IRON MAN 2 (2010, directed by Jon Favreau, 124 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
Much of the thrill that greeted the arrival of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man two years ago stemmed from the surprise that it wasn’t another Marvel disaster like Ghost Rider or Daredevil, two wannabe blockbusters that seemed to signal a creeping exhaustion in the unstoppable super hero genre. There’s nothing in Iron Man 2 to replace the surprise of Robert Downey’s smarmy charm finding a perfect fit in that gleaming red and gold suit, but if this sequel is distressingly short on imagination it still delivers enough firepower to keep villainous disappointment at bay.
The best thing about these Marvel films is that they’ve sided with actors over stars. Where the 90’s Batman films floundered by shoe-horning box-office giants like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jim Carrey into their nemesis roles, Iron Man 2 has wisely cast resurgent weirdo Mickey Rourke as the mad scientist Ivan Vanko, son of an exiled Russian who worked with Tony Stark’s father on Iron Man’s proto-designs before being banished back to the U.S.S.R. Tony Stark told the world he was Iron Man at the end of the first film, and as he shows off at a televised World’s Fair-style event displaying Stark Industry’s technology, Vanko watches in Siberia planning revenge. It is amazing the Rourke has been able to find so many roles in recent years that can hold both his over-sized presence and his meat-grinder face. The film is never more fun as when Rourke is on screen, mumbling in Russian with a cockatoo on his shoulder or unleashing his laser whip, which he does in the film’s action highlight, attacking Stark during a formula one race in Monaco.
Favreau would have been wise to pare the movie down into a series of confrontations with Vanko that would have wrapped the film up in a tidy ninety minutes. But no, Iron Man 2 has to serve its purpose as a franchise tent pole, not only taking care of it own plot but taking needless detours to set up future vehicles for Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and the unseen but referenced Thor (already in production starring the unknown Chris Hemsworth). It takes about a half-hour of screen time to cater to these sub-plots and it is that half-hour that drags on the film’s momentum in the second half.
Shorn of all that extra baggage and you’re left with Downey’s still impossibly charming turn as Stark. It’s real movie magic that makes this character work; truly, does anyone think that we should turn over our nation’s defense to the independent defense contractors of the world’ Gary Shandling, looking puffy and unhealthy, is presented as a meddling senator who dares question the arrogant Stark’s power and the film seems to embrace the free market idea that Stark has the best ideas so we should just privatize our defenses over to him. Favreau’s worldview is that no one in his audience has much faith left in our democratic government to complain, and I doubt he is gambling that one hundred and some million unwisely. It’s just part of a conservatism that creeps up, bathed in irony, repeatedly in the film; whether we’re talking about Stark’s Hugh Hefner-style sexism (Gwyneth Paltrow does her part by screaming and waiting for Iron Man to rescue her), a brief dig at hippies or the Stars and Stripes that wave proudly behind a number of scenes, Iron Man 2 is going to do nothing to alienate its Red State audiences.
All this drooling over weaponry somehow finds its balance in Downey’s performance, as the palladium power source he puts in his chest is slowly killing him, represented by the blue veins slowly creeping up his neck and toward his brain. Over his career, Downey has often hinted at a kernel of insecurity beneath his cocky bluster and watching him sweat as death slowly stalks him supplies a humanity to offset all the explosions, CGI and spurious plot detours. Defeated in their first battle, Rourke’s Vanko continues to smile, “If you could make God bleed, people will cease to believe in Him.” Iron Man may stand for all that is strong and good about American power but it is that hint of insecurity that keeps him from being insufferably jingoistic.