What set Iron Man apart from other comic book movies was that it had the audacity to actually be a good movie. While the discussions of other films in the genre had focused on the faithfulness or ruination of the comic in question’s canon, Iron Man changed the rules. Fuelled by the charisma of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and a great script, the movie was a start-to-finish series of clever, exciting, and squee-incuding fanboy appeals.
Then, something happened. Iron Man 2 came along and, when faced with the overwhelming popularity and enormous expectations brought upon by its sleeper hit predecessor, it fizzled, and ultimately failed to live up. While some sequels end up being dwarfed by their hype, regardless of quality, Iron Man 2 is simply not as good a movie as the original.
As mentioned before, Iron Man maintained its quality from beginning to end. Iron Man 2 struggles with inconsistency. Some of it works, a lot of it doesn’t, and the movie ultimately suffers.
The first major short-coming is with the story. The movie doesn’t actually have one story, it has several interwoven, and somewhat related, narratives. In one, Stark faces an old family enemy, Whiplash (Mickey Rourke). In another, he struggles with radiation poisoning, worsened by his use of the Iron Man suit. In another, he acknowledges and then reconciles some daddy issues. In another, he interacts with leader of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury, regarding his possible admission into the Avenger Project. Then there’s the romantic interactions with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), the feud with fellow techological entrepreneur, Justin Hammer, and just a hint of alcoholism. And, these are just the narrative lines dealing directly with Stark. There are others including several of the supporting characters. Despite having enough consecutive stories to make Tarantino’s head spin, they all resolve in as conventional a way as story-telling allows.
Another odd decision in crafting the sequel is what kind of stuff gets the most screen time. The best example of this is Pepper Potts. Despite the fact that Paltrow and Downey Jr. have about as much visible chemistry as a mongoose does with a pineapple, there are about a half-dozen interactions between them. I assume that their scenes are meant to be sweet, and filled with unspoken sexual tension but instead they simply just keep talking over each other, sounding like a two-person Robert Altman group scene.
Also odd is the amount of time devoted to Jon Favreau’s character, Happy Hogan. In the first movie, Favreau only appeared in a limited capacity, more as a cameo than as an actual character. In Iron Man 2, Hogan’s part is expanded, for no real reason except for one semi-funny joke near the end. Otherwise, and I say this apologetically, the character feels like a vanity role, giving him an excuse to have some fun in front of the camera. Unfortunately, we aren’t having as much fun watching him as he is having while goofing around with RDJ.
As I said before, not everything in the movie is a flop. Scarlett Johansson’s character, Natalie Rushman, is as enjoyable to watch as she is to look at. Her big fight sequence toward the end (half of which you’ve already seen if you’ve seen the trailer) is probably the coolest female-led fight sequence since Summer Glau’s in Serenity. The rest of her performance creates an interesting character, who shows enough glimpses of complexity that I hope she gets some expansion in the upcoming Avengers movie.
Speaking of the most anticipated film-crossover of all time (has there ever been another film-crossover?), Iron Man 2 slides a little too far into the realm of advertisement. In that way, watching the movie felt kind of like watching the episode of WWE Smackdown!, the Friday before a pay-per-view. There are hints, inclinations, and outright statements that refer to the Avengers project. Hopefully, with that movie (due out in 2012), everyone remembers that film cannot live by hype alone. And maybe, if they get it really right, we’ll even get to see the Iron Man we grew to love in his first movie.