Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Unbearable Heaviness of Armor

--or, random thoughts from my inner geek on Iron Man 2. (I know, I know--it's really my outer geek and my inner adult, but this is my inner child speaking, so bear with the little tyke.)

Dark, ain't it?

Dying is easy; sequels are hard. Origin stories are always more thrilling than continuity. This is why Spider-Man is being rebooted, X-Men is being re-booted, Bond was rebooted, and Batman was rebooted. The story of How I Became is also the story of Who I Am and Why It Matters, three things which sequels never have to deal with, because sequels are all about Who Wants Some. This is particularly true of Iron Man, most of whose comic book history can be summed up by the question, "Who are we going to put into a suit of armor to fight our boy this month?" Notable exceptions to that: the Michelinie/Slayton Demon In a Bottle run, which established Tony Stark as an alcoholic. Wisely, Jon Favreau and company have taken this run as a jumping-off point, and Iron Man 2 is not unlike their take on it. They even supply Stark with a valid reason to be drinking so much and partying like a rock star (ten points, guys), but they kind of forgot that the only way this doesn't make the audience go "Hey--what happened to that likable guy from the first movie?" is if you don't make drunk partying Tony Stark look like a total dickhead.

Tony Stark, total dickhead. For the first ten minutes of this movie, Tony Stark is an insufferable prick, and the problem is, Robert Downey Jr. is too good an actor to play a likable prick hero. (Sam Rockwell can do it in his sleep, but he's busy playing the likable prick villain in this movie.) Downey is going to write the book on prickitude, and he does, which is why the movie starts off with a sour tone that undercuts everything--the humor, the story, the concept--everything except the character. Which, if you're a comic book fan, makes this movie in some ways better than the first, because it dares to make you not like your hero. If you're a movie-goer? You're going to be off-balance from the beginning, and nobody is going to even attempt to get you back on your feet again, so you are going to have to bring something to this film that you don't normally associate with comic book movies: those DiCaprio glasses you wear when you're watching Leonardo DiCaprio play yet another unlikeable leading role. At times (especially the beginning) you get the sense that Downey just wandered in from a Scorsese movie, and he's torn between yanking the picture into the emotional pits and ad-libbing his clever little ass off. Which, if you were expecting a repeat of the first movie's thrill ride, is going to leave you more than a little disappointed, like almost every movie critic I've read so far. Mind you, these are the same critics who bemoan the cookie-cutter format of comic-book movies, which makes them just like your uncle who bitches that holiday dinners are always the same and then goes "What the hell is this supposed to be?" whenever you serve him something different.

Two for the price of one. Unless you watched it in IMAX.

The morning after. The first Iron Man was ultimately about the struggle for the ownership of a legacy corporation, with peripheral international subplots and action sequences. This one is about ownership of technology, which means the government gets involved (check), the Army gets involved (check), and foreign spies try to steal the tech for their government (sorry, that doesn't happen in this movie; but we do have a Russian villain--does that count?). In other words, we're still pretty much in the real world here, and real world rules operate. Bubbles get burst, euphoria becomes kakaphoria, people get up and go to work the morning after the party-to-end-all-parties, and actions have consequences. Especially actions that try to avoid consequences. In other words, welcome to the Obama Administration. Seriously. The high of hearing Tony Stark say "I am Iron Man" is exactly analogous to the high of watching the Obamas walking through the streets of Washington during the inauguration. In the real world, it does not get any better than that. In the real world, complications come a-knocking on your door the minute the last party-goer takes a cab home. In the real world, every benefit has a price. And the price in this movie is like a reversal of Nietzsche: what makes me stronger, kills me.

You slay me.

One on one. As in the first movie, the best scenes are the ones between characters who hide behind the armor of words, instead of the CGI stuff. And that includes everybody except Mickey Rourke, who only speaks when he has to. I would have liked to see more of him with Downey, frankly--their one non-armor scene is a brief but wonderful example of how one actor skates over the depths to reveal them and the other hunkers down in the pits and drags the depths up with him whenever he comes up for air. Most of Rourke's scenes are with Sam Rockwell, who doesn't skate over the depths so much as weave back and forth between all the holes in the ice without ever once falling in, like some lost Buster Keaton bit. What else? Giving Happy more to do is a plus, as is having Don Cheadle as Rhodie. But Paltrow's Pepper seems lost when she's not fencing with Downey, and the set-up of competition between her and Scarlett Johansson seems to have wound up on the cutting room floor (it goes from "Can't wait for this cat-fight!" to "Whatever happened to that cat-fight?"in the space of like three scenes). And the scenes with Samuel L. Jackson? Well, they point up something else about this movie that's a little off-putting if you're not a comic-book fan.

Look! It's Hit Girl! And she's all grown up!

Let's Do A Sequel Build The Shared Universe. A bunch of stuff that was set up in the first movie (like the Ten Rings group) doesn’t even show up in this one (unless you look really close at the guy who hands Mickey Rourke his ticket to Monaco). This is weird for a normal sequel, but not for this kind of sequel, which is not only about What Happens Next, but also What World We’re In. The upshot of all this universe-building? Tony Stark isn’t even the top dog in his own movie. Nick Fury is. This means valuable screen time which could have been used to, oh, flesh out the Pepper/Tony relationship, the Pepper/Natasha conflict, or the Pepper-as-CEO subplot, is used to set up the hierarchy of the Marvel Movie Universe. To most people this short-changing of Gwyneth Paltrow will feel like something that should only be included in the Deleted Scenes of the DVD, but because Marvel is, in a sense, making its current slate of movies into a mini-series, it’s necessary to set it up here, before the Thor movie and the Captain America movie and the Avengers movie. So the scenes between Stark and Fury are more than just a nod to the geeks in the audience, but they stick out like they were filmed after the movie was in the can, when the Powers That Be said, “Wait--we need more universe building!” Especially the last scene they have together. Check out the TV feed playing in Fury's office, and think back to that other Marvel movie that came out in the summer of '08.

One of several scenes in the trailer that ain't in the movie.

Why read a review when you know you're going to see it? And you should see it. Really. Is it fun? Hell, yes. Is it as much fun as the first one? No. But then how could it be? Is it more fun than Sherlock Holmes? Good question. Sherlock Holmes had Jude Law (ten points) but it also had Rachel McAdams (minus ten). This movie has more for its female characters to do (ten points) and Mickey Rourke as a badass (plus ten) and Sam Rockwell, who can do no wrong and never does as an actor (plus fifteen). So even if you subtract the universe building (minus ten), it still charts as more fun than Holmes.

Just remember to stay through the credits. You'll thank me come next summer.


Horvendile said...

And we'll all get hammered together.

amanda said...

OMG, I left 90% of the way thru the credits! dang it.

amanda said...

"seriously? I type that whole long review and that's all amanda has to say - that she's disappointed she left before the credits were over?"

Nice piece. I always love your reviews.

Molly said...

Very entertaining review, which i really needed today; hope the film lives up to it. The weekend will tell.