Two years ago, Iron Man became one of the few films with a budget over $100 million that might conceivably be called a "surprise hit." What was most surprising about it is how it pleased damn near everyone -- including this writer -- with barely anything to its credit. It lacked spectacle, had a more difficult time following up on its themes than The Dark Knight and managed to stretch the relatively short origin story of Tony Stark into two hours of one man riffing while something important seemed to be about to happen but never did. Luckily for Jon Favreau and Marvel, that man was Robert Downey Jr.
I have expressed and will continue to express bottomless derision toward the current trend in Hollywood of dancing around weak screenwriting by filtering it through a faux-postmodern prism, retaining all the bad elements but acting as if they are excusable because the writer knows they suck. However, if anyone can force that current of open lethargy into something entertaining, it's Downey. A more captivating and ingratiating sonuvabitch you'll never meet; Downey always has an air about him that suggests he hates the material, regardless of quality, more than the most dismissive Internet troll ever could, yet he routinely makes good films better and weaker ones memorable. On the rare occasion that he plays a character whose excesses build beyond his control, as he did early in his career in Less Than Zero and recently in Zodiac, the actor can be an emotionally devastating specter of a fallen man.
The first Iron Man never called for that side of Downey's acting prowess and contented itself simply with unleashing his smarmy detachment upon the world in a glorious burst of one-liners that made the film the best comedy of the summer to make up for its often tedious structure. Its sequel, however, could have benefited from a moment or two of reflection, when Downey's facade remains but cracks irreparably to show the raging fear and loathing within. Instead, it chooses to cut off its fleeting severity with comic relief, if not a desperate cut to another location as if literally running away from context. Iron Man 2 suggests that the power source Tony Stark built to save his life might actually be killing him in another way, and Stark's main course of action is to just cover this up from everyone to appear strong, a fitting metaphor for a film that attempts to posit every stereotypically "American" cinematic value through its obscenely wealthy businessman-hero.
Yes, it's going to be that kind of a review, but, in fairness, the Iron Man series is currently the most openly political comic book film franchise to hit theaters. Its hero found his calling after being kidnapped by Arab insurgents and discovering that the weapons his company designed passed into enemy hands. This brought about a personal epiphany and a question about the possibility of only supplying one party in a modern, global network, which was almost immediately discarded to reconstitute the film as nothing more than a contrast between a grating but moral businessman and the evil, greedy corporate weasel who actively sold products to America's enemies. Stark defeated this man and went straight to a hearing where he brazenly revealed his secret identity to the world.
Iron Man 2 picks up right where its predecessor left off, and the best that can be said for this turn of events is that the film does at last give us a comic book hero who not only doesn't doubt his powers or capacity when the sequel comes around; rather, he's so psyched that he tells everyone. Perhaps if Favreau had followed that line, a truly original one in the over-exposed yet still young and potential-filled field of comic book movies, Iron Man 2 might have made for interesting and fresh viewing. But the political aspect returns, introducing bigger issues yet somehow compressing them into even broader oversimplifications.
"I have successfully privatized world peace," he crows in a Senate committee hearing on the ownership of the Iron Man suit, a statement that horrifically elicits wild cheering from the crowd as Stark's chief critic, Senator Stern (Garry Shandling) is reduced to openly swearing in impotent rage at his nemesis. One sympathizes; the brash and arrogant Tony Stark that made for such a cheeky twist in the first film is gone, replaced by a whirling maelstrom of narcissism. Stark's self-love has morphed into outright solipsism, forcing the audience to follow around a character who does not want us to identify with him, who would not even let us wax one of the many cars he rarely drives.
With his pencil-thin mustache, hands-on approach to his inventions, rampant womanizing and erratic behavior terms "eccentricity" due to personal wealth and social standing, Tony Stark is most clearly modeled upon infamous playboy/basket case Howard Hughes, who also defied governmental authority and got away with it because of his wealth. But Hughes, despicable and hateful little man that he was, has an air of tragedy that Tony lacks.
Perhaps that's just a result of the times changing. Hughes' tics and obsessions would raise eyebrows today, but a half-century ago they were outlandishly scandalous. Stark, on the other hand, enjoys a world filled with vacuous, flash-hungry millennials so inundated with Internet gossip and so dumbed-down by, well, movies like this that the cocky antics of this incorrigible billionaire are perceived as cool. "Blow something up!" yells one young man from the nether-region of off-screen ADR when Tony makes a grandiose entry to an expo in the suit, the man in question having clearly fallen for Iron Man during some filmed raid of a Middle Eastern locale. For these fictional people, the act of seeing something on video instantly renders it entertainment in the same way our own intermittent carpet-bombing of Baghdad across the decades looks like a video game.
In this sense, Iron Man 2 offers the audience a strange opportunity to watch itself watching the film, a potentially metaphysical commentary on the nature of blockbusters in altering our sensitivity to violence and our acceptance of those "Amurican" values of isolationism as strident individualism and physical strength (this theory is inherently flawed, however, when you factor in Stark's hyper-intelligence and the opposition with which the people who most ardently embrace such hawkish nonsense as patriotism typically view the highly educated). I say "potentially," of course, because Favreau wants nothing less than to follow up on these sociopolitical tendrils, clearly willing as he is to present them so nakedly.
