Superman has Kryptonite. Green Lantern is powerless against the color yellow. And if Iron Man 2 is any indication, Tony Stark’s big weakness could be scripts. The first Iron Man showed that Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr could take a very loosey goosey approach to the script and come out with something very special. Iron Man 2 shows that lightning doesn’t always strike twice.
The problems with Justin Theroux’s script – which come to a head in the big, saggy, boring and redundant second act – hurt all the more because everything else works so well. Favreau ups the ante on the action in a major way with this film, essentially shutting up the critics of the first movie who found the action lacking. Iron Man 2 isn’t wall to wall action (and in fact that aforementioned soggy second act could have used a big action scene to pep it up), but the action scenes are well done, thrilling and character motivated. Each action scene feels different, and each action scene speaks to the film’s characters, their motivations and their relationships. Obviously a lot of thought went into these elements – why couldn’t as much thought have gone into the story as a whole?
Iron Man 2 takes place six months after the end of the first film; the outing of Tony Stark as Shellhead has changed the international scene, bringing an unprecedented level of peace to the world. Meanwhile, Tony Stark has become even more famous than before, and has turned into a rock star. But all is not well; the palladium that powers Tony’s arc reactor is also poisoning him, and the US government isn’t happy having this loose cannon flying through their airspace. Meanwhile, the son of a disgraced colleague of Tony’s dad is looking for revenge on the Stark family name.
There’s a tendency in superhero sequels to throw too much stuff into the mix, and this film, with the additions of rival arms manufacturer Justin Hammer, War Machine, Whiplash and SHIELD agent Black Widow, looked like it might succumb to that tendency. But in fact Iron Man 2 manages to juggle all of these elements, allowing the characters to organically exist together without anything feeling shoehorned or too tacked on*. The trouble is it seems like the film was able to achieve this clean and simple addition of new elements by simply jettisoning any sort of narrative drive. The first act of the film sets everything up nicely, and the third act includes some excellent action, but the second act is a meandering slog where nothing happens and no one seems to actually do anything.
The second act is filled with scenes that replicate previous scenes – Nick Fury and Tony Stark have two sit down talks, Whiplash and Justin Hammer have at least two scenes talking about their villainous partnership, Rhodey has a trio of scenes at a military base that barely advance anything and that contain maybe a nugget of necessary info each. Through all of this repetition there’s no sense of danger; while we know that Tony Stark is sick thanks to repeated checks of his blood toxicity and a growing techno-organic rash coming out of his arc reactor, this illness has no impact on him at all. He is never unable to perform an Iron Man duty because of the illness, and the solution to it is more or less handed to him in the least dramatic fashion imaginable. After Whiplash first encounters Iron Man in a rollicking action scene set at the Monte Carlo Grand Prix everybody thinks he’s dead; since nobody thinks Whiplash is a threat nobody is doing anything about him, and he is actually just sitting in a room getting ready for act three (pretty much literally). This all feels like reshoots intended to smooth over plot holes, although some – like why anybody mistrusts Iron Man in the second act since he seems to do almost nothing – but it’s a shoddy spackling.
There are some mid-movie bright spots; Tony, convinced he’s going to die, gets drunkenly out of control at his birthday party and Rhodey is forced to don the silver Iron Man Mark II armor to deal with him. And individual scenes work – Favreau has assembled a fine cast with terrific chemistry, and almost every single individual scene is fun. It’s just that when they play out one after another in the middle of the film there’s no feeling of momentum or danger or even a noticeable plot moving forward.
That really bums me out because so much of the rest of Iron Man 2 works. Sam Rockwell plays Justin Hammer as a sniveling Tony Stark wannabe; the character doesn’t get much in the way of backstory but he feels like a weaselly arms dealer who ended up going legit but who can’t quite cut it in a world where the Stark genius gene is on the loose. Pepper Potts is one of the few superhero girlfriend characters who feels like she has an actual arc of her own, and Gwyneth Paltrow is lovely and screwball in her scenes with Robert Downey Jr (and I hope that the ambiguous ending of her arc at the finale of the film isn’t what I think it is – I like where the movie took her, and the character seemed to prove herself. Taking it all back at the last minute feels cheap.
