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Movie Review: Iron Man 2
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Iron Man 2Iron Man 2
Directed by Jon Favreau
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Don Cheadle, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mickey Rourke, Scarlett Johansson
Release date: May 7, 2010

The summer movie season blasted off this past weekend with the release of the eagerly awaited Iron Man 2, the sequel to Jon Favreau’s 2008 blockbuster that launched Marvel Comics’ iconic armored adventurer onto the big screen in bravura fashion and made a bona fide movie star out of Robert Downey, Jr., surely one of the single most brilliant casting achievements in modern event cinema.

The original Iron Man also marked a turning point in the history of films based on the legendary Marvel superhero stable: for the first time, the company, which had seen its classic hand-drawn heroes and villains adapted into films ranging from the great (Spider-Man 2, X2: X-Men United, Blade) to the mediocre (the Fantastic Four movies, Daredevil), to the flat-out awful (Blade: Trinity, Elektra, Ghost Rider, the Roger Corman-produced Fantastic Four, the 1990 Captain America), decided to take back control of their celluloid destiny and finance and produce their own films in order to ensure that characters such as Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor who’ve been cooling in the Valhalla of Development Hell for more than a decade would get the most faithful, highest quality cinematic treatments made with the best creative and acting talent money could buy.

In 2008 Marvel produced the smash hit Iron Man and followed it a month later with the superb The Incredible Hulk, which didn’t do as well at the box office as Iron Man , but was still a damn fine flick and the best film adaptation of the character to date (although I have a lot of admiration for Ang Lee’s 2003 version even though it went off the rails full speed in the last twenty minutes). Now that the company is self-financing its own superhero movies for the first time they had license to do something that had been previously unheard of: crossovers.

Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk contained a host of in-jokes, Easter eggs, and surprise cameos hinting at much bigger things to come. Samuel L. Jackson appeared in Iron Man in a post-credits scene where he plays Col. Nick Fury, one of the Marvel Universe’s baddest motherfuckers, and mentions something called “the Avenger Initiative”. Captain America’s famous shield could also be glimpsed in the background in the same movie.

Meanwhile in The Incredible Hulk we see that the serum used to transform Tim Roth’s character into the fearsome Abomination is the same that transformed meek Steve Rogers into Captain America, the Sentinel of Liberty! S.H.I.E.L.D., the super-secret organization Fury is in charge of, appears in Iron Man and gets a mention in The Incredible Hulk. But the biggest surprise Marvel had in store for their fans, the greatest proof that they were indeed building towards something truly mind-blowing, was when Robert Downey Jr., as his Iron Man alter-ego Tony Stark, appeared in the final scene of The Incredible Hulk talking to William Hurt’s Gen. Thunderbolt Ross about a team he’s putting together. In the realm of superhero cinema this is a groundbreaking achievement. What we are seeing for the first time is the cinematic realization of a world-famous comic book universe thriving with fantastic characters both pure of heart and soul and the personification of evil as black as the night. Next year Marvel will unleash films based on their classic characters Thor (directed by Kenneth Branagh, starring Chris Hemsworth) and Captain America (directed by Joe Johnston, starring Chris Evans) and a possible third Iron Man in 2012 as prologues for the culmination of many years of tireless labor, backroom dealings, and previously unrealized dreams: a big-budget, widescreen epic Avengers movie directed by Joss Whedon (also in 2012, let‘s hope).

But first let’s talk Iron Man 2, shall we?

In the six months since he made his first appearance on the international scene as the armored avenger Iron Man, billionaire arms manufacturer Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) has made the free world, in particular America, safe for democracy, and he’s loving every minute of it. Of course this doesn’t sit well with his competitors. Iran and North Korea have attempted to create their own variations on the Iron Man armor only to see their efforts fail miserably. The U.S. government, represented by an officious senator (Garry Shandling), wants Stark to turn over his creation to them so it can be utilized by the military. But Stark thumbs his nose at all of this stating firmly that he is Iron Man, the armor is his and his alone, and the country should be thanking him for his tireless work mopping up the foreign policy messes made by the U.S. and its allies. The government doesn’t see it that way and in fact have contracted Stark’s fellow billionaire industrialist Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) to create combat suits similar to Iron Man for their use, but Hammer’s attempts have also had disastrous results. In the meantime Stark Industries has just opened their World’s Fair-like extravaganza the Stark Expo in Flushing, New York and Tony has decided that since his schedule has no room for overseeing the day-to-day operation of his company his faithful longtime assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) should become the new CEO of Stark Industries. Taking her place by Tony’s side is company notary Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson).