And so, Tony is permitted to live his life of staggering hypocrisy, cutting weapons development from Stark Industries (which existed almost exclusively to make weapons) while keeping the most advanced and dangerous weapon, whether he admits it's one or not, in the world for himself. When someone like Senator Stern, who is left without party affiliation, points this out, he is shamed not only within the film by Stark and his blinding (perhaps literally, given what he can get away with) charisma but outside of it by the director, who films Shandling in so unflattering a light you'll wish he'd directed that episode of The Larry Sanders Show he guested on, if not all of them. As it happened in the far more abhorrent -- aesthetically, structurally and morally -- Transformers 2, the sole voice of reason is presented as a nasally, pernicious genital wart, a bureaucratic farce who has the audacity to stand in the way between us and shit getting blown up. What an asshole.
Fine, so Jon Favreau maybe isn't the person to iron out (get it?) the political implications of Iron Man, though perhaps they should find someone who is since the hero is a conflicted weapons dealer and that brings with it political ramifications. But let's stop beating this horse for a while when so many more horses have been generously donated by Stark Industries for glue production. Perhaps I should get into the plot soon.
Oh, but that'll just make me angrier. Iron Man 2 pairs Tony against Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), who builds his own arc reactor from blueprints his father made when he was the partner of Tony's father, Howard. Justin Theroux reworked Ivan and his father, Anton, from Anton's roots in the comics as the Crimson Dynamo into a much more inherently interesting story. Whiplash, originally a Stark employee turned rogue, is now the son of the scientist Tony's father had deported and discredited, giving him a link to the hero that could prove fruitful. Further, the two make for terrific foils: both are the sons of scientific geniuses, partners even. Both of those fathers were emotionally distant, Howard from his work (which, as we learn, was more far-reaching than his son ever knew) and Anton from his alcoholic bitterness; the difference, of course, is that Tony grew up in the lap of luxury while Ivan must get by with DIY experiments.
That too, flies out the window as quickly it appears, leaving Rourke to indulge his wackiest indulgences, chief among them a strange relationship with a parakeet. Supposedly he caused so much stress in production that Favreau changed the film to bar Rourke from returning in a future installment, but perhaps the actor just got bored with having to sit around all day to drawl his 12 lines in a thick Russian accent. You might go a little stir-crazy too.
He's lucky to have any lines at all, though, considering just how much they managed to somehow cram more words into Downey's mouth. Much as the limp-fisted political content riles, it cannot compare to Iron Man 2's crucial flaw: too much of a good thing. Downey spit out self-aggrandizing lines at a blinding pace in the first film, and the one-liners fly so fast here that most are lost in the shuffle. He and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, who looks so confused and frustrated by how quickly everything is moving you almost pity her) lock themselves into so many overlapping arguments that Altman might be invoked had the layered dialogue been remotely understandable or there for any reason other than to stuff in as many jokes as possible. As I watched Iron Man 2, I thought less of The Dark Knight, which for all its flaws is certainly still the best comic book film, and more of the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels. Both franchises feature an offbeat actor playing a part practically created for him, allowing for a high-comic symbiosis that, in the case of the earlier film, made us forget we were watching a movie about a damn theme park attraction and, in Iron Man, effortlessly propelled a film without much narrative thrust. But but franchises oversold their hot ticket with the successors, now actively trying to capture what had just been a harmonic tuning until the quirky-but-natural performances feel processed and forced.
Pepper gets a storyline of her own as Tony's pick as replacement for CEO of Stark Industries, though we only get to see her when she edges into Tony's periphery, when she's spending more time still running PR for Tony than running the business she was so happy to inherit. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) also shows up to discuss S.H.I.E.L.D. operations with Tony, and a new assistant named Natalie (Scarlett Johansson) factors into Tony's life as well. These are all tiny threads in a tapestry that was never woven together, taking away time from Tony's conundrum with his arc reactor, his conflict with Whiplash and his ongoing debate with the United States government while never progressing on their own terms. Like just about every other sequel, Iron Man 2 simply decides to be bigger without being better, barely leaving time for any action scenes and spending more time ogling computer-animated images of how computers might one day...animate images than it does with any character.
Surprisingly, the worst element of the film, rival weapons dealer Justin Hammer, is actually the most enjoyable, thanks to a giddy performance by Sam Rockwell. To make Tony Stark look well-adjusted, they had to turn Hammer into a joke of a character, a sniveling incompetent who receives government funding when Stark drops out of the weapons game -- and why isn't military-industrial collusion a focus of any amount of concern in these films? But Rockwell owns the part, parlaying the greasy charm he brings to his vilest characters into a faux-suave schmoozer who can barely keep ahead of his own uselessness as an inventor. His interplay with Rourke, all motor-mouthed schmoozing and awkward capitulation in the face of Ivan's tacit stonewalling, is hilarious, and possibly not at all faked if Rockwell and the others had to contend with Rourke's infamous preening and petulance.
