Iron Man was released to a pretty warm reception way back in 2008. People were looking forward to a decent mainstream comic-book movie after the disappointments of Spider-Man and of the final X-Men movie, and there was the added hook of Robert Downey Jr. bringing his own redemption story to that of Tony Stark. It all clicked pretty cleanly into a well-planned story with plenty of action and laughs for good measure, needless to say there were high expectations for the sequel.
Two years on and the comic-book movie landscape has changed considerably. The Dark Knight brought the modern comic-book era to the big screen with its intense look at the warped psychology of the hero and villain characters, a perspective that was taken even further when Watchmen was adapted to the big screen. This dark and complex world that has begun its transfer to cinemas to some extent neutralises the moral messages of older Marvel characters like Iron Man, where the issues are very much about Cold War dichotomies and battling your inner demons.
Kick-Ass issues a challenge of a different kind, and also some opportunities. Mark Millar and John Romita Jr. took all the comics they loved, tore them into shreds, made a collage out of them, then photographed the collage to make it into an iPhone app. Every issue is a loving parody and homage to the comic book conventions of the golden and silver ages, but with an ironic nod to the current generation: and that translated pretty damn well to the big screen. This threatens older franchises like Iron Man because it blows open all of its simple clockwork machinations, but also opens the door for it to play ironically on this itself.
The long-and-short of all this is that there’s a lot going on around the release of Iron Man 2, and I was very aware of and excited by this as I went into the screening.
The plot of the film was a little flabby. Without the neat redemption story of its predecessor, the film needed and emotional hook and plumped for the palladium poisoning plot: Stark’s arc reactor may be keeping him alive, but the element which powers it is slowly killing him. Meanwhile, jealous of a Stark legacy which he believes is rightly his father’s, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) builds himself one and manufactures an awesome suit which batters enemies with buzzing chords of energy; thus becoming Whiplash. Also in the background, the US military is keen to get hold of the Iron Man suit for the sake of national security, and the shady security organisation SHIELD is monitoring Stark for reasons unknown.
I won’t give away any more of the story, but suffice to say that despite some clunky moments it fits together fine in what ultimately is just a framework for some awesome action showpieces and some slick comedy banter. The ironic side of the superhero world is definitely taken on in this sequel, with Stark involved in all sorts of shenanigans that take a light-hearted jab at his playboy lifestyle, and at plenty of comic conventions. Highlights of the latter include his bizarre statement when powering up a new arc reactor that the energy field ‘tastes like coconut’ and using the suits to blow up a melon. The banter goes beyond the knowing (and occasionally smug) references to convention and provide some of the funniest moments I’ve seen all year, as a comedy alone Iron Man 2 is well worth watching.
Action-wise, there’s a lot more to see than in the first instalment. Mickey Rourke is given less screen time as Whiplash than Jeff Bridges was as Iron Monger, but when he’s there his insane suit provides some impressive stunts. The CGI is clumsy in places, by the overall effect of the weaponry is impressive, particularly when preceded by a spectacular battle with dozens of Iron Man style drones. There are battle scenes galore and they’re all infused with plenty of awesome fight choreography, big special effects and, of course, a load of one-liners.
The actors all deliver the kind of performances you’d expect, with Downey Jr. layering on the charm, Scarlett Johansson sexing it up and even delivering some great fight scenes, and Mickey Rourke smouldering as his menacing Russian alter-ego. The substitution of Terrence Howard with Don Cheadle is no big deal, in fact it’s probably a blessing in disguise, and we were all resigned to seeing Paltrow again so her presence is no big loss.
If anything, the biggest problem here is the overloading of the plot with sub-plots, and the intrusion of SHIELD, not to mention Captain America’s shield, are not really necessary. They just break up the action and the snappy banter a little too much for my taste.
But overall, it’s funny, it looks great and there’s plenty of excitement. All this should be good enough for any action junkie but, going back to my lengthy intro, there’s one aspect of Iron Man 2 that really deserves praise. Some critics may claim that the Iron Man films are simply dragging on a genre that’s redundant in the post-Dark Knight/Kick-Ass age, but my view is that it is rescuing an big part of the Marvel universe by emphasising its most imaginative and exciting elements, enhancing it’s fun side, and updating the old politics into a more relevant political backdrop. Good work guys…
This article was first posted on April 28, 2010