While Stark’s been enjoying the high of his life, Russian physicist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) has been hard at work planning an elaborate vengeance on the crime-fighting playboy. It seems Vanko has a vendetta against the Stark family that goes back several decades to a time when Tony’s deceased father Howard (John Slattery) worked with Ivan’s father Anton (Yevgeni Lazarev) on the earliest versions of the technology that Tony would later employ to build the portable arc reactor that kept his heart going, the same device that is now slowly poisoning his blood. Ivan believes his father was betrayed by Howard Stark and now intends to take his revenge by beating Howard’s only son at his own game. Using the same technology that Tony used to create the Iron Man Vanko builds himself a harness outfitted with powerful whips capable of cutting through almost everything and promptly uses it to attack Stark while he’s competing in the Monaco Grand Prix auto race. Stark survives but the assault brings Vanko to the attention of the billionaire’s bitter rival Hammer, who offers Vanko unlimited resources in exchange for his building armored suits that will make Iron Man look ancient. Tony finds himself battling dangerous new foes and his own personal demons, including unresolved feelings of resentment towards his late father and his slowly deteriorating relationships with Pepper and his best friend and Stark Industries’ former liason to the U.S. military Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), all the while being watched closely by Col. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).

For decades the summer has been a time for retreating to the air-conditioned comfort of your local movie theater to grab a cold drink and a nice teeth-rotting snack and hunker down in a plush seat to enjoy the biggest thrills and operatic fantasy that Hollywood has to offer. Iron Man 2 continues firmly in the tradition of big-budget, FX-laden epic adventures but unlike most of the tent-pole flicks pumped out and overspent on by the major studios it tempers its joyfully excessive action sequences with a surprisingly amount of brains, humor, and heart without dulling their impact. Justin Theroux, an actor best known for films like American Psycho and Mulholland Drive and one of the screenwriters of Tropic Thunder, garnered his first solo writing credit here and it is well-deserved. He takes all the key elements that made the original Iron Man a near-perfect super-heroic adventure and amps them up to the nth degree while spicing up the mix with a wit and sophistication that makes it rise above the majority of comic-based cinema. Taking a cue from the frantic comedies of Howard Hawks and Robert Altman, Theroux manages to locate unexpected moments of humor in the midst of the chaotic proceedings, which is refreshing given that most wannabe screenplays would lazily fall back on clichéd dialogue that only serve to remind the audience of what they already know.

Theroux also successfully nails down what the Fantastic Four movies couldn’t which is the idea of a superhero and his alter ego as internationally beloved celebrities and pop icons. Tony Stark’s genius and ego have always made him believe he was invincible, especially when covered in the protective armor of his Iron Man persona, so he takes great pleasure in thumbing his nose at the establishment and enjoying his moment in the spotlight. At heart Stark is a decent human being whose intentions as an international crime-fighter are noble but they also tend to be self-serving to the point where Iron Man acts as an extension of his ego. In the form of Ivan Vanko and Justin Hammer, Theroux introduces characters who act as darker reflections of Tony Stark. Both Stark and Vanko were the progeny of brilliant fathers who entrusted their sons to continue evolving the technological breakthroughs they made in their respective lifetimes, but Stark led a life of privilege and grew to realize his father’s dream while Vanko became the product of his father’s bitter genius and resentment. In a way Vanko’s story provides a twisted parallel to Stark’s moral awakening in the first movie. Stark himself is given a fine character arc where his self-destructive tendencies and impulsive behavior may be masking his fear of death and losing his friends and his unresolved feelings towards his late father Howard.

Special credit must also go to Jon Favreau, like Theroux, an actor who gradually made his move behind the scenes by writing the screenplay for Swingers (the film that first brought him to our attention) and directing films such as Made and Elf, for once again bringing his A-game to the direction of Iron Man 2 starting with his choice of visual palette, accomplished through his great technical crew including cinematographer Matthew Libatique, film editors Dan Lebental and Richard Pearson, production designer J. Michael Riva, art directors Page Buckner and Michael E. Goldman, and costume designer Mary Zophres. Whereas the original Iron Man has a slightly drab dusty and silvery photographic look that worked well since it was telling a story that was alternately a comic book origin story and a mature tale of a man’s personal redemption, the sequel is alive and popping with stunning visuals from the opulent grandeur of the Stark Expo to the high-octane race cars at the Monaco Grand Prix and the gleaming armor on Iron Man and the multiple allies and opponents Tony encounters during the film. Even during the quieter moments Favreau gives his actors plenty of room to embrace the flaws and advantages of their characters and the freedom to explore individual scenes and improvise like they were performing a stage play, and by doing so achieves a level of comfort and intimacy with his cast that most filmmakers would never dare to approach, which likely comes from his years of experience as an actor.

