Metal on Metal
2010 // USA // John Favreau // May 16, 2010 // Theatrical Print (Hi-Pointe Theater)
B- - If one regards it primarily as the second chapter in a presumable trilogy of films about billionaire industrialist Tony Stark's super-weapon persona, Iron Man 2 is a slick slice of cinematic entertainment. Director Jon Favreau and leading man Robert Downey, Jr. deliver heaping helpings of the essential vibrancy and wit that rendered the first entry in Marvel's technophilic franchise such a giddy revelation. However, while it functions well enough as a sequel, or as a mere episode in a broader saga, Iron Man 2 is bit soggy when approached on its own merits. Favreau and scripter Justin Theroux—the actor/writer who penned the deliciously acidic Tropic Thunder—are aiming for too many targets in some scenes, while in others they seem to be spinning their wheels in anticipation of the next action set-piece. Accordingly, the film has trouble conveying the sense of nitro-fueled urgency necessary for the Iron Man myth, which is at bottom a Popular Science wet dream with a dash of guilt and ambivalence. The sequel just doesn't hum along so effortlessly as its predecessor, which in retrospect, seems much leaner and more focused, as origin stories often are. Favreau gives us a middle chapter that is preoccupied with mortality, legacies, and thinly veiled allegories about geopolitical blowback and loose nukes. These elements are tackled with aplomb, but cobbled together in such a manner that Iron Man 2 feels a bit haphazard. Eh, no matter. We're all just here for Downey's quips, right?
The new film finds Tony Stark, now exposed as the man behind the crimson-and-gold suit, facing Congressional pressure to turn over his technology to the United States government. The response: "Thanks, but no thanks." Despite his new-found commitment to world peace, Stark's craving for attention doesn't seem to have diminished one iota, and when he's not jetting off to compete in the Monaco Grand Prix, he's producing an enormous World's Fair-style Expo dedicated to cutting-edge technologies. Meanwhile, a nasty-looking Russian gorilla named Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) labors in secret on a device that suspiciously resembles Iron Man's arc-reactor. (When a heavily tattooed character dwells in a dank apartment with a wall of newspaper clippings about the protagonist, that character is by definition Up to No Good.) Stark has more pressings and visible concerns, however, such as the palladium in his suit's power source that is slowly poisoning him, or his smug ass of a rival, weapons manufacturer Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell).
In keeping with the first film, Downey is the real draw here, and as expected, he delivers the lighting wit and cocksure demeanor of Stark with swooning precision, even as the sequel grants him more scenes of private grimacing. The film's headiest sequence involves not a robot suit soaring at Mach 3, but a moment of scientific revelation (re-discovery, really), tinged with familial warmth and painted with a whirl of holograms. Downey captures the bliss effortlessly. The cast of characters that Downey played off of so well in Iron Man has returned: Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow), James Rhodes (Don Cheadle, crisper and cooler than Terrence Howard, but much more believable as an Air Force officer), and even Favreau himself in a more substantial role as chauffeur Happy Hogan. Distracted by his crime-fighting duties, Stark elects to name a flabbergasted Pepper as CEO of Stark Industries. He then brings in a ravishing notary from the legal department, Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson), to act as his new Girl Friday. (Of course, most notaries don't have martial arts training...) Thankfully, Favreau doesn't permit the trite girl-on-girl rivalry angle to blossom into ugly flower, and before the second act both women are butting heads with Stark over his juvenile behavior.
Favreau's penchant for actor improvisation is on fine display here, perhaps even more so than in the previous film, with both Downey and Paltrow acquitting themselves marvelously with their effortless, rapid-fire banter. (Who knew Paltrow had it in her? Not me, certainly.) Rockwell is given free reign to create a thoroughly unlikeable villain, a whiny reflection of Stark who possesses all of his arrogance but none of his confidence. However, the character of Justin Hammer, while he might adhere to the principles of comic book villains, isn't especially menacing. Rockwell is fun to watch, but he merely reveals how genuinely threatening Jeff Bridges was as Obadiah Stane in the first film, even (or especially) when he just wore a business suit. Sadly, Rourke seems a bit wasted here, mumbling out the odd line in a thick Russian accent and seemingly cast for his physical presence more than anything. Johansson is, well, Johansson, gorgeous but ultimately colorless, lending nothing in particular to an underwritten part.
Consistent with the first Iron Man, Favreau here exhibits his remarkable facility for rendering action sequences with clarity and drama, while maintaining the aura of cartoonish thrills that the source material fundamentally demands. Here the "shiny new toy" exhilaration of Stark's outings is still present, but also complicated by the doses of selfish foolishness and strained friendship. There's little need for Dark Knight chills in Favreau's wily, jocular approach, which makes it all the stranger when the director and Theroux nod at graver thematic concerns. In one scene, an amused Vanko asserts that an attack on Iron Man doesn't have to succeed to work: it merely has to put the scent of blood in the water. It's an unsettling notion... until one recalls that Christopher Nolan conveyed far more with a single fearful line from Gary Oldman's Lieutenant Gordon in Batman Begins ("What about escalation?") Still, the result of this dire gesturing isn't so much clumsy as cluttered, as it prevents the sequel from achieving the kind of propulsion that powered the first film's neatly spun tale of a warmonger's redemption. Ultimately, Favreau seems to be demanding too much of his second chapter. He wants to convey the rising global threats that Iron Man's existence engender; conduct a corresponding critique of real-world arms races; warn of the hazards of turning to flawed Randian messiahs; and tackle the unresolved Daddy Issues that plague Stark as his own mortality creeps up on him. Meanwhile, the groundwork for the upcoming Avengers film keeps getting slathered on, which makes for some fun reveals, but diminishes the efficacy of Favreau's proximal story. In this manner, a stirring adventure is made to feel unaccountably like a holding pattern.