Theatrical review: Iron Man 2

The first major blockbuster of the summer season… and the first major disappointment


Released: 30 April
Director: Jon Favreau
Screenwriters: Justin Theroux
Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell, Don Cheadle
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Running Time: 124 mins

Well that didn’t last long. It might have been some way short of stellar but the first Iron Man was a smart opening gambit from Marvel Studios, nicely buffing expectations for the blockbusters to follow, the sequel to Tony Stark’s origin story included. But with the follow-up to Marvel’s maiden adventure finally with us, hopes have been crushed like so many buildings in the film’s sterile climactic battle.

The popcorn picks up where the last bucket left off, with Stark now a hero to the US and a champion of world peace. To celebrate he’s holding a year-long tech-show shindig that makes Steve Jobs’ presentations look like airport hotel seminars. Meanwhile, the US Senate is requesting he turns in his suit’s blueprints to protect his country from other robot-shaped threats. Meanwhile, an evil genius, Whiplash, is plotting to humiliate Stark, avenging his father’s Howard Stark-influenced deportation. Meanwhile, Justin Hammer, friend of the US Senate, is plotting ways to make a buck by beating Stark at his own super-suit game. Meanwhile, with their romance simmering in the background, Stark decides to promote Pepper Potts to CEO of Stark Industries, which also sees the introduction of Natalie Rushman, who turns out to be a spy for SHIELD and none other than Natasha Romanov aka The Black Widow. Meanwhile, Stark is hiding a life-threatening condition brought about by his recently-toxic reactor-heart… By now we’re sure we’ve made our point – Iron Man 2 simply has far too much going on. With so much story it struggles to have any real sense of direction, purpose or, most crucially, drama, with narrative focus shoved aside in favour of merchandise opportunities and noise. Individually the scenes might be passable enough, more often than not aiming for the quick wit and easy tone of the first film, but together they are an incoherent mess, anxious to please fanboys, hardware nuts and the Saturday night crowd alike. Burdened with so many distractions, even the Downey Jr-shaped charisma that fuelled the first movie’s propulsion into the superhero stratosphere is choked. And to think we didn’t even mention War Machine, Nick Fury, Stark Snr’s oddly prescient legacy, the creation of a new element and Whiplash and Hammer’s depressingly-predictable partnership.

Whereas the first Iron Man felt like a short boost away from our world in terms of possibility, the sequel seems to be three or four, presenting a cartoon reality that’s much harder to invest in or engage with. In this sense it’s a much more preposterous film than it should be, and furthermore it’s one that plays everything for laughs at any given opportunity – even Captain America’s shield becomes the butt of an unnecessary joke. Seemingly every single action scene in the film, of which there aren’t many, is littered with gags, undermining any tension and consequently underwhelming. As well, it’s yet another summer blockbuster that completely fails to convince the audience that its hero is ever in any real danger. Even an unsuited Tony on a devastated Monaco race track against a determined Whiplash and amid a fireballing wreckage never feels less than utterly safe. Presumably it never occurred to anyone that an invincible Iron Man might also be a boring one.

And it’s perhaps with Iron Man himself that the long-term  problem lies. This is a character who isn’t blessed with great villains, or at least not in the same way Spider-Man or Batman are. It’s a point punctuated by the final alloy-flavoured fisticuffs, which sees Iron Man fight an opponent that could quite easily have been replaced by the last film’s Iron Monger. It too frequently seems that Iron Man’s battles could simply be replaced with a scene featuring Stark and his opponent measuring their respective suit’s RAM, with a glance towards their supporting company’s share prices, before shaking hands and agreeing that Stark does in fact have the superior suit; the outcomes are tediously predictable and as cold as Stark’s outer-shell. Too, although there might be plenty of superpowers, there is a distinct absence of superheroics, the kind that saw Spider-Man stop a train or Bruce Wayne sacrifice his life for the good of Gotham at the end of The Dark Knight. The very nature of Iron Man struggles to allow for Stark to overcome the odds – he wins because he’s the favourite – and without this allowance the great moments, the moments that really make us cheer, are tragically non-existent. For the series’ fortunes to improve it will have to address the inherent problems with its hero and rely on an innovation that even the formidable Stark would strain to conceive.

There is still hope that Marvel can make its mark on cinema but it can only do so if it keeps its ambition in check and stays focused on making quality films instead of profitable franchises. For Iron Man 2, the emphasis was clearly on the latter and we’re all poorer for it.