Monday, May 10, 2010

Still in Beta, but Mostly Bug-Free

Shockingly, I am going against popular opinion on this one. I enjoyed Iron Man 2 more than I did its predecessor. I always thought the first, while hardly a failure, suffered from a poorly structured plot. Sure Robert Downey Jr. was a ton of fun as playboy, Tony Stark, but too much time was spent explaining how he became Iron Man. It left far too little time for establishing the eventual villain and building toward their fight. The second film is not a huge improvement over the first – the plot still has its flaws – but it has more going on. Since most of these new plot threads are interesting and fun in their own right, a slightly denser Iron Man proves to be a slightly better one.

Neither one of these films would have been half the pleasure they are without Downey. He steals just about every scene he is in and, considering the caliber of his co-stars, that is saying something. The Iron Man films are a couple of those films wherein the plot is probably the least interesting aspect. Following Stark through his day-to-day shenanigans is endless fun, and it practically made me dread the moment when the bad guy first has to appear and mess up Stark's day.

Here, director, Jon Favreau must also get credit. He unapologetically allows the film's first act to be breezy, filled with sharp, fun banter between Stark and his confidant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). In fact, there were a few moments where Iron Man 2, of all things, felt like Hollywood's first true screwball comedy in years.

Iron Man 2 never gets any heavier than it must, but it also does not generally let the comedy overstay its welcome or deprive the story of its due gravity. The first moment Stark encounters Ivan Venko, a physicist with a personal vendetta, is appropriately dramatic. He uses his electric whips to slice through Formula One cars as they drive by. There is no smile on Stark's face the moment he pulls himself out of his car's wreckage and desperately tries to avoid being cut in half. Things do not get too intense, though. The scene climaxes with a moment of giddy gadget porn: Pepper tosses him a suitcase, which expands to build a portable Iron Man suit around Stark's body.

Naturally, Venko is apprehended. The subsequent jail cell conversation with Stark sets the stage for the remainder of the film. He states that he had no intention of killing Stark. He simply wants to expose Iron Man's mortality to the world, then watch as he destroys himself. It may sound like typical villain monologuing, but it generally holds true for this movie; most of the struggle Stark faces in this film is personal. He is enjoying unparalleled amounts of added fame, but reality is catching up with him. Stark is becoming his own worst enemy; he has unresolved issues with his father, a faltering business, a hidden sickness, drinking problems, and a slight case of narcissism.

Even the literal villain of the film embodies this idea. He resents Stark for having all of the opportunities that he never received and, as such, he is Stark's polar opposite: Silent, calculating and grungy. He knows Stark does not care whom his father stepped on in order to build the empire that would eventually spawn a superhero, and he wants to hold the mirror up to Stark; he wants to force him to confront this hypocrisy.

Thankfully, that all makes Iron Man 2 sound far darker and introspective than it is. All of the internal struggle is laced with humor, so it only manages to weigh down one or two scenes. Watching him regain clarity in the midst of all his problems is important, anyway; if all the audience ever saw was his slick exterior, he would probably become grating. The movie may briefly lose its momentum midway through but, by the time Stark begins to rebuild his life, the journey has made it even easier to root for him.

There are a few too many coincidences along the way, though. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) shows up with a box full of Stark's father's mementos right when Stark hits rock bottom. (I love seeing Jackson in these movies, especially considering that he provides the connective tissue that will ultimately lead to 2012's Avengers movie, but I could see how his presence is not explained well enough for the uninitiated.) He provides an awfully convenient way to force Stark's daddy issues, as well as some solutions to his other problems. Stark's friend, Lt. Col. Rhodes (Don Cheadle) naively steals one of his suits and indirectly hands it to the enemy. Also, Venko seems to change his mind at some point and decide to flat-out kill Iron Man. As a result of all this haste, Stark's internal issues are mostly resolved before the final act. It makes the story feel a bit episodic. Good writing ties everything together in a meaningful way, so as to make it all greater than the sum of its parts. That never happens here.

As dire as all of that sounds, Favreau consistently maintains a great balance between comedy and drama, allowing Downey to smooth over most of the plot's inconsistencies with his charm. (The one exception is Sam Rockwell as the conniving business rival, Justin Hammer. He most definitely overstays his welcome on the screen.) It does not make Iron Man 2 a great comic book movie, but it means things hold together well enough for it to remain a good one.

Most importantly, it also means that the final act's pyrotechnics can be enjoyed without much in the way of nagging frustration. There is not anything terribly high-concept about Favreau's action sequences, but that is not a complaint. Some acrobatics, a justified fixation with Stark's tech, a few good jokes and glamour shots in all of the right places add up to actions sequences that are hard to complain about.

In fact, I find most of this film hard to complain about. It manages to be great fun without ever veering into brainlessness. It even deepens the main character a bit and expands the world he inhabits. The problems from the first film remain, albeit slightly mitigated, but the strengths also do. So, yes, Iron Man 2 is not the definitive chapter in Tony Stark's story. If the filmmakers getting it wrong is this much fun, however, I will gladly keep coming back until they get it right.

For a different perspective on Iron Man 2, check out Mr. Keeley's review from this past weekend.

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