But what’s really going to be bringing in the crowds to see Iron Man 2 this summer are the elaborate action sequences and with the help of the FX artisans at Industrial Light and Magic Favreau doesn’t intend to disappoint his audience. The first film spent so much time establishing the Tony Stark character and the moral dilemma he must overcome so that we could see the heart and soul of a potentially indifferent personality that the action beats took a back seat to those moments, which is one of the main reasons the first film came together brilliantly. Grandiose, high-concept blockbuster action flicks often eschew character beats for an over-reliance on FX-driven set pieces. Iron Man never fell into that trap, and with the origin story well out of the way the sequel could afford to cut loose on the action sequences while still devoting enough time to the continued development of the characters. There are three major action scenes, with a few smaller but effective ones in between, and they alone would be worth the price of admission. The first is Vanko’s attack on Stark at the Monaco race track and if the tension of watching as the man who has taken on the mantle of the world’s super-powered protector engage in a race that could cause him severe bodily harm or even death wasn’t enough, then the appearance of the revenge-driven Russian using his electric whips to slice the race cars in half and try to do the same to the vulnerable Stark kicks the tension level into the stratosphere. This scene is given a kicker with the addition of a portable version of the Iron Man armor that cheekily forms into a briefcase when not in use.

The second major action sequence is also its most effective on an emotional level. Stark and Rhodes, who has long had his fill of his friend’s grandstanding and petulant playboy antics, engage in an armored brawl in Stark’s house when Rhodes catches the billionaire drunkenly showing off the Iron Man suit at his birthday bash. Taking place within the sizable confines of Stark’s technological fortress home in Malibu and notable for giving Rhodes the chance to don an Iron Man armor and become War Machine, (in this case the modified Mark II armor that Stark used for testing in the first movie), which was hinted at in the first Iron Man and stays true to the spirit of the comics, the scene isn’t just an absurdly funny battle of brawn but also the end result of a long-simmering tension between two longtime friends whose relationship has taken a severe hit in the past few months. It’s a true test of mettle and not just metal, pardon the pun. Without giving away crucial plot details I will say that the third and final major action sequence is the kind of large-scale armored-man-on-armored-man action that the first film contained a hint of towards the end. Favreau and Theroux prevent these sequences from getting swept up in an orgy of expensive visual effects by keeping the focus on the human element that truly powers the Iron Man suit. I won’t say much more, but by the end you’re so invested in the people you actually care about what happens to them, and in this day and age where flashy visuals tend to take precedent over character development that’s something to be appreciated.

The only technical asset of Iron Man 2 that never worked for me was the original score by John Debney, taking over composer duties from the original film’s musical maestro Ramin Djawadi. The music score for the first Iron Man was also a major flaw since the music, while still listenable, served no other purpose than to provide background noise during the film. There were no themes, the music lacked voice, especially when you compare it to the stellar score composed by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard the same year for The Dark Knight. Debney’s score is even less accomplished than Djawadi’s as too often does it fall back on underscoring the action scenes with an explosion of pounding drums and screeching guitars. The soundtrack consisting of music from AC/DC, the Beastie Boys, and Daft Punk (whose “Robot Rock” underscores the fight between Tony and Rhodes) work much better for the film than the score.

The biggest beneficiary of the sequel’s increased scope is the cast, most of whom see their roles increase and garner surprising amounts of depth compared to the original Iron Man. Robert Downey, Jr. had an utter blast playing Tony Stark and his armored alter ego the first time, but for the sequel his bravura performance gains extra significance as he’s given a potentially problematic but ultimately satisfying character arc. Having started out the first film as an unrepentant arms dealer who had a spiritual awakening after being captured by criminals who used his weapons to subjugate and terrorize the defenseless, Tony Stark still has a lot of growing up to do in the sequel. He loves being Iron Man and all the perks that come with the job and has taken on the persona with the best of intentions but the conceited, jet-setting playboy who loves to live life no matter the consequences remains. Downey never once strikes a wrong note playing that dichotomy in his character and his behavior is given an extra layer of depth by the fatal secret he’s carrying that isn’t just destroying his body but may even lay waste to his immortal soul. The actor still lays on the charm and wit and even in the arena of blockbuster theatrics the man is clearly in his element, whether he’s working the thronging crowds at the Stark Expo or hitting on just about anything in a dress or wrestling with the realization that he may not be as invulnerable as he once thought.

