Although I grew up a comic book fan, I was never an Iron Man reader. I knew all the main points about him from the Avengers and various team ups, but I was never really interested in a rich guy with a drinking problem that flew around and fought Commies during the Cold War. Iron Man didn’t have the villains that Batman had, he didn’t have the humor that Spiderman had, or the cool universe that the X-Men lived in. He was mediocre at best.
The comic book movie genre has been like an abused puppy that has taken so much crap, that even the smallest acts of mercy resonate. Many an adapted movie was judged not on whether it was good or not, but rather on how little it sucked. If it wasn’t too terrible, it was graded on a curve, and was generally considered passable- look at 2003’s Daredevil. The movie was terrible in many ways- the acting was ridiculous and the roles were badly cast, the music was awful, and the whole thing felt like execs from MTV were quietly making suggestions on how to make it more “hip”. But it had a good story based on Frank Miller’s excellent run on the comic, so it was ok.
On the other hand you have movies like Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin, a movie so bad that it seemed to be a test- a psychological experiment of sorts- to see how far comic book fans could be pushed before they snapped. The character of Batman is a gritty urban warrior, tortured by personal demons that lead him to take justice into his own hands in order to make the world a better place. Schumacher gave him nipples and ice skates and sent him after villains that should have tasted the sweet relief of a sniper bullet in the first 12 seconds of their appearance – and saved us the time. Anyone involved with the decision to add nipples to the bat-suit should never be allowed near another genre movie. Ever. Under penalty of death.
Comic book and genre fans in general are fiercely loyal to the source material. They don’t need Shakespearean depth, they just need a certain level of respect for the material that helped shape them from childhood to the present. Is that so much to ask? Is it really that hard to make a comic book movie and not immediately fall into a series of horrible puns? Yeah, you are called Ghost Rider and your head is on fire- we get it, we don’t need to hear a fire joke inserted into every piece of dialogue. It doesn’t make fans laugh, it just makes them irritated and convinces them that the filmmakers don’t get it. Yeah Sam Raimi, we get that you don’t like Venom, but really- dancing emo Spidey? Really? Just because the material is from comic books does not mean that it should be written for an exclusively 12-year-old audience.
So when a movie- or a series of movies- like Iron Man comes along, we hope for the best, but are prepared for the worst. Perhaps that means that things that might otherwise draw criticism get a pass. The sequel has a few flaws, but overall it is treated with respect, and handled with care by talented filmmakers that seem to really want to do their absolute best- not just for the fans to avoid their ire and milk them for the box office cash, but also to legitimize the story and prove that the genre has as much merit as any.
When the original movie was released, I was cautiously optimistic because of the people involved, but I was prepared for the worst. I left the original movie both impressed and appreciative of the character. The origin story ate up more time than I would have liked, but that was not surprising for an introductory movie. So when the sequel was announced, I expected big things.
For the second movie, I wanted more than the first. I wanted to believe that a dude in an iron suit could fly around, and would inevitably get into some incredible fight where everything nearby exploded, even things that aren’t in any way combustible, like bicycles and trees. As long as the explosion looked good and the story had me interested, physics be damned. I wanted action, I wanted characters I liked, and most of all, I really really hoped that it would not suck and potentially ruin The Avengers.
I am happy to say that I was not disappointed.
Iron Man 2 is a movie that fulfills all the requirements of a Hollywood summer blockbuster sequel. It is flashy, the women are beautiful, the effects are impressive, and stuff blows up real pretty. What sets these movies apart from many others is the level of care the sequel and the original both adhere to. The actors, director, and all involved ground these movies in a sense of realism that keeps the more impossible parts of the movie realistic.
There is a level of class to this story despite the comic book origins, and despite that it is a summer blockbuster movie. There are- just for example- no giant robots with huge metal testicles that clang around and make you wonder how many people were high, and what drugs they were on, when they approved those type of scenes.
First, the good. The quality of the movie remains consistently high. Favreau is a good director that competently works in a mix of effects and live action pieces with just the right amount of character work to keep us engaged and never bored. He also keeps the movie going at a pace that the audience never has to stop and think about plot holes too much (and there are a few, but none are truly major). The special effects are also just as good as you would expect from a sequel with a big budget.
Robert Downey Jr. simply chews up the screen every time he is on it. Mickey Rourke as the villain Ivan Vanko disappears in the role and you quickly forget exactly who it is that you are watching on screen. Sam Rockwell, Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, and Samuel L. Jackson all turn in solid performances too. Scarlet Johansson… well, she looks good. Her role is fairly small and under used, so much so that I assume her Black Widow will be back for the Avengers. She does a fine job with what she is given. If there had been any bad acting jobs in this movie, they would have stood out quickly.
The movie is simply fun. Tony Stark is free of the dark and gritty world that Bruce Wayne lives in, and he is not weighed down by the responsibilities that haunt Spiderman. He is a guy in a suit that is a superhero because he loves being a superhero. A new subplot shows Stark wanting to do more for the world and his own legacy, but for the most part, he is a guy in a high tech suit that can do pretty much anything he wants, and he does. Stark has fun being himself, and that is a refreshing twist in the dark and broody world of superheroes.
The biggest issue with this movie is a minor one, but it is one that the original shared. The villains in both movies are somewhat ambiguous in their morality. If you only knew the Tony Stark character from how the world might see him- as an irresponsible, drunken womanizer with the power to level cities at a whim, you might actually be rooting for the bad guys. There is never a scene when you consider the villains to be “eeeeeeevil”. They never stop to kick a puppy or anything that makes the audience eagerly wait for their inevitable ass kicking, and their reasoning for attacking Stark is usually understandable, even if it is not justifiable. It is only through Robert Downey’s performance, and the fact that we know Tony Stark has a heart-of-gold that causes us to root for him. In both movies, the climatic end fight is more of a personal battle between Stark and the villains than a save-the-day affair. That isn’t a big deal, but it makes the victory for the good guys a bit hollow. In both movies the end fight seems a bit rushed as well. Maybe that is just a result of the lack of build up between the hero and the villain, but the final fights were over very quickly, and with a minimum of fuss.
Iron Man will not win over any converts that hate the superhero genre, nor will it steal money from the art house crowd. For everyone else, it is an entertaining two hours and a fun summer blockbuster movie that should keep the momentum going for Thor and Captain America next summer, then the Avengers the summer after. Iron Man 2 is a good movie that does exactly what it sets out to do. The acting is solid, the story is good, and the movie looks great. Buy your popcorn, sit back and enjoy.