Indeed, I almost, almost, want to give Iron Man 2 a pass simply because it raises the mainstream profile of three of my favorite living actors. It cements the "don't call them comebacks" of Rourke and Downey and offers Sam Rockwell his most visible job yet, perhaps paving the way for him to unleash the talent he's been refining just off the beaten path for a few years now in works like Snow Angels, Choke and Moon upon the mainstream world. Even Lt. Col. James Rhodes gets an upgrade, replacing Terrence Howard with Don Cheadle over money hassles.
And yet, no one has enough time to make a real impression, except Downey, who frankly has too much. Even if they did, they could never fully distract from the film's glaring weaknesses. If the first Iron Man managed to work without a propulsive plot, its sequel introduces so many storylines that it never moves into the action extravaganza it thinks it is. That's actually the most fascinating trait of these films: both times this franchise has tricked people into this its spare moments of action somehow fill most of the film's length, even though more time is spent on the advanced computers in Stark's home than with the Iron Man in battle. This deception remains a curious psych-out that could possibly save studios a great deal of money on their blockbusters if anyone could work out how Favreau pulls it off, if he is even consciously aware of the effect at all. But with the Stark levels constantly in the red, the lack of releasing spectacle is more evident here, and Iron Man 2 often wobbles between its belief in its own cool and the reality of its inaction. Frankly, I knew I was in trouble when Tony's first action in the film, flying ostentatiously into a stadium as fireworks explode and barely-dressed women dance around him, only to then immediately launch into a speech about changing the way the world gets energy. That's like setting off Roman Candles before you make a goddamn time share pitch. In that one ludicrous moment is the whole film: an idiotic distraction that wants to flirt with seriousness but has commitment issues.
I cannot say that Iron Man 2 is everything wrong with mainstream American cinema and our self-perception, not with Transformers 2 bumbling around the universe. It lacks the overt racism of Bay's disaster (and, truth be told, the first Iron Man, with its pathetic scenes of wish-fulfillment concerning the War on Terror), as well as the sexism, fashioning Natalie Rushman into a capable, strong fighter and letting Pepper be reasonable without being lambasted for it the way Stern is. Too, Favreau's direction is not quite sterling, but he has a better sense of staging than Michael Bay; aesthetically, Iron Man 2 is at worst passively unengaging, while Bay's style is far more offensively gauche and incompetent.
Yet the film still puts forward in laziness and unexplored themes what Transformers 2 actively advocated in its jingoistic ejaculation. Stark, already modeled for a past mogul, is an open throwback to '80s-era business excess, a time when corporate corruption was no less abhorrent but at least had a popular face under the condoned, even lauded hedonism of the wealthy under Reagan. We are made to believe that Tony, who does not wish to answer to the federal government but displays lip-service loyalty to America, to be the unequivocally "good" guy while people like Obadiah Stane and Justin Hammer, who will take their products where there is profit to be made, as evil. Both sides are ludicrously rich and filled with a sense of entitlement, but an outdated sense of patriotism absolves Tony. Yet one cannot look at the hypocritical vilification of Hammer or Stane without thinking of some of the current doublespeak involving Big Business by those beholden to it, the most recent example being the fiasco in the Gulf. Harebrained opportunists like Sarah Palin use the incident to call for an end to foreign oil, ignoring (or ignorant of) the impossibility of "domestic oil" when a company like, you know, British Petroleum is the one sucking up the black gold from our waters and land. Hammer and Stane should represent the insidiousness of globalization in relation to corporate crime and lawlessness, but instead they get to be easy targets that represent "bad business" while Tony gets to be the Reaganite star child without full reproach. For God's sake, the villain is even Russian, a nationality once again becoming our cinematic enemies either out of fear of Islamist reprisal or the continued desire to just return to simpler times when we just had to worry about a thermonuclear device instantly vaporizing us instead of all this car-bomb suspicion.
I certainly don't think, of course, that Favreau is intentionally putting forward this haltingly pro-unchecked capitalist (so long as those capitalists use some of their wealth to buy American flags) sentiment, but there's no way he didn't acknowledge some of the glaring political content, considering how much he undercuts personal insight to call more attention to senators and corrupt businessmen. What he is most guilty of is the same laziness the rest of America feels toward our current crisis: no one wants to fix the problem, only to return to a time when the problem wasn't noticeable.
We'd still like to thumb our noses at the problem though, and Iron Man 2 comes with a smugness common to the state of public perception at the moment, in which everyone would like to look down on everything, preferably without having to do anything so inconvenient as "research" or "reading." The film apathetically taps into our hatred of politicians, condescension and latently xenophobic rejection of downtrodden foreigners and our desire to continue the worship of money after its high priests have been exposed as rapacious, fraudulent thieves. Ultimately, Iron Man 2 wants nothing more than to turn us into that guy in the crowd, placed in the middle of an expo promoting technological advancement and the possibilities of scientific growth in a country that has vilified the educated and the fact-based in praise of the blinded faithful, unable to think of anything other than how cool it would be to see something blow up.