Every character in the supporting cast gets increased development in the sequel as well starting with Gwyneth Paltrow as Tony’s long-suffering assistant and now CEO of his company Pepper Potts, the only woman in the world who could capture the elusive billionaire’s palladium-powered heart. It’s refreshing that the filmmakers never stoop so low as to constantly make Pepper the stereotypical damsel in distress but rather a headstrong woman who is willing to put up with Tony’s antics to an extent as long as they’re in the service of a greater good. Even when she does require rescuing by Iron Man it’s only because she just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, something I’m sure we all can relate to. Plus Paltrow and Downey have the most impeccable chemistry of any couple in a superhero movie since Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder in the Superman films. In their scenes together we’re watching two wonderful actors spar playfully and feed off one another to fuel their own performances and Pepper’s feelings towards Tony and vice versa feel natural. Don Cheadle stepped in to play the role of another of Tony Stark’s longtime friends, Lt. Col. James Rhodes (affectionately called “Rhodey” by his friends and colleagues) after the honchos at Marvel Films decided not to invite back Terrence Howard, who played the role effectively in the original, for reasons unspecified (but it’s probably an issue of money, as always). As much as I enjoyed Howard’s performance in the first Iron Man and was looking forward to seeing him don the War Machine armor, Cheadle gives a fantastic performance in a role that is thankfully expanded upon in the sequel and he also establishes a solid rapport with Downey, which is no surprise given that most of Cheadle’s scenes were with him. Cheadle plays Rhodes as the responsible older brother exasperated at always having to keep close tabs on his carefree kid brother so you can understand when he goes into Tony’s party and sees him irresponsibly using the Iron Man armor for inebriated party tricks and finally snaps and decides it’s time for a wall-smashing intervention. He even gets some snappy dialogue and kicks serious ass when he gets geared up as War Machine.

A movie like this is only as good as its villains and Iron Man 2 has a dandy pair indeed. Mickey Rourke has been on the comeback of a lifetime in recent years kicked off by playing a classic badass in Frank Miller’s Marv in the film adaptation of Miller’s Sin City and climaxing with an Oscar-nominated powerhouse performance in The Wrestler. Rourke has always been an actor who commits himself fully to a role and while the part of Ivan Vanko may not have looked like much on paper Rourke takes it and makes it his own by establishing an threatening presence in the early scenes without much dialogue. Without the benefit of much development for his character the actor still manages to craft a credible enemy for Stark through a variety of clever decisions in his performance. He makes Vanko a haunted genius who is consumed by his own rage into taking the knowledge he has gained throughout his life and employing it for villainous means. Matching and often outpacing Rourke (mostly in the dialogue scenes) is Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer, another billionaire weapons manufacturer who has stepped into the role Tony Stark once played on the world stage, the genius who thinks nothing of selling out his brilliance to the highest bidder. Rockwell makes Hammer the personification of men who think they have everything in the world but would still want a little more. He is envious of Stark because he wants to be him so much he tries to emulate his behavior and siphon off some of Stark’s charisma, but he never has that extra something that makes Tony Stark who is he, the impenetrable X factor that guarantees Hammer will always be a pale shadow of the man he desperately wants to be. Rockwell’s performance is great for any movie but here in Iron Man 2 he blends beautifully with the rest of the talented ensemble.

Rounding out the cast is Scarlett Johannson, who I’ve never been a big fan of outside her work in the underrated Ghost World, as Natalie the sexy secretary who turns out to be more than she appears to be. I don’t think I’d be giving too much away to reveal that Natalie is in fact a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent codenamed Black Widow (another Marvel comics character who goes on to join….the Avengers). Johannson is a charming and capable actress but here is required to do little but look good and kick ass and she comes through like gangbusters on both fronts, particularly when her special talents are needed to help save the day towards the end of the movie. She engages in a neatly choreographed fight scene that proves to be one of the finer action beats in Iron Man 2. Samuel L. Jackson gets to add another badass motherfucker to his repertoire as Marvel Comics’ iconic, eye patch-wearing spymaster Col. Nick Fury. For the most it’s a typical Jackson performance but he gets to have a little more fun this time around playing Fury as a man who has seen it all, even more than he lets on to Stark, so even Stark’s potentially threatening behavior doesn’t even make the man so much as arch an eyebrow. Clark Gregg, another actor-turned-director like Favreau (he directed Sam Rockwell in the gleefully twisted 2008 comedy Choke), returns from the original as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Coulson and although he has less screen time in the sequel he still gets a few funny lines and leaves you hoping he’ll play a larger role in the Marvel movies to come, especially since S.H.I.E.L.D. will definitely be an active player in the upcoming Avengers movie. There are even a few clever cameos from real world cable news personalities Christina Amanpour and Bill O’Reilly (Billo gets to call Pepper a “pinhead”. What a dick.) and Olivia Munn of G4’s “Attack of the Show” also appears as a television reporter, all adding to the verisimilitude inherent in Iron Man 2.

Iron Man 2 is everything a great sequel should be. It takes every thing that worked in the original and takes them to a whole new level. Every member of the cast and crew from director Jon Favreau on, with the exception of composer John Debney, don’t slack off and all contribute to making this one of the finest superhero movies of all time. It’s a hell of a way to start the summer.

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