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Iron Man 2 (2010)

WARNING: HEAVY METAL SPOILERS

I thought it wouldn’t work. I thought too many villains and partners (Whiplash and Black Widow and War Machine and Nick Fury?) would sink the thing, like they sank “Batman Forever,” and “Batman and Robin,” and “Spider-Man 3.” Instead the movie plays like a good three-issue arc of a 1970s comic book. Plus we’re teased with more Avengers stuff—a little Captain America here, a little Thor there—but, FYI, you have to stay through the credits for a peek at some aspect of the Son of Odin. And it’s not Chris Hemsworth.

The movie opens with Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) on top of the world but with a “Top of the World, Ma!” quality to him. He’s rich, powerful, and as Iron Man he’s brought about world peace, but he’s more self-destructive than ever. Maybe because he’s self-destructing. His blood is slowly being poisoned by the whatchacalm in his chest that turns him into Iron Man. He tests himself. Blood toxicity: 19%. Then 24%. Then 53%.

Meanwhile, three other things threaten to take him down:

  1. In Russia, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), the son of his father’s former business partner, who blames the Starks for his father’s boozy death, uses age-old blueprints to come up with his own whatchacalm in his chest and turns himself into the supervillain Whiplash;
  2. In Washington D.C., a U.S. Senator, aptly named Stern, but played comically by Gary Shandling, demands that Tony Stark turn over the Iron Man outfit to the U.S. Army in the interests of national security; and
  3. Stern’s wink-wink, military-industrial-complex partner, Justin Hammer of Hammer Industries (Sam Rockwell), jealous to the max, tries whatever he can to outdo his rival.

All of these threats coming down on him at once actually play to the strengths of the lead actor, Downey, Jr., who has always felt like a pursued man to me, as if he were racing, physically and psychologically (mostly psychologically), to stay ahead of everything that wants to overcome him. So, pursued, Stark keeps distracting himself with the next big thing. He begins a year-long Stark Expo in Flushing Meadows, NY, he testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee and refuses to share his toys, he gives control of his company to his assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and he races cars at the Grand Prix in Monte Carlo. This last is where Whiplash appears and takes out two cars, including Stark’s, and then strolls menacingly forward. You can only run so fast, Tony. Things always catch up. Even when they stroll.

Can I pause here to thank Darren Aronofsky? Without Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler,” Rourke’s career wouldn’t have been resurrected enough for studio execs to allow him to play an A-list role in an A-list movie, and he’s a perfect counterpoint to the star. Stark/Downey, Jr. is a babbler, whose mouth, working overtime, still can’t keep up with his mind. Rourke/Vanko is the opposite. Everything he does is slow. He walks slowly, talks slowly, shifts his toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other slowly. He serves his revenge cold. If Stark’s pace is the result of frenetic intelligence—one thought pushing out another—Vanko’s leisurely pace almost feels like wisdom. When Stark visits Vanko in his Monte Carlo jail cell, he talks shop, “Pretty decent tech,” etc., but Vanko has the bigger picture in mind. “You come from a family of thieves and butchers,” he says, with that deliciously thick Russian accent. “And like all guilty men, you try to rewrite your history, to forget all the lives the Stark family has destroyed.” This is exactly what you want in a villain. Not someone to boo and hiss, but somebody almost more admirable than the hero. Someone to make you consider switching sides.

As Stark’s enemies get closer, his self-destruction gets worse. He whoops it up at his birthday party—his last, he believes—and skeet-shoots with his Iron Man blasters to the delight of half-naked girls. He battles his friend, Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle, taking over, for some reason, from Terrance Howard), who steals one of his Iron Man suits and delivers it to the U.S. military, who delivers it to Justin Hammer. Nice friend. Nice military-industrial complex. It’s the second time Rhodes has played sap for Hammer against Stark. To be honest, it’s not much of a role.

There’s other silly stuff. Apparently Pepper and Natalie don’t get along...until they do. When Tony is ready to tell Pepper he’s dying is the exact moment she’s unwilling to listen to him. There are father issues—because these days there are always father issues—and the old man (John Slattery of “Mad Men”), via a scratchy film from the 1960s, gives his son a 40-year-old puzzle that provides...wait for it...the key to curing the toxicity in his blood! That’s some foresight from Daddyo. Not to mention, from the filmmakers, a vague ripoff of “Da Vinci Code” and “National Treasure.” Note to Hollywood: The world isn’t a puzzle. Everything doesn’t fit together.

I thought the casting of Scarlet Johansson as Black Widow was silly, too, but thanks to personal trainers and special effects it works. And lord knows she works that suit. There’s a scene where she enters a diner from behind that’s just... Mercy. At the same time, is there too much blankness in her eyes? Something passive and uncalculating? Samuel L. Jackson doesn’t seem to be having as much fun with Nick Fury as he should, while Cheadle, ever dour, looks positively trapped when his visor rises in his Iron Man suit. Gwyneth? Another thankless role. She’s an assistant turned CEO, and love interest to a man who doesn’t seem interested in love. At the end of “Spider-Man 2” we want, almost desperately, for Peter Parker and Mary Jane to get together, but there’s so little chemistry between Stark and Potts that when they kissed I thought, “Oh, right. He’s supposed to love her.”

Rockwell as Hammer is a delight: all bullying CEO bluster. He’s the hollow man, as hollow as an Iron Man suit. The screenplay by Justin Theroux isn’t bad, either. There’s a nice play off of Google and ogle, Stark dismisses Fury’s “Avengers” overtures thus, “I don’t want to join your super-secret boy band,” and when Hammer introduces a sexy Vanity Fair reporter to Tony, we get this exchange:

Justin Hammer: Christine's doing a spread on me.
Pepper Potts: She did a spread on Tony last year.
Tony Stark: Wrote an article too.

Director Favrau, also playing the hapless Happy Hogan, Tony Stark’s chauffer, gives us a sense, more than in most superhero movies, what it’s like to be a civilian in the midst of a superhero battle. Gods battle above you. Buildings fall around you. Scary stuff, kids.

But where to go from here? How about away from the East-West dynamic (too Cold War) and toward a greater Mideast-West dynamic (so post-9/11)? Or instead of the cartoonish jealousy of a Justin Hammer, or the naked power-grab of a Sen. Stern, why not have genuine worry from the military-industrial complex about the money and influence they’re losing in the age of Iron Man? Along with their misconceived attempts to get it back?

Of course I’d happy if the next movie simply went in the direction of one call:

Avengers Assemble!

—June 4, 2010

© 2010 Erik Lundegaard