Scarlett Johansson is an actress who has an inherent flatness; when a director knows how to use that she’s great, and Favreau gets that flatness. Her Natalie Rushman is inscrutable, playing all sides and displaying a casual lethality that especially comes in to play in a kick-ass hallway fight scene. Black Widow isn’t allowed to take over the movie, but she’s given enough to do that she feels like a real character and not a bit of fanwank. Or boywank in general, since Johansson is astonishing in her superhero outfit. Seeing her in the IMAX version of the film was almost revelatory, but even when seen on a normal sized movie screen Johansson is the best looking actor in the piece. Unfortunately her story feels sort of truncated; it seems like there may have been a cut of the film where Black Widow was a potential romantic rival for Pepper Potts. While Tony Stark is obviously (and understandably) attracted to her, the movie never seems to commit to the idea that he’s really interested.
Looking much less good than her is Mickey Rourke as Whiplash. Rourke brings a bizarre charisma to the role, grumbling lines in a fairly ludicrous sounding Russian accent. The Whiplash character is a weird one; there’s very little to him when it comes to the actual film – he has very, very little screen time – but you get a true sense for the inner character and the turmoil going on within him. It’s the kind of performance that’s weird and sort of broad but that also works perfectly.
But there’s still not enough of him. Besides sitting out the entire middle of the film, Whiplash never seems to really connect with Tony Stark. Their feud is deeply personal, as Whiplash blames Howard Stark for his father’s ill fortunes, but the two don’t really hash it out. What’s worse is that both of Whiplash’s encounters with Iron Man are pretty short; a third encounter in act two, where Whiplash creams Iron Man, might have upped the ante and given the character something more.
At the heart of it all is Robert Downey Jr, and you get a lot of him. Maybe too much of him. Iron Man doesn’t really do anything in the film, and most of the running time focuses on Tony Stark. Unfortunately Tony Stark also isn’t really doing anything except doing his charismatic charming asshole Tony Stark thing; Downey doesn’t even get many great scenes to play against other people, as his most emotional moment seems to come with a 16mm film strip. It’s not something you’ll notice while watching the film the first time because Downey remains one of the most insanely magnetic presences in modern film, and turning the entire movie over to his particular charms is a good idea in that it basically works. It’s a bad idea, though, in that the film’s lack of dramatic cohesion seems to stem from this character’s lack of a dramatic arc; while the movie is technically about Tony Stark learning the value of team work, it’s one of those lessons more spoken aloud by other characters than experienced emotionally by the lead.
The other new addition is Don Cheadle replacing Terence Howard as Rhodey, Tony Stark’s best friend and the eventual War Machine. I’m mixed on this development because on the one hand Cheadle is a great actor who does very well in the role, but on the other he doesn’t have that louche, slightly naughty rapport with Downey that Howard did. When Howard and Downey did a scene together in the first Iron Man you felt like you were watching two guys who connected on a lot of levels, one of which was a mutual appreciation for getting lapdances. That feeling isn’t in Cheadle; he’s just slightly too straight and stolid and good to be fully believable as Tony’s best friend. Terence Howard has taken a ride on the Stark jet to Tijuana while Don Cheadle politely begs out of such an expedition.
That’s a problem because one of the best scenes in the film is all about the two great friends finally coming to blows, and while it works and works well, the scene would have popped in a very different way with Howard in the armor. To me this is the refrain of Iron Man 2 - it’s good, but man could it have been so much better!
Favreau has the action thing down pat, and he doesn’t lose sight of his characters or tone while delivering very fun action beats. I hope he comes back for Iron Man 3 but this time really develops the hell out of the script. I hope he gets the thing down to a finely tuned piece of crackerjack storytelling, and that he finally gets a chance to bring together not just great characters and good action but also a propulsive, involving and awesome story.
6.5 out of 10
* The SHIELD stuff is grating, though. There are scenes in this film that exist solely to establish Thor, and that offer nothing in Iron Man 2, and the group seems so ahead of the curve and so ready with all the answers you wonder why there’s even a need for Iron Man to do anything. Oh wait, he pretty much doesn’t do anything for most of the movie!