Iron Man 2‘s a mess.
All the actors turn in performances, things explode and some things even fly, so yeah, it satisfies at the bare minimum level. The climatic action medley has men in mecha suits fight in a Japanese rock garden — three cyber samurai duking it out — which pleased me for a little while, and once Scarlett Johansson started beating guys up by writhing all over them I looked up from my watch and even paid attention for a while.I struggled to do that the preceding two hours though, when a nonsensical, inconsequential plot gurgled along in front me.
Things happen from scene to scene that don’t add up, and characters show up just to move the creaky plot along and wink at the audience, literally at times — “I’m keeping my eye on you!” Ohhhh, he’s got an eyepatch. Aha ha. Ha. Ha. Why’re there so many dumb jokes in this movie? Besides that, Samuel L. Jackson wastes his yelling talent as Nick Fury, having about as much reason to be in Iron Man 2 as he did in the Star Wars prequels. He doesn’t fight, he doesn’t do anything badass. He finds Tony Stark inside a giant donut (jokes ‘n jokes ‘n jokes), berates him in an L.A. diner reminiscent of the one in Pulp Fiction and hands him a Magic Plot Advancing Box. And no, not a mysterious MacGuffin like the suitcase in Pulp Fiction, but an actual Magic Box that solves everything. Everything gets solved so easily, so randomly that there’s no drama, no attachment.
There’s the promise of drama, maybe even conflict, at the start, but no. Let’s coddle Tony Stark, AKA Robert Downey Jr., AKA Iron Man some more, who flies through fireworks in the sky above the year-long Stark Industries Expo, a Worlds Fair-like event started by his father over 30 years prior. He lands on the main exhibition stage accompanied by pyrotechnics and a line of kick-dancing girls wearing mock Arc Reactors. A nice touch. The crowd goes wild — Tony Stark is the single most renowned and beloved zillionaire scientist-playboy in the world.
I thought this was the first scene of the movie, then I remembered the opening sequence in which fascinatingly freakish Mickey Rourke as Ivan Vanko watches his father die in a dirty Moscow workshop before quickly deciding to drown his sorrows in vodka. He wouldn’t be a Russian character in a movie if he didn’t. During the opening credits we see him busily constructing some crude but complex device. Articles and magazine covers illustrating Tony Stark’s rise to fame cover the walls. On the television Stark uses clout and rhetoric to defend himself during his Senate hearings and rally the public behind him. As the credits end we see what Vanko has created – an Arc Reactor.
Two brilliant men — one held up by the American people as a champion of justice, and one heir only to shame and squalor. Will Vanko topple his rival to gain the glory rightly meant for his family? Will Stark be able to justify his destructive habits to himself and those he cares about even as his enemies struggle to tear him down? Will either man be able to live up to the legacy left by his father?
Who cares? Certainly not the makers of Iron Man 2. Why do you think that I forgot all about that first scene? Because it never mattered after that.
I’m not sure filmmakers know why people actually like Tony Stark as a character. “It’s because he’s rich, right? Because he has a supersuit and lives in a beautiful seaside home, right?”
No, that’s why we HATE him. Which is fine – there’s more depth to a protagonist that you can love and hate. At the start of the first Iron Man, all we knew about Tony Stark is that he was a rich, weapons-making asshole. But then suddenly everything changes. His life and lifestyle are threatened when extremists near-fatally injure him and force him to make weaponry for them. Through scientific knowledge and sheer determination he’s able to save his own life, break free from captivity and then return to bring justice to the people. It’s when we see Tony get out of this awful situation that it truly seems like he deserves to be rich and an asshole. He may have been given his fortune and position by his father, but he’s earned the right to KEEP IT because of his hard work and guts. He’s an American hero – he’s living the dream and he’s damn proud of it.
In Iron Man 2, Tony still lives the good life. Everyone loves him and he’s pretty much rich and popular enough to do whatever he wants. He doesn’t have a care in the world. I mean, apparently the Arc Reactor’s power source is slowly killing him, but that never goes beyond some purple make-up and a device that measures the percentage of his blood’s toxicity. This never comes into play during any action sequences where he succumbs to his weakness and the bad guy gets the upper hand or anything — y’know, something cool and suspenseful — only during scenes where he’s at some social function and nothing’s really happening.
“Uh oh! The number is getting higher and higher! I guess this will have to do for drama for now!”
Then the whole problem is fixed in a subplot that is quickly introduced and concluded (in a fucking ridiculous Gay Old Butler type of way**) in which Tony has to solve a decades-old puzzle left behind by his dead dad. Potentially cool, right? There’s a moment where we see Tony’s dad in a film reel, and for a second we see that Tony might have inherited his self-destructive behavior from Daddy. It’s a rich moment that might have meant something if the story had explored the relationship between Tony and his father at all beyond “we didn’t get along.” We just get lip service, and we forget for a while that Tony’s well-meaning dad let his company become a grump death factory for decades.
