May 7, 2010

New enemies, old demons come to play in Iron Man 2

There are patterns to blockbuster franchises. The first film is always the hero’s origin story. The second movie deals with the hero’s inner turmoil. And contrary to popular belief, the best in the series is always this first sequel (see The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2, X2: X-Men United, Batman Returns, Superman II). The second sequel is always where it goes south (see Batman Forever, X-Men: The Last Stand, Spider-Man 3). Iron Man 2 sticks to this pattern. It proves its predecessor was a neat outing, but, as Tony Stark says, “It’s good to be back.”

Mega praise goes to Robert Downey Jr.’s magnetic performance as the flaming narcissist billionaire Tony Stark and occasional weapon of mass destruction Iron Man; any other actor and this franchise would be much less than what it is. I’m not sure whether that’s telling of the series, or Jon Favreau as a director, or simply a testament to how damn good Downey is, but nevertheless, he makes these movies what they are.

Downey brings much more than wisecracks and a shameless aura of untouchability. He brings a heart and soul to Stark that’s absent from the stone-cold Batman of Christian Bale and the perpetually tense casts of X-Men. He may be a super genius, have billions of dollars, and fly around in a metal suit to an AC/DC soundtrack, but underneath it all, he’s human. He’s a flawed guy with an alcohol problem who makes you root for him in his aerial battles with bad guys as well as in his personal struggles.

I live by the creed that superhero movies are only as good as their villains. Mickey Rourke’s rejuvenated career thanks to The Wrestler has provided Iron Man 2 with one colorful badass. Adopting a Russian accent, Rourke steps into the role of Whiplash, a blend of the original Marvel villain and another, the Crimson Dynamo.

Rourke, with his golden Flavor Flav smile and streaked, newspaper-colored half-ponytail, presents himself as the strong-but-silent type with the physique he’s maintained since The Wrestler. It feels like a stretch that he would be both the brains and the brawn, but Whiplash is recruited by Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer—a weapons contractor and rival of Stark’s—to build an arsenal of Iron Man-like suits. But, as Rourke says, “Drone better.”

If Greg Kinnear can be considered the epitome of the suburban bumpkin, then Rockwell is fast becoming the go-to guy for the corporate bumpkin. Never being clever enough to trounce Stark, he settles for providing him with consistent headaches. He’s a symptom of the first sequel in that with bigger budgets and a longer runing time, filmmakers opt to pack in more villains and more subplots. Luckily this film works despite the excess: Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts is made CEO of Stark’s company; Stark’s best friend James Rhodes (Don Cheadle replacing Terrence Howard, an improvement) is pitted in opposition to Stark by his military obligations; Stark’s health is failing thanks to palladium in his blood from his arc reactor; and Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow is introduced entirely for the setup of the crossover Avengers movie coming in 2012.

As a first sequel, this is no Dark Knight; there are too many kinks and underdeveloped this-or-thats to make it rise above its lowbrow superhero movie status. But damn if there aren’t some excellent action set pieces, particularly Whiplash’s debut at the Monoco Grand Prix, and a snazzy little trick Iron Man pulls off toward the end—because “it’s a one-off” deal.

The film is packed with self-aware humor and some clever one-liners courtesy of screenwriter Justin Theroux, who adds some indie clout to the project. However, though it’s impossible for anything that can or can’t breathe to be attracted to Robert Downey Jr., somehow Gwyneth Paltrow succeeds in resisting his wild charms, leaving their supposedly romantic relationship to play like an older sister fed up with babysitting her rowdy little brother. Then again, GOOP is barely in the movie, so two or three minutes of nonexistent chemistry doesn’t detract from the overall experience of Iron Man, Whiplash, and War Machine blowing shit up and looking cool while doing it.