Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
May 2010

Better with age

Wit and style (and a better ending!) lift 'Iron Man 2' above the original

Iron Man 2
Paramount Pictures
Director: Jon Favreau
Screenplay: Justin Theroux
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Mickey Rourke, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle, Garry Shandling and Samuel L. Jackson
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 4 minutes
Opened May 7, 2010
(out of four)

For all intents and purposes, the Tony Stark in 2008's Iron Man had no arch-villain. Sure, sure, his loyal friend and partner Obadiah Stane betrayed him and tried to kill him . . . twice . . . but hey, that's just the cost of doing business, right?

In truth, Tony's primary enemy was himself - his hubris and moral apathy, the destructive legacy of his own Stark Enterprises, the unchecked spoils of his wealth and reputation. That was the most interesting thing about Iron Man, particularly in comparison with other superhero films. Typically, getting a top-notch villain (or two, or three) is the first prerequisite. (And we've seen how often a great bad guy can completely overshadow the hero.)

But Jon Favreau and Co. took an alternate route and it paid off - instead of anther tired good/evil scenario, we got a fresh character study instead. By the same token, that was also the reason why the climactic metal-on-metal action scene was underwhelming compared to the rest of the film. Because Obadiah wasn't the real villain, having him fight it out with Tony felt more like formula necessity than anything else. It was a perfectly acceptable finale - just not a great one.

So with the fast-tracked Iron Man 2 introducing three major new characters, it would be easy - even expected - for the filmmakers to dive head-first into a standard punch-em-up/shoot-em-up focusing entirely on the good guy fighting the bad guys. And with all those extra faces needing screen time, it was more than enough to get people hand-wringing over the potential for Spider-Man 3/Batman and Robin territory.

But the pleasant surprise is that, for all its familiar plot maneuvers (multiple bad guys teaming up to take on our hero, you know the drill), Iron Man 2 actually spends just as much time on its human interactions and Tony's own demons as did the original.

The film's two-headed villain is Russian scientist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) and sleazeball defense contractor Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), and indeed the two make a delightful (and hilarious) duo. But the real essence of the film is the increasing complexity of the relationships between Tony and his two closest allies, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Col. James Rhodes (Terrence Howard Don Cheadle).

Favreau once again utilizes, and with even greater agility, the loose, natural style of conversation and character interaction that he attempted in the first Iron Man. It's a bit thrilling to see these actors finesse their way through scenes with one another rather than recite stilted pieces of exposition.

The double-entendres fly around like we're in a Bond movie, only with more wit. The sexual tension feels organic, not manufactured; ditto the uneasy rivalry between Stark and Hammer. Tony's snarky jocularity enlivens every scene. The chemistry between him and Pepper is even more palpable this time around. Many of the film's best scenes are simply the two of them talking over one another, charmingly bickering like old pals who know each other's proclivities all too well.

And then there's the equally enjoyable counterpoint to that coupling - that being Vanko and Hammer, who are as out-of-sync as two villains can be. This is deliberate on the film's part; in another great showing by Rockwell, Hammer is the egoistic loudmouth who all-too-enthusiastically enlists the help of Vanko to help him usurp Stark's Iron Man technology. While Hammer goes on and on about his plans, smiling all the time like a cheap politician, Vanko regards him with almost complete silence, a blank stare of amusement on his face.

While so many superhero sequels awkwardly pair their villains only for convenience's sake, this one actually finds some purpose and enjoyment in the pairing itself. (Consider, as a contrast, the use of Venom and Sandman in Spider-Man 3. Both had interesting origins, but them coming together, while inevitable, was meaningless and unconvincing.)

To be fair, I actually would have liked to see more of Rourke's character. (Would it have killed them to push this movie out closer to the 2 -hour mark?) His background seems rich enough to explore further, especially since his entire motivation is directly correlated with Tony Stark's legacy. But whatever. The character does the job, and Rockwell makes for an even better adversary anyway.

Iron Man 2 is a bit more unruly than its predecessor. The first one was simpler and more straightforward, while this one is trying to juggle more pieces. But it never gets too unruly. Its best elements - Downey Jr.'s performance, the chemistry between Tony and Pepper, etc. - more than carry the load.

Earlier I mentioned the ho-hum action climax of the first film. That is a weakness not replicated in this one. This time around, the action not only makes for better drama, but it's imbued with more humor and style.

Consider the moment when Tony and Rhodes (in his War Machine incarnation) negotiate the logistics of a pending fight scene. Or the humor of the way the weaponry comes into play once the fight begins. Or the impressive way Favreau maneuvers through the geography of his action-scene landscapes. (Are you watching closely, Michael Bay and Michael Bay's Editors?)

Most important, though, is the fact that, despite the abundance of characters and the genre's necessity for action, Favreau and screenwriter Justin Theroux managed to keep their attention on progressing the central character and the issues that befall him. And so once again, Tony Stark remains his own worst enemy - for the decisions he's made in his life that continue to haunt him, for the imprint that his company has left on history, for the destruction of his body that forced him into the Iron Man business in the first place. All of that remains intriguing, and thus Tony remains a vital character. And, though this seems to be going against the consensus, I think he's got an even better movie surrounding him this time.

P.S. One reason for improvement? Scarlett Johansson in a skintight black catsuit. While fighting crime.

P.P.S. Another reason for improvement? Three words: Samuel. L. Jackson. There's more of him this time, and he makes any movie infinitely cooler. You add more Sam Jackson, you can't lose. Remember "Seinfeld Vision" from 30 Rock? Well I propose applying that same concept here for Sam Jackson Vision. Digitally insert him into any bad movie, sit back, and enjoy.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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