Published at: April 29, 2010, 9:24 a.m. CST by merrick
Hola all. Massawyrm here.
If there’s one thing that can be said about Jon Favreau’s handling of the IRON MAN franchise, is that at the end of the day, he has made the superhero franchise that is the most fun. Nolan’s BATMAN films are the grittiest and possibly the most soul searching; Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN films are perhaps the most emotional of the bunch. But there isn’t a hero out there that comes close to having as good a time on screen as Tony Stark when Robert Downey Jr. suits up. And if you had told me this would be the case ten years ago, I never would have believed it.
IRON MAN was always one of my favorites growing up. He was the anti-heroes anti-hero. While most of the anti-heroes of the 80’s were relatively chaste knights on a grim mission for justice outside of the law ™, Tony Stark was a public and proud superhero who drank heavily, partied incessantly and banged a different chick every other day of the week. He was the kind of guy who just didn’t give a fuck until the chips were down – at which point everything inside Tony Stark that really was Iron Man came out and gave it his heroic all. But above all, Stark was a Cold War hero. He was our intelligent missile, living at the top of the heap in the capitalist world while thumbing his nose at Mother Russia and the CCCPs bland lifestyle. Whenever the writers would hit a lull in the storyline, they would simply have some soviet bloc scientist make a new version of a supersuit that they believed was superior – but needed to be proven; so they would attack Iron Man to prove it.
And Iron Man would whoop their commie ass.
It was a great comic for the era. But how do you translate that to the screen? How do you take a comic steeped in cold war ideology, fixated upon a Vietnam war vet who becomes a philandering tycoon that rubs elbows with gods, monsters and superheroes and translate that into a viable franchise for a post-9/11 world? Favreau’s answer was to focus on the character, surrounding him with a terrific supporting cast whose primary objective is to wrangle Tony, while peppering the landscape with robots, power suits and plenty of explosive mayhem. He is played as the very antithesis of Batman: while Batman is the brooding hero pretending to be a rich socialite, Stark is the rich socialite moonlighting as a brooding hero. And Stark has better toys.
Everything that Favreau built with the first film, he continues to build upon here, going so far as to once again tap into the most primal of Stark’s character traits – his wrestling with his own mortality. Once more, Stark finds himself dealing with the notion of everything coming to an end, sending him both into an emotional spiral, as well as inspiring him to leave something truly substantial behind. In other words, everything you loved about Tony Stark the first time around only gets better here. Downey Jr. returns in top form and refuses to phone in a single scene in.
Opposite him is Mickey Rourke, who as part of his recent career resurrection has set out to insure each performance from this part of his life is better than the one before it. This is a Mickey you thought died in the 80’s. It is fearless, transformative acting in which the Rourke you are familiar with disappears behind Russian with the occasional stilted English. And despite his character being given a more passive role as a villain, he manages to own every single second he is on screen.
Which brings me to the films one small problem. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the shit out of this movie. It is an explosive, incredibly fun character piece that lets us love our heroes the way we’re supposed to, only occasionally interrupted by loud, flashy and wonderfully orchestrated action set pieces. But this film does highlight Favreau’s one small flaw as a filmmaker: he likes his villains too much. There is a term in screenwriting called Saving the Cat - something Favreau does with Tony Stark repeatedly in both films. To put it simply, saving the cat is a little selfless moment that illustrates the goodness and moral center inside our hero. Despite the fact that Tony is a drunken letch who freely insults, demeans and sexually harasses those around him, we like him because at his core he is a really good guy with a heart of gold. And he shows that heart again and again. But good villains need the antithesis of that; they need a moment in which we see just how despicable they can be, so we, as an audience, enjoy watching them get the snot kicked out of them by the protagonist – in this case, Iron Man.
But Favreau never really gives us those scenes. He loves his villains – casts incredible actors in their role and lets them have lots of fun chewing up the scenery. But because they never cross the line into true villainy – their beef is usually with Stark himself – we can only kind of enjoy their vanquishing. What I’m talking about doesn’t have to be as big as Grand Moff Tarkin’s ordering the destruction of Alderaan – it can be as beautifully succinct as The Joker’s pencil disappearing trick in THE DARK KNIGHT or Hans Gruber’s shooting Ellis to prove a point to John McClane in DIE HARD; it just has to be emotionally powerful enough for us to realize why this guy has to go down in the best way possible.
And neither of the two antagonists in this film ever provide that moment, leaving a small void in the satisfaction at their eventual defeat. The first IRON MAN suffered from this as well. I get and love the notion of a nuanced villain that isn’t just black and white, but these films aren’t morally ambiguous stories; they’re good guy/bad guy. Tony Stark is a selfish man trying to be the good guy, and he deserves a despicable opponent equal in measure. That said, he gets points once again for casting two of the best actors in the business as his baddies, letting them be fleshed out, three dimensional antagonists; I just needed to hate them a smidge more in order to get the most out of the third act.
And this fact sticks out because every other character moment in the film is perfect, up to and including the film’s centerpiece, a coffee shop scene between a hung over Iron Man and a pissed off Nick Fury. Pure. Fucking. Cinema. Gold.
IRON MAN 2 is pretty much everything you’re looking for if you enjoyed the original. If you were hoping for DEMON IN A BOTTLE or a post-DARK KNIGHT take on Tony Stark, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Favreau zigged instead of zagged and turned in something that is the polar opposite of the new flavor of darkly-heroic filmmaking. It is instead fun, fluffy and delivers on a great time at the movies, without shortchanging the audience with stock or weak characters. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Until next time friends,