"I told you before. I do not want to join your super-secret boy band." -- Tony Stark
I need to preface this review by confessing that it’s difficult for me to be objective about anything Iron Man-related. Shellhead has been my favorite comics character ever since I discovered superhero comics in the third grade. That, my friends, was a distressingly long time ago. It was post-Gene Colan but pre-“Demon in a Bottle.”
And so, from that perspective, it feels almost criminal to find fault with either movie.
My unbridled enthusiasm for actual, big-budget Iron Man movies (not to mention my absolute astonishment at their very existence) is tempered by my strong sense of how the character and his world should be handled in any medium, whether in comics or on film.
So, what can I say about Iron Man 2, both as a movie for a general audience and as a representation of Iron Man to Iron Man fans?
Let’s break it down this way:
What failed to meet my expectations?
The film is remarkably disjointed. There’s a strong sense that long, whole sections were left on the cutting room floor—or saved for the inevitable deluxe edition DVD. The editors took a heavy-handed approach, hacking the movie down to a fast-moving but ultimately confusing length. In all likelihood this was done in an attempt to keep the attention of an audience of mostly non-comics-fans with short attention spans and less patience for the “nerdy details” aspect of comics movies.
Thus there is flash and splash and wacky banter and bickering, but not enough in terms of logical progression of the plot.
There are two villains this time around, and one of them surprised me in a good way, while the other surprised me in a bad way. Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko at first seems remarkably colorful and filled with potential, but he never resolves into a clear depiction of a character, morphing from one scene to the next.
Intended as an amalgam of Whiplash plus Justin Hammer’s ubiquitous henchmen plus Iron Man’s Cold War-era Russian foes plus Obadiah Stane (evil armored guy) from the first movie, ultimately he becomes all and yet none of these things. His plans are terribly easily disrupted, he’s quickly and easily beaten in both of his physical confrontations with Iron Man, and he’s even bullied around by Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer character.
That last bit, where Hammer pushes around Vanko, merits more discussion. From the first moment we meet Vanko on screen, we are to understand that he is the ultimate hardcore badass tough guy. Not only that, but he harbors a technical genius intellect to rival Stark’s inside that badass tough guy body. Therefore, from the start, we set the bar very high for him. Meanwhile, Hammer is clearly a buffoon; a Tony Stark wannabe with the cash but not the charm or intellect; a lucky loser who produces inferior goods and gets by mostly on bluster, a loser-nerd’s loser nerd.
To see hard man Vanko inexplicably intimidated and bullied by Hammer prompts we in the audience to puzzlement and to an expectation that personal payback is coming. And yet it never does, and ultimately Vanko’s electric potential, like his electric whips, fizzle out to nothing.
What met my expectations?
The majority of the movie shot par with me, neither exceeding nor failing to meet my expectations. Lots of Robert Downey, Jr. cutting up: Check. “Moonlighting”-esque rapid-fire exchanges with Pepper: Check. Some fun combat with armored guys: Check. Interesting tidbits with Nick Fury and the Black Widow: Check. Getting to vicariously live the life of a guy so rich he never, ever has to spare a single thought for money, as he’s jetting around the globe and casually destroying his mansion: Check.
One of the ironies of how Iron Man has translated to the big screen is that while the comic has always mostly been about Iron Man, we’ve unexpectedly discovered that Tony Stark himself is simply perfect for the medium of film.
The Downey interpretation of Stark just doesn’t work in comics. There’s not enough room for nuance on the printed page. On the screen, however, Stark radiates charisma, reveling in just being himself. Who could have ever seen that coming, before Downey brought it to life?
What exceeded my expectations?
In examining a movie I liked very, very much, it’s only fair to end this review with a quick look at things I enjoyed about it even more than I thought I would beforehand. Here are two:
The elevation of Stark’s personality over the first third of the film from its normal level of merely seismic to its over-the-top bombastic-ness (partially fueled by alcohol and tinged with fatalism) added an unexpected layer to the movie storyline and to Stark’s personal story. By the time Tony cuts up at his party, showing off for the babes by blowing stuff up with his repulsors while staggering around drunk, we become all-too-aware that we’re seeing a man who’s trying to live every moment as if it’s his last, because he fears it will be.
We didn’t exactly get “Demon in a Bottle,” but we came awfully close with the middle part of this movie. That’s probably as much as we needed.
Sam Rockwell provides a perfect foil for Tony in the guise of rival industrialist Justin Hammer. Rockwell seems determined to go ad-lib for ad-lib with Downey, throwing in as much in the way of unscripted and over-the-top personal touches as our protagonist does. For the most part, he succeeds: I watch Hammer and realize just what Tony Stark could be if he lacked just a touch of his intellect or his charisma. I also but feel a touch of sympathy for a guy who desperately wants to be cool but who is condemned by his own personal shortcomings to being merely a wealthy, obnoxious, incompetent geek.
I can't forget the geek-tastic post-credits scene. Some fans thought they were getting some kind of Hulk reference there. Fooled you. The Hulk reference is just before it: Watch the televisions in Tony’s office while he’s having his final conversation with Nick Fury.
Instead we get the absolute perfect set-up for the next movie in what will surely one day be a great big ol’ boxed set of six DVDs labeled The Avengers. The scene was torn directly from, of all things, a recent issue of Fantastic Four. Someone please write former Thor comic writer Joe Straczynski a check.
Much like the Lord of the Rings movies, Iron Man 2 will play even better as an extended director’s cut on DVD. I want to see more of Vanko, in the hopes that his character will make actual sense. (Don’t even get me started on the whole deal with his bird.)
I want the major scene from the center of the film, Rhodey’s confrontation with Tony, to be fleshed out so it makes some kind of sense for Rhodey to do what he does. It’s a good thing we already know Tony and Rhodey are such good friends, because for 95% of this movie, Rhodey does as much to hurt Tony as any of the villains.
I want to see more of Nick Fury and the Black Widow. But then, who doesn’t want to see more of the Black Widow?
I also want to see if I can figure out which issue of Avengers is in the box Tony receives from his dad. And how that’s even possible.
Iron Man 2 has enough Robert Downey wackiness to please a non-geek crowd (a must for keeping this series financially viable) while giving the comics fans enough brain-frying awesomeness to keep us buzzing till Goldilocks drops the hammer next summer.
Just think: There have now been two A-list Iron Man movies bringing in crowds worldwide. Tony Stark’s name was dropped at the Oscars. Iron Man is showing up in print ads that once only featured Spider-Man or Wolverine. If that ain’t the stuff of superhero fiction, I don’t know what is.