So if the bogus poisoning isn’t gonna endanger Tony, who will? Certainly not our friend Ivan Vanko. For a guy who’s been plotting revenge against Tony for a while now, his plan doesn’t seem all that sound. In a scene that inexplicably takes place at the Monaco Grand Prix, Vanko just shows up and slashes race cars in twain with his electro-whips, somehow knowing that Tony would replace the driver that his company was sponsoring. Did Vanko exploit the likelihood that Tony would pull off such an arrogant publicity stunt? Because it seems more likely that he just read the script.
After Vanko is quickly neutralized, Tony confronts him in his holding cell, where Vanko accuses the Starks of being thieves. Tony just shrugs it off and leaves. Uh, movie guys? You just threw away an opportunity to have our hero be affected by the villain or vice versa — like, sow seeds of doubt, or force them to explain themselves. You know, CONFLICT? Why did Tony even visit him if he wasn’t going to listen to him? For that matter, why wouln’t Tony play an interesting gambit and patch things up between the two families; enlist Vanko’s expertise? All this promise and nothing interesting happens.
Since Vanko fizzles out, the villainy baton gets passed to Sam Rockwell as Hammer, a rival weapons manufacturer. His supervillain power is being annoying as hell. In some of the better scenes of the movie (Rockwell’s smarm can be quite entertaining), he annoys Vanko into working for him so that he can wow the crowd at the Stark Expo with an exhibition of his own. There’s almost an interesting dichotomy here, where we see the obnoxious, untalented businessman use the promise of comfort and riches to persuade the misanthropic-but-brilliant ex-con physicist. We all know that Vanko’s going to double-cross Hammer — or at least I know that I was counting the minutes until Mickey Rourke was going to Ram Jam him. But once Vanko regains his power, what do you think he does with that opportunity? Expose Tony and his father as frauds? Use his extraordinary hacking abilities to disseminate secrets and disarm the public’s trust of him? No, he just tries to kill him again. Ho-hum.
The lowest point at which we see Tony — simultaneously the dumbest and best scene in the movie — is when he’s holding a birthday party at his pad, drunk as a skunk and wearing the Iron Man suit. At this point it’s the most of the Iron Man suit we’ve seen in the damn movie and he’s stomping around and shooting lasers for fun. Gwyneth Paltrow and Don Cheadle try to stop him, but Tony doesn’t give a shit, he’s gonna die of blood poisoning, so he’s going to do what he wants. That’s when sleepy Cheadle gets the idea to stop him by donning what would become the War Machine suit and knocking some sense into him. Tony defends his selfish behavior by asking the DJ to lay some phat beats and fights back, wrecking his house and endangering all of his guests, who hurriedly record videos of the rampage on their phones. You’d think this’d be a wake-up call, concrete, recorded evidence of why Tony Stark should not be trusted with the Iron Man suit, but again nothing comes out of the fact that his dumb behavior was recorded en masse by his guests. Not even a stupid YouTube joke.
Vanko says weakening Iron Man in the public eye — trying to “make God bleed” — is what will cause Stark Industries support to wane. That would’ve been interesting, only it never happens. Tony’s destructive escapades never come back to bite him in the ass. When he shows up before the final action sequence, even after he’s endangered the lives of others and stepped down as CEO of his company, everyone’s cheering for him. After all of his abuse of Gwyneth Paltrow, she immediately forgives him and falls in love with him again. Nothing ever sticks. His company continues to prosper and all the blame for the carnage and destruction is shifted onto the villains. He’s recognized as a hero before the nation again. He’s still rich and still has a hundred cars and and he’s PERMANENTLY LIKED by EVERYONE.
Remember those other superhero movies? Where bad things happen to our heroes? Peter Parker’s uncle dies. Bruce Wayne’s parents and friends die. Wolverine finds out that he’s a science experiment and the one girl he has the hots for is taken away. Even Superman realizes that he’ll never truly belong anywhere in the universe. When bad stuff happens people have to learn something new that will allow them to continue living and fighting.
Vanko could have been The Joker to Tony’s Batman, the Green Goblin to his Spider-Man. Instead, Iron Man is never in danger because his technology is infallible. His loved ones are never threatened because he doesn’t really HAVE any loved ones. Nothing difficult happens to Tony so he doesn’t learn shit, and the audience doesn’t learn shit about him despite all of the opportunities. All of the action scenes that should be dazzling are boring as hell because we never think for a second that he’s going to lose. He’s spoiled, he’s arrogant, he’s a lush, and it never matters. He’s a bomb that never goes off.
The only thing that Tony’s in danger of is being pestered to death. Senators, Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson, everyone’s just complaining about his behavior, trying to get him to do what they think is the right thing. Do you think Tony cares what the other characters think?
Do you think the writers care what Tony thinks?
**With the help of some heavy tubes and in-jokes, Tony builds a new element (Yeah.) which he plugs into his chest and gets a burst of Care Bear power or … or something. As he powers up Robert Downey goes into Howard Dean/Nic Cage mode and screams “Ew, tastes like coconut … and metal!! YARRRGH!!” as the screen flashes to white and awkwardly fades into the next scene. You could hear the entire theater go lol wat?