They say a superhero is only as viable as the villain he’s up against. Don’t believe it? Imagine The Dark Knight without The Joker. Or better yet, focus on the recent complaints about the Superman franchise and see if the cinematic maxim doesn’t hold some water. Spider-man may have said that with great power comes great responsibility, but unless someone is truly challenging said command, there’s really no need to worry about the blame. The first Iron Man movie had terrorists and a corporate despot to worry about. Along with a killer performance from star Robert Downey Jr., it provided the necessary initial antagonism. But while the sequel ups the ante a little in the splash department, it forgets to give its bad guys something viable to do. As a result, what looks all flashy and fun often comes off as a bit flat.
It’s been six months since the announcement of his identity, and Tony Stark is an international hero, single-handedly responsible for the longest stretch of uninterrupted world peace on record. This makes the US government antsy (they want the Iron Man technology for the military) and his chief competitor, arms manufacturer Justin Hammer, very unhappy. What they don’t know is that Stark is dying. The reactor used to keep him alive (and power the famed suit) is also slowly poisoning him. During a trip to Monaco, he runs into Ivan Vanko, the Russian physicist son of a disgruntled ex-partner of Stark’s father. Armed with his own version of the mechanism, and vowing revenge, he undermines our hero’s ability to seem invincible. Seeing this, Hammer makes a deal with the angry ex-Soviet. While he plans the destruction of everything Tony Stark stands for, the Avengers try and secure Iron Man’s participation in their clandestine clan of crusaders.
There is so much going on in Iron Man 2, so many divergent and tangential narrative threads that, like an apprentice juggler, director Favreau has a hard time keeping them all aloft. Between Samuel L. Jackson and his one-eyed Nick Fury, Sam Rockwell and his Stark savant wannabe, Mickey Rourke and his heartfelt need for payback, and the rise of Pepper Potts to CEO, the plotline grows more and more complex – and that doesn’t take into consideration Scarlett Johansson as a game gal from legal, Don Cheadle as an off-again, on-again best buddy, and the whole political commentary that draws on elements of Watchmen as well as Christopher Nolan’s more realistic take on the genre. Sure, Favreau invests the film with enough bells and whistles to keep the Ritalin kids in line and his stars really shine in their roles, but with so much going on, something was bound to get lost in the chaos.
Perhaps the prime MIA element is a sense of freshness. Sure, it’s almost impossible for a sequel to maintain a level of invention or originality when faced with its own formidable beginning, but there have been efforts (Spider-man 2, the aforementioned Gotham saga) which surpassed what spawned them. You can tell Iron Man 2 wants to fall into the same category, but it goes about it the wrong way. Instead of building on one of its many narrative threads – say the easily appreciated Vanko tale – and taking it to epic ends, it hurls a bunch of bravado at the camera and hopes the audience buys the overkill. Certainly, there are sequences where this approach works – the ending has a nice amount of scope and spectacle, and there is a battle back and forth between Stark and Cheadle’s Rhodes that does quite a number to our lead’s luxurious Malibu home.
But for every outsized element, Iron Man 2 can’t leave well enough alone. It has to add more – more robotic drones, more interaction with The Avengers, more rapid-fire joke-laden patter. It’s this last facet that’s the most fascinating – and frustrating. If Favreau really wants to make a screwball comedy in the vein of His Girl Friday or Bringing Up Baby, then he needs to drop all the four panel falderal and head up that homage. He has the cast to create such a lark, and by the looks of their agility with the conversational crackerjacks, they’d be great at it. But stuck in between gonzo Grand Prix car crashes and Expo-expansive dogfights? It just doesn’t fit. Oddly enough, the ditzy dialogue is one of the movie’s more novel conceits. The rest merely borrow from the entire history of the Summer blockbuster.
Luckily, Downey knows Stark incredibly well. He could sell us the sloppiest script with panache and a sly wink. He’s in tune with the media whore tycoon, trading on his own tabloid past to show how talent and tenacity can overcome even the worst industry rep. He is matched well by Paltrow who gives Pepper the kind of callous concern that we know is simply covering up her growing affection. Rounding out the good stuff is Rockwell, who seems to be riffing on Downey as well as bringing his own slimy slickness to the mix. Unfortunately, everyone else is underwhelming. Rourke has a terrific scene at the beginning where we really feel his father’s suffering. After that, though, he’s on cruise control. Similarly, Cheadle looks like he’s merely a placeholder for a fired Terrence Howard, while supporting players like Gary Shandling (as a snarky Senator) and Johansson add little.
It’s easier to understand why Iron Man 2 feels so hectic and Hellsapoppin’. In this rapid return, make your money quick dynamic of Tinseltown’s Summer season, anything less would be fiscal suicide. There is no time to sit back and let characters get deep and dimensional. There is no point to slow things down and put them into perspective. This is the very definition of slam-bang entertainment, beating one over the head with as much potential amusement as possible until they surrender with a stunned if satisfied popcorn smile. No, it is not as special as the original and wastes some of the genuine goodwill it generated. If too many cooks spoil the broth, too many ideas lessen Iron Man 2‘s impact. The first film was masterful. Glut makes this sequel appear bloated.