So, being a good little fanboy, I managed to see Iron Man 2 twice this weekend. I went on my lonesome Saturday morning, and then again for "date night" (last one before tech hell) with CByrd on Sunday.
Generally speaking, this is a highly entertaining popcorn flick. I'd say it's about on par, quality -wise, with the first one. It's a slam-bang comic book action flick anchored by an unendingly charismatic lead performance.
Of course, that kind of worries me, but I'll get to that in a bit.
Sticking to the film itself, I'm sure to let slip some spoilers. It's kind of unavoidable if I want to talk about the things that bothered me here. This is not to say I didn't have a good time, because I did. The movie keeps the pacing up, and never fails to be entertaining. The new characters are interesting, if underused, and the final battle sequence is arguably better than in the first film. It's more than worth seeing on the big screen, as you will not walk out feeling like you got less than your money's worth.
The film is entertaining, but problematic is that, especially in the second act, it's sort of in spite of itself. The plot fairly grinds to a halt in order to trot in Samuel L. Jackson so he can shovel exposition and lay groundwork for The Avengers. It only stays aloft because of the sheer star power of Robert Downey Jr. Literally, this movie, and probably the last, would be really poor if not for Downey.
Specific gripes, on a technical side, would be that the action sequence connected to Tony Stark's birthday party is just horrid-looking. Worst CGI I've seen in a film of this scale in a long while. Especially troubling when the sequence could've been done with a couple of stuntmen in the real suits Marvel made such a big deal about building. The CGI models simply lack heft and weight, to my eye. Totally threw me out of the story for the entire sequence.
Also very, very underwhelmed by the ultimate confrontation between Iron Man, War Machine and Mickey Rourke's Ivan Vanko (who uses elements of Iron Man villains Whiplash and The Crimson Dynamo, but is never actually called either). The sequence follows and amazing action set piece in and around the Stark Expo pavilions, which is paced quite ingeniously and manages to keep raising the stakes and the "wow" factor.
Then Vanko shows up again, in another, larger suit of armor. Which is...exactly how the last film ended. Truly, as a visual, Rourke's appearance in the Monaco Gran Prix sequence (which is where all the publicity stills come from) is far more compelling and interesting than how he looks at the climax. Like I said, the sequence itself probably works better than the one in the last film, but I really felt a "been here, done that" response.
Director John Favreau has talked a lot about how Iron Man's more "magical" villains, like The Mandarian and Fin Fang Foom, don't fit in the vaguely realistic, "high-tech" world he's created. Well, in a film that includes a direct reference to what's probably Marvel's most magical and otherworldly hero...I felt myself yearning for Tony Stark to confront something that really took him out of his comfort zone. However, the whole film has an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" feel. Which isn't all bad, because this is no sophomore slump that a third film will have to "apologize" for, but it also doesn't take many risks.
I may seem like I've got a lot of gripes. I want to be clear as a bell here. I enjoyed the hell out of this movie. My problems are on technical levels, be it with special effects, or storytelling techniques. I work as a storyteller, I think about this stuff, and I probably know way too much about special effects for my own good. I am wholeheartedly recommending it as a great time at the movies, but it's not perfect.
Now, there's another area to critique. This movie is where the hard-core build-up to The Avengers starts, and, frankly, I have to kinda look at that on it's own. I mean, the film stops dead to bring in Nick Fury, S.H.I.E.L.D., and remind us that The Avengers is in the offing...
...And that's kind of the problem.
The Avengers stuff never feels organic or connected to the story we're trying to tell right now. Oh, the script give Jackson's Nick Fury some exposition and a Deux Ex Machina moment to try to connect this stuff to what's going on, but it just feels weak. When this whole "master plan" to take us from Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, through Iron Man 2, next year's Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, ultimately dropping us on 2012's The Avengers, was first announced...I was skeptical. The work they do to progress the "Marvel Movie Universe" here doesn't really help my skepticism.
First and foremost...the only franchise Marvel's really gotten off the ground is 100% dependent on it's star. The scripts for both Iron Man films have been serviceable, or even less than serviceable, but it's only via Downey that any magic happens. I'll give Favreau credit too, he's putting this package together, and it's clear he understands how important letting Downey play is. Likewise, much of my enjoyment of The Incredible Hulk was tied to Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, and they managed to burn that bridge to the ground with the ugly post-production.
In essence, it feels like Marvel Productions has gotten really damn lucky, and that's great, good on them. I want these films to be entertaining and good. However, I think they're also missing something very, very important when you're working with superhero characters.
Where's the inspiration? A huge part of comic books for me were the moments of inspiration, the moments when these characters showed me what heroism meant, how we can transcend our own fears and weaknesses to rise to the occasion and strive for greatness. That, like the great tales of Hercules or any other folk hero, are part and parcel of the superhero iconography. That's, to me, the social role of these characters.
It's also been largely absent from Marvel's films, so far. Especially when you compare these movies to films like Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie, or Sam Raimi's first two Spider-Man films, or especially Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. Yes, it's cool to think of the building of a unified Marvel Universe on film, but it's nowhere near as emotional as watching Batman allow himself to be branded a murderer to preserve the reputation of a heroic man twisted by fate. Seeing Nick Fury show up and talk about The Avengers garnered a "heh, cool," but the final moments of The Dark Knight simply took my breath away.
I wish Marvel Productions would take some of that screen time they're burning to interconnect everything and really make me feel something. These characters deserve that. (In the case of Captain America, the film simply won't work unless they find it.) The reason Spider-Man, Superman, even Iron Man have wormed their way into our hearts has a lot to do with being drop-dead cool, no doubt, but, even more so, I think, with making the kid inside of me wonder just what he's capable of accomplishing, too.