good summer movie should be. But it felt underdeveloped. The studio rushed it too fast. The story could be better managed, specially the Ivan Vanko storyline. Rourke was good, but he could have done much more. Scarlett was just eye candy, nothing more. Good work by her stunt double in the fight scene. Kate Mara, who was in an earlier scene, should be cast instead (She’s hotter, has presence and above all, she’s a real red-head)

    Rockwell is just awesome but misused. Samuel Jackson does what he does best (his STFU face is priceless). Too much Happy the bodyguard and not enough Jarvis and Agent Coulson. Cheadle is good (like always) but I missed Terrence Howard somehow.

    Downey and Paltrow was the best parts of the film. RDJ just owns the role and the film. The chemistry between him and Gwyneth is great. Favreau is getting better as a director, the beginning and the end of the film are exciting, but the middle drags out a little.

    The score was disappointing, because it lacked a main theme, something than Ramin Djawadi had. John Debney did a by the numbers work.
    And finally, Garry Shandling could pass as real senator. Good casting there. 7 of 10.

    P.S. The whole avengers universe is being pushed too fast. Marvel should slow down, but I know they won’t. (Wheddon is not the man for the job, period).

  • 8 5-03-2010 at 4:11 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    “one question though Guy, is it worth seeing at all?”

    Depends how picky you are. It’s a perfectly decent time at the movies. Is the review unclear?

  • 9 5-03-2010 at 4:14 pm

    Kevin K. said...

    I’d just say that the review and the star rating comes off a little harsh, despite you saying essentially that it’s much better than the usual summer garbage that gets put out, and a fun time at the movies. So I can see why that might be a little unclear.

  • 10 5-03-2010 at 4:18 pm

    Kevin K. said...

    That being said, I always predicted it would get a response similar to X-Men vs. X-Men 2. The critics dig the first film more, whereas audiences dig the second film more.

  • 11 5-03-2010 at 4:20 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    2.5 stars is a respectable rating in my book. We all have different standards, I guess.

  • 12 5-03-2010 at 4:29 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    2.5 is better than the usual summer garbage

  • 13 5-03-2010 at 4:36 pm

    Kevin K. said...

    Wait, is the 2.5 out of 5? Or out of 4?

  • 14 5-03-2010 at 4:40 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    All our reviews use a four-star scale.

  • 15 5-03-2010 at 4:50 pm

    Nick DC said...

    I think the improvisational style of Favreau and specifically Downey Jr. does a disservice to the script which manages to cram in a hell of a lot into 2hrs. It’s loose and so it’s not particularly easy to see anything close to a structure, but it’s certainly not Spiderman 3.

    Rockwell’s such a snivelling shit, but you can’t help, but like him. Johansson still is a terrible pick for Black Widow imo, although she handled her action sequence quite brilliantly by the looks of it.

    Not sure what you mean about Downey being uninterested in the Iron Man persona. That IS Tony Stark. He’s an insufferable, pompous twat, and yet he’s brilliant. Perfect fit it seems.

    I agree about the action disconnect. You can practically see Downey’s personality straining when it cuts to the helmet cam. Did enjoy the back to back dust-up in the botanical garden though.

  • 16 5-03-2010 at 6:07 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    “That being said, I always predicted it would get a response similar to X-Men vs. X-Men 2. The critics dig the first film more, whereas audiences dig the second film more.”

    Huh? Most of the critics I remember at the time gave higher marks to X-Men 2. In fact, that’s on the RT Critical Consensus.

    I’m picking at a small point, of course, but I don’t remember *anyone* preferring the first film over the sequel.

  • 17 5-03-2010 at 6:21 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Yep, “X2” is certainly far more liked than the first. Audiences AND critics.

  • 18 5-03-2010 at 8:43 pm

    Kevin K. said...

    Ok, how about Terminator and T2? Terminator has 100% on RT, T2 has 90%.

  • 19 5-03-2010 at 10:06 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    98%…and the difference is a single review. I imagine if you read the individual pieces, they’d be split over which one they prefer, and none of them would say “X was a HUGE disappointment compared to Y.”

