Overstuffed, top-heavy sequel arrives on DVD and Blu-Ray September 28.
If sequels to successful films rarely live up to their fan bases’ expectations, then sequels to films that surprised audiences have twice as much work cut out for them. The surprise of discovery and the thrill of infatuation clear away, and the hard work of earning an audience’s respect – while justifying their initial enthusiasm – settles over the sequel like a heavy cloth from which the story has to emerge.
The first Iron Man surprised almost everyone a couple of years ago by presenting better entertainment than even fans of the Marvel Comics superhero likely anticipated. Its sequel, arriving barely two years later into theatres but atop a crest of eager audience expectation, feels rushed and over-reaching for much of its wall-to-wall, action-packed proceedings. Luckily an enviable ensemble of actors, including most especially Robert Downey, Jr., work to keep the whole project from dissolving into noise and chaos. But it takes their combined efforts, and they succeed just barely.
Following Tony Stark’s (Downey, Jr.) revelation to the world that he is in fact the armored hero, his use of the suit has rankled his competitors and lawmakers alike, especially his bumbling rival Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) and a pompous senator (Garry Shandling) who would like the armor’s secrets for, respectively, themselves and for the government. But the maverick Stark ain’t having it, insisting he has “successfully privatized world peace” and that he serves the people at his own pleasure. “You can always count on me to pleasure myself,” he quips.
But pride goeth before a fall, and when Russian physicist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) attacks Stark during the Monaco Grand Prix, it sets off a domino chain of events that crash Stark’s world down around him. “All I have to do is sit here and watch,” Vankdo taunts from a jail cell, “as the world will consume you.” Hammer later recruits him to perfect his own flawed armor technology, while the U.S. military exerts increasing pressure through Stark’s buddy Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard) to cooperate with their own agendas. Making matters worse, the palladium that powers the reactor in Stark’s chest is slowly poisoning his blood, provoking increasingly erratic and self-indulgent behavior that alienates him from Rhodes as well as secretary/love interest Pepper Pots (Gwyneth Paltrow).
Relief and assistance come from directions both expected but welcome and unexpected and disappointing. The spies of SHIELD, led by the eyepatch-wearing Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) have the means to treat the blood poisoning but want Stark’s cooperation in their own efforts; to that end, they’ve had a sexy agent (Scarlett Johansson) posing as a legal assistant within his company for weeks. Stark also learns his father Howard (John Slattery) was a founding member of the organization, and that an old filmstrip contains the aloof elder Stark’s vision for his son’s greatness and salvation. At this point the film comes closest to coming completely off the rails: to see the individualist Stark reduced to daddy issues, and to have a solution handed to him, is probably the film’s greatest and cheapest fault.
All of this and more is compressed into a two-hour runtime, with the result that the script often bulges at its seams. The first hour is a flurry of exposition and explanation that sometimes loses its coherence, and for audiences not already well-steeped in the comic mythology the confusion is likely to be compounded. The translation from comic book to screen is almost never without a few bumps, but here a persistent sense of something going unsaid, something taken for granted, permeates the characters’ dialogue and interaction. Little is done with the new characters to establish their connections to one another, save for some brief explanation by way of tossed-off speech. Typically, that speech is Stark making a wise crack about them.
The hurried sense of chaos unfortunately takes its toll on the performers. Rourke’s casting was heavily publicized, but his role remains opaque and largely devoid of nuance. He’s a bad guy, evil and driven by revenge, with little else complicating him. For as entertaining as Cheadle and Johansson are in their parts, there’s no compelling reason for their participation except that their characters are mainstays of the source comic; in a telling sign, none of the new characters are ever called by their comic code names: Stark dubs Cheadle “War Machine” out of context, Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff is never referred to as “The Black Widow,” Vanko is never called “Whiplash.” To be fair, Johansson’s fight sequences have an exciting fluidity in contrast to the high-tech armor everywhere else while Cheadle, the consummate actor’s actor, manages to seem completely at home in what’s essentially a fighter jet worn as a suit.
Rockwell does his best with an underwritten part, but Hammer is too self-sabotaguing to ever seem a credible threat to Stark’s genius; if ever a villain performance actually needed more mustache twirling, this may be the case. John Slattery plays Howard Stark as an unmistakable riff on Walt Disney in the 1960′s, when the animator had turned his energies towards a utopian futurism that likely seemed naive even then. (It’s a weird counterpoint to his normal role as the cynical Roger Sterling of Mad Men.) Of the returning characters, Downey Jr. is excellent yet again, building on Stark’s less endearing qualities while undercutting them with vulnerabilities and needs he has no idea how to express. Paltrow is exactly the same as she was last time, no more and no less; Jackson is fine but looks somewhat less than convincing marching around in a leather trench coat and riding boots in broad daylight.
The Marvel Universe is nothing if not interconnected, and all the superfluous characters and story threads piled over one another are all leading to 2012′s The Avengers. Like last time, fans will want to stick around after the credits for a brief scene that teases the ongoing build-up to that film. In the meantime, this flm feels too rushed, too ambitious, and preoccupied to match the giddy revelation of its predecessor. But it’s still entertaining thanks primarily to what was right with the first film, even while introducing some new elements that stand on their own. It’s an above average sequel to a superior action film, not great but pretty good, moving the ongoing story forward while only sacrificing some momentum.
- Michael Kabel