Iron Man 2 (2010): Favreau’s Lesser Sequel

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A whole grade or two below the first film, “Iron Man 2,” the eagerly awaited sequel to one of the most popular comic books and movies, is an easy ride to take. It’s a passable popcorn entertainment, but not more.
“Iron Man 2” world premiered in the U.K. and plays in France and other territories before opening in the U.S. May 7, thus officially signaling the beginning of the summer season.
In general, the second installment of any franchise is quite crucial in grounding a series on firm foundations, in terms of ideas, plots, characters.  Which may be the reason why often, the follow-up to a launching franchise is more satisfying than the first chapter.  This was the case of “Batman” and “Spider-Man,” whose first two installments were directed by the same filmmaker; Tim Burton in the former and Sa Raimi in the latter.  But, alas, this is decidedly not the case of “Iron Man 2,” which like the first film is helmed by Jon Favreau.
Though using the same lead actors, Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow, and more or less the same ingredients that made the formula successful two years ago, this time around, director Favreau relies more heavily on visual and CGI effects, while neglecting issues of plot, characterization, and emotional engagement.
Even so, Downey Jr. commands the screen with a likable, energetic performance that should not disappoint the fans of the comic book and the first picture, and should also make the sequel commercially popular, perhaps even more successful than “Iron Man.”  Downey Jr. has always been an intelligent, alert and skilful actor, but I get immense pleasure from writing about him as a bankable movie star; Downey Jr. also scored big in last year’s “Sherlock Holmes,” which should become a franchise.   Who could have predicted four or five years ago Downey Jr.’s new, elevated status in Hollywood?
In 2008, “Iron Man,” being the first in the series, was novel and fun.  The film paid attention to the hero as well as to the surrounding characters.  In contrast, “Iron Man 2” takes the easy way out. Rushing from one set-piece to another, the film is marred by a shallow, not particularly involving story.
The scribe, Justin Theroux, better known as an actor (he was excellent in some David Lynch movies), has concocted a sharply uneven tale, in which, among many other problems, characters appear and vanish at random.  Indeed, you feel a void whenever Downey Jr., does not occupy center stage–as Tony Stark or Iron Man. 
You may recall that at the end of “Iron Man,” Stark publicly disclosed that he was the man behind the superhero mask.  So now that the world knows that the billionaire industrialist is Iron Man, he seeks to underscore the benefits of the Iron Man suit by re-launching his late father’s extravagant Stark Expo, a showcase for the humanitarian innovations inspired by technology.
Predictably, the U.S. administration exerts pressure on Stark to use his expert knowledge and to share his revolutionary technology with the military for the country’s collective welfare.  They want to benefit from a lucrative Defense contract; it’s what the sociologist C. Wright Mills has called the military-industrial complex. 
Nonetheless, the highly individualistic Stark holds that only he should be allowed put on the Iron Man suit.  As proof, he is using the triumphant success of his enterprise, especially when contrasted with the inferior arms and weaponry of other countries. (Ah, the glory of American capitalism).
It’s too bad that the narrative is so uneven, as the first reel is extremely promising is setting the main conflicts. First, Stark is posited against the authorities, when he is placed under investigation by the government following his public revelation of his superhero persona.
The introduction of the film’s two antagonists is also interesting and effective. Mickey Rourke (with tattoos all over his naked body) plays the arch villain, Russian physicist Ivan Vanko who sneaks into Monaco’s street raceway, vowing revenge against Stark.  A mysterious figure from the Stark family’s past, Vanko sets out to destroy Tony by revealing his own devastating weapon based on Stark’s technology.  Attacking our suited hero-inventor when he least expects it, Vanko succeeds in showing the faults of Stark’s supposedly impenetrable armor.
Sam Rockwell, one of the most versatile but also one of the most underestimated actors working today, gives a stunning performance as Justin Hammer.  A rival industrialist to Stark’s global domination, Hammer later becomes one of the men to whom Stark hands over his technology.
Gwyneth Paltrow is back as Pepper Potts, Stark’s personal assistant-cum-love interest, though, despite showing strong erotic rapport with Downey Jr., she is again underused and is given few scenes, with or without him.
At first sight, the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Natalie, the new, slinky recruit at Stark Industries (and potential rival to Pepper) promises to be a welcome addition.  But her character turns out to be pointless, and her performance boils down to dressing in and out tight, sexy outfits
If in the first movie, Stark’s prickly personality dominated the action (and the screen). But in this one, he vies for screen time and for our attention with half a dozen eccentric individuals. Indeed, “Iron Man 2” may have too many characters for its own good.  At least two good actors are wasted in underwritten parts: Don Cheadle as Stark’s buddy-cum-sidekick Rhodes, and Samuel L. Jackson as a shady inter-agency exec. The estimable Jackson, wearing an eye-patch, doesn’t show up until very late into the proceedings. 
Unfortunately, Favreau and Theorux have not built on the dramatically solid foundations of the first movie.  “Iron Man 2” centers on Stark, now overwhelmed on all fronts while also facing personal demons, and his need to call on his allies to help him confront the forces that threaten to destroy him and all of mankind.
The narrative shortcomings become evident in the film’s second reel and they get worse in the third one.  Some subplots are simply irrelevant to the central saga, while others seem significant only to be glossed over or to be quickly swept away. There are brief scenes of congressional hearings with nasty senators, hints about the past of Stark’s father, suggestions of mental illness. 
Ditto about the tale’s settings and lack of proportion between exterior and interior scenes. The first act moves around quickly from Siberia to Washington D.C. to Monaco and Malibu. But the rest of the film is largely set indoors, in boardrooms, army bases, science labs, for which the decorative design can only offer minor compensations.
What made “Iron Man” intriguing was the notion of a complex and conflicted superhero. Like all protagonists of comic books, Stark is a flawed hero, arrogant, indulgent, and lacking self-control and discipline. With shrapnel in his blood stream, Stark has built an electromagnet and miniature arc reactor to prevent the deadly substance from reaching his heart, but the device is still life-threatening. But in this picture, Stark seems to be in panic, on the verge of hysteria, from the beginning.
Though boasting a visual flair, the original “Iron Man” was criticized for turning the finale into an overly long, metal-on-metal fight. In this respect, too, the sequel outdoes its predecessor and is both underwhelming and overwhelming.  Some of the action sequences are not well placed or well executed, and the finale, instead of being grand and rousing, is just noisy and repetitious.
Considering the glossy and shallow movie that it is, the three central actors rise to the occasion, and singly and jointly make the picture more enjoyable and pleasurable than it has the right to be.  I have already sung the praise for Downey Jr.   Mickey Rourke, fresh off from his Oscar nod last year for “The Wrestler,” seems to relish his part as the demented Russian baddie, a villain that’s full of surprises; you never know what he’ll do next.  As usual, Sam Rockwell steals most of the scenes he is in, bringing edgy quirkiness and much needed comic relief to his part as the rival entrepreneur.
 Coming to think about, those are the qualities that “Iron Man 2” lacks: edgy quirkiness and witty humor.