Somewhere in Iron Man 2 lies a compelling drama about a larger-than-life industrialist turned super-hero struggling with his all too humbling mortality. Unfortunately, to find it, you’ll have to sift through just under an hour’s worth of thinly veiled adverts for Joss Whedon’s The Avengers (2012). Now, I’m all for a shared Marvel universe at the movies, but I draw the line at greedy producers tricking me into coughing up my hard-earned cash to watch an extended trailer for a different flick than the one I paid to see.
It’s too bad because Iron Man 2 starts off strong with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) at his most reckless, holding an extravagant company expo not unlike Apollo’s showboating in Rocky IV (1985) and then quipping that he’s “successfully privatised world peace” at a government hearing. We sense in his bravado a certain desperation, one best expressed when, upon learning that his nuclear heart has poisoned over half his body, our hero stares into a mirror and asks, “Got any bad ideas?” In most films, protagonists who find out they’re dying become consumed with remorse, but not Tony. He loves life so much he just wants to cram as much of it as possible into whatever time he’s got left. I find that romantic.
I also like how our hero settles his affairs, give or take one “idiot plot” involving his inability to tell Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) why he’s suddenly appointed her CEO of Stark Industries. One can never tell how much of his idiosyncratic behaviour fits into a grander design and how much of it he’s winging. Consider the rock-‘em-sock-‘em bout with his best bud, Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes, now portrayed by Don Cheadle. How did Rhodey manage to get past his security systems and don the War Machine armor? Doesn’t it seem a convenient way to ensure Iron Man lives on without sharing the technology with the military? Leave it to Tony to execute his own will and testament with a drink or three in his hand and a big fat smile on his face.
To contrast our hero’s exuberant approach to existence, Iron Man 2 presents two antagonists who’ve wasted their lives in pursuit of a legacy that doesn’t belong to them: Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), an insecure arms dealer desperate to become the next Tony Stark, and Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), who believes the design for Iron Man’s heart was stolen from his father. The latter’s resentment leads to a fantastic confrontation on an F1 racing track, where Tony must defend himself against two nuclear whips while Pepper and Happy (Jon Favreau) race against traffic to bring their boss his armor. It’s arguably the best set piece in the movie, even though it takes place in the first act.
As he did with the original Iron Man (2008), director Jon Favreau still has trouble pacing an action flick. I’m a strong proponent of escalation in blockbuster cinema: as with sex, the tension should keep rising until the big, climactic explosion. In terms of its stunts and special effects, Iron Man 2 just sort of fizzles out mid thrust (frustrating, right?). We get a few clever conceits, such as Rhodey feeding Tony his aerial coordinates while forced to hunt down his friend, but then the final big bad shows up and collapses less than a minute later. Boo.
My main qualm, though, lies in Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and SHIELD usurping the narrative at the halfway mark. Suddenly, Iron Man 2 becomes cluttered with extended cameos, like that of the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and thematically irrelevant exposition about the role our hero’s father (John Slattery) played in the wider Marvel universe. It seems to me that the notion of legacy fits the Avengers better than Iron Man, who stands out from other super-heroes for always living in the present. More to the point, involving Howard Stark in the creation of the arc reactor robs Tony of his appeal as a spiritually self-made man who rebuilt his own defective heart.
I guess what it comes down to is that Iron Man 2 comprises two incomplete super-hero flicks vying for our attention: the character piece I wanted to see about Tony confronting his own earthly limitations and a SHIELD team-up romp I didn’t expect but might have appreciated if Favreau and screenwriter Justin Theroux had fully committed to it. Needless to say, the film amounts to less than the sum of its parts. However, it never outright betrays the hero or his established universe, leaving us eager for his next adventure. I remember a time in the nineties when comic books were in a similar state of perpetual wallet-gouging crossover. Shortly after, Marvel fell into bankruptcy, but Iron Man lived on.