    Again, this is a tiny detail. Iron Man 2 will make a ton of money, crack the IMDb top 20 for a while, but the “audience consensus” (if one cares about such a thing) won’t really be clear for a while.

  • 20 5-04-2010 at 8:18 am

    Kevin K. said...

    When looking at the RT consensus, I was actually looking at the Top Critics percentage, so that may explain where I’m getting my numbers from :P

    Having seen the film myself, I can say that the reaction from the audience in the theatre at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, TX was extremely positive.

    And you’re right, it will make a ridiculous amount of money. I don’t think it will do TDK box office, but it’s going to be huge.

  • 21 5-04-2010 at 10:34 am

    Joe said...

    To answer AmericanRequiem: Robert Downey Jr’s performance in the first “Iron Man” may not necessarily have been great acting, but if you consider that one of the primary purposes of a film (and, thus, the actors involved) is to entertain, than RDJ would get an A+ in my book. Really, is this any different than Heath Ledger in TDK? Not to be insensitive here, but really, that was a one-note role. Or, for that matter, Johnny Depp in Pirates. The difference for me is that I was not entertained in the least bit by Ledger or Depp, while “Iron Man” was quite a lot of fun.

  • 22 5-04-2010 at 11:35 am

    Chad Hartigan said...

    For a short take, this packs more thought and insight than most other critics’s full reviews. Nice work Guy.

  • 23 5-04-2010 at 2:46 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Many thanks, Chad. (Admittedly, it’s a little long for a Short Take by our usual standards — there was more to say than I thought there would be.)

  • 24 5-04-2010 at 5:19 pm

    Kevin K. said...

    I love how a lot of film fans like to complain about the supposed smugness of actors and directors like Robert Downey Jr, James Cameron, etc, and yet they are completely oblivious as to how smug, arrogant, and dismissive they come off.

  • 25 5-04-2010 at 9:07 pm

    Dylan S. said...

    Well written review, Guy!

    While I may disagree with certain points, they still have merit, and I can see why you’d feel the way you do. I’d also like to applaud you for NOT picking out the wrong things to take issue with, like the fact that (as some critics cried foul at this) Rourke spends a good chunk of the movie planning instead of fighting. They make it clear that he’s a physicist…so naturally, he would use his intellect to do his work. His early fight with Tony was meant, as he states, to strike doubt into Tony and those who support him.

    I’d also just like to point out, for a second, how thrilled I am that they hinted at Tony’s eventual battle with alcoholism. That was SUCH a brilliant part of the comics – as with Batman at DC, Tony Stark just seems the most realistically fallible of any of the Marvel heroes.

    I will wholeheartedly agree with the above that Iron Man needs a theme though. It would make those “Alright, time for Tony to overcome everything and save the day” moments a little more powerful.

    Anyway, sorry for the ocean of text here. Again, very well written review. I loved this film, but I can understand where you’re coming from in the faults you found!

  • 26 5-05-2010 at 2:18 am

    Nick DC said...

    Demon in a Bottle and Armour Wars were both neatly referenced in the film and legacy as a driving force gave some framework to the film.

    It’s certainly not the best in terms of structure – its comic book origins shouldn’t be an excuse – but people seem to be very quick to dismiss it when comparing it to TDK. TDK certainly isn’t without its flaws when it comes to the script.

    It’s absurd to expect a TDK out of Iron Man, although Stark and Wayne do share a common thread of redemption.

  • 27 5-07-2010 at 6:48 am

    MovieMan said...

    I liked it even less, Guy.

    I wasn’t a huge fan of the first “Iron Man,” but it did a respectable job of adapting the graphic novel for the series. It was also fun during the flying sequences and action scenes, and Robert Downey Jr.’s performance made up for how un-groundbreaking it all was. It was a respectably serviceable good time.

    “Iron Man 2” is overbloated with exposition and stupid character choices that make no sense (i.e. the iron-man scuffle between Cheadle and Downey, or his surprise decision to enter that drag race). Also, none of the characters were interesting this time around, not even Tony Stark. Huge miscalculation on my end, and a pitiful start to the summer season.

  • 28 5-07-2010 at 6:56 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Won’t dispute any of that, really.