Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Countdown to The Avengers, Part 3: Iron Man 2

Part 3 in our Countdown to the release of The Avengers, in which we learn the value of moderation (the hard way) with Iron Man 2...

THE FILM ITSELF: It was bound to happen, and if it was going to happen to any of the movies announced in Iron Man’s wake, most people… wouldn’t have picked it happening to Iron Man 2. It was just too hard to believe that they’d screw the pooch after nailing the first one, especially with most everyone who made the first one great coming back for round two. Actually, when thinking on how many successful sequels there have been, it’s maybe not that much of a surprise.

    Also, looking at the circumstances now, it’s easy to see why IM2 was a lost cause from the beginning. After the first one turned out a success, Marvel was quick to announce its plans for the future, quickly green lighting a sequel, Thor, Captain America and The Avengers, with the second Iron Man locked in for a May, 2010 release - two years after the first. Which in Hollywood time, is like cramming for a final exam the night before the test. It’s just simply not enough time to put out a quality product. You can see how it might've worked. The pieces wind up not fitting together well at all, but given a little more time, they could have been shaped into something far more compelling. We’ll start with the good, what little of it there is…

    The one thing the sequel improves on the first one is the action scenes. Big and bad and now staged like a real action movie, Iron Man 2 brings the sound and the fury. The most impressive being the Monte Carlo fight, with Stark using his new, unfolding briefcase armor (that scene being the only reason I own the film on Blu Ray) against the fury that is Whiplash. Equally impressive is the final set-piece, in which Iron Man and War Machine stand side-by-side, blowing away countless drones in a fake pond display. Oh yeah, and then there’s the scene where… Wait. That’s pretty much it. There’s no other set-pieces.

    Usually, I’m more than happy when action films aren’t wall-to-wall explosions, when they allow their scripts to develop in a natural way… Like the first Iron Man. But there has to be something there; there has to be a through-line connecting it all and moving in some coherent direction. But the script meanders where it should sizzle, flatlines where it should be racing. Of course, to do this properly, you must have an actual, you know, script

    It’s no secret that a lot of the first movie was improvised (as we discussed previously), but director Jon Favreau was still able to shape it into one, complete story. For whatever reason here (likely time and money), Favreau can’t keep it together. Which is a shame, as the movie assembles a mighty fine cast, but wastes nearly every single one of them.

    Robert Downey, Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow return to their roles of Tony Stark and Virginia “Pepper” Potts, respectively, and here feel like the victims of their own success. Whereas the most enjoyable moments in the first movie revolved around the characters’ back-and-forth, here they feel like students in an improve group competing to see who can top the other by saying the most zany, off-the-wall things. Which is not to say that either actor is bad, per se - there’s a scene of Stark watching footage of his father, and the expression on Downey’s face tells you everything you need to know about their relationship. Neither Downey nor Paltrow could be accused of phoning it in. They’re just playing all the wrong notes.

    Wish the same could be said of Mickey Rourke. Rourke got cast fairly soon after his Oscar nomination for The Wrestler, and at the time it sounded like a fantastic move. The thought of Downey chewing the scenery with Rourke like he did with Jeff Bridges in the first film sounded too good to be true. Turns out it was. It’s clear by watching Rourke perform that he does not want to be there (and if you believe the behind-the-scenes rumors, that might actually be the case); that he’s there to get his paycheck and get the hell out. Most of his dialogue is in Russian or is mumbled so low as to be unintelligible. The only time he shows some life is with his scenes with Downey, both the race car fight and the brief exchange they have afterward, a scene which probably lasts less than five minutes in total.

    Disappointing though Rourke may be, the rest of the cast come with their A-game, although they get virtually nothing to do. Don Cheadle steps in as James “Rhodey” Rhodes for the outgoing Terrence Howard, and although he plays the role differently, he’s still essentially the same character. Cheadle is probably the one who comes out the most unscathed, being a part of some of the film’s best scenes. Hopefully he’ll return for the sequel and get a movie more deserving of his performance.

    Sam Rockwell also brings his all to the part of Justin Hammer. His portrayal of Hammer is one of the film’s best elements. He imbues Hammer with an overall pathetic touch - you just know that no matter how much money he has, how successful he is, how smart he is… He’s never going to be as good as Tony Stark. And that eats away at him. It’s a shame he doesn’t get more screen time with Tony, as the two of them could probably bounce off each other all day.

    I feel like I’m being a little too hard on the movie, but that's only because I expected more. They have all the right pieces to continue Tony Stark’s story: the ticking clock on his battery, the dark secret coming out of his family legacy, major corporate competition. But none of it ever gels. There's plenty of interesting ideas at play, like Stark's father leaving behind the clues to create a new element, which winds up saving his life, but they disappear into the noise along with everything else.

    I wanted to like it, but I’m afraid we can add Iron Man 2 to the long list of disappointing sequels.

The movie desperately needed more John Slattery, who plays Howard Stark like Roger Sterling, only 10x cooler, because he’s Iron Man’s dad.

    The guy who appears early on and hands Rourke a passport to America is an agent of the Ten Rings, the terrorist organization that kidnapped Tony Stark in the first movie. In the comics, Iron Man’s arch-nemesis is the Mandarin, who fought Iron Man with, you guessed it: ten magic rings. They keep dropping hints that the Mandarin will eventually show up in later films, so we'll see...

    The first film had some rather interesting political undercurrents, but there's nothing of the sort in 2. Probably for the better, as they would have been undercooked and glossed over, as everything else in this movie.

THE MARVEL CONNECTION: Iron Man 2 probably has the most connections/set-up for the next movie, and suffers greatly as a result.

    Sam Jackson returns as Nick Fury, bringing along Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson and the Black Widow, a new character played by Scarlett Johansson. They probably could have involved SHIELD in a way that's more integral to the plot, but here they just sort of show up, give Tony Stark his father’s case, and promptly move on. We also find out that Howard Stark was one of the founding members of SHIELD, which is kind of cool, but it’s tossed in amongst the zany improvisations and gets lost in the shuffle.

    This movie gives us our first real look at Nick Fury‘s character, and well, he’s Sam Jackson. He doesn’t really need to act, as he’s playing himself. I wish I could say whether or not Johansson is right for the part of the Black Widow, but she doesn’t do much other than slip into her skintight black outfit and punch people. Kick-ass as her hallway fight scene is, you could cut the character out and lose nothing.

     The contents of Howard Stark’s secret case include all sorts of goodies, such as an old Captain America comic, technical drawings of a cube-like design (foreshadowing Captain America), etc. We also get a sneak peek at Cap’s shield, in a scene so pointless it could be used to sum up the entire movie.

    Also, there's a TV screen in the background towards the end showing the same newscast we saw in The Incredible Hulk, putting this chronologically at the same time as that film. There’s also a map with a list of “trouble spots” highlighted across the globe, possibly hinting at future movies beyond The Avengers.

    And finally, in the now obligatory post-credits tag, we get a set-up for Thor, in which Agent Coulson, called away earlier in the film to deal with something in New Mexico, arrives at his destination: a large crater, in the center of which sits a rather familiar-looking hammer. Hmm… 

STAN THE MAN?: Stan continues to stretch his acting muscles, this time portraying the coveted role of Larry King.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Although a handful of scenes are fun, Iron Man 2 misses the mark in pretty much every possible way.

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