Monday, May 17, 2010

A Frank Review of "Iron Man 2: The IMAX Experience" (2010)

The Short Version? Iron. Man. Two.
What Is It? Super-Hero Flick.
Who Is In It? The Pick-Up Artist. Shakespeare's Love. Woody Allen's masturbation fantasy. The Wrestler. Chuck Barris.
Should I See It? Yes.

I figured my girlfriend ought to see the first Iron Man movie before we caught the sequel, and she fell hard for the charisma, the cars, and the engineering geekery of that initial outing. We were both hella busy for the week afterward, so I called my Iron Man fan buddy to see if we could hold off on a screening until the sequel’s second weekend of release. In the meantime, I skimmed reviews, carefully avoiding spoilers, and determined the consensus was that Iron Man 2 was too busy and came up short of the original’s charm.

This is a constant issue with super-hero movies, falling under studio and licensor pressure for bigger, better, faster and more. It made me think that one of these days, a sophomore effort should buck the trend by embracing it. Make an episodic movie, broken up into half hour or so segments, spotlighting new characters. Instead of trying to give a villain an arc, give their origin(s,) then lead them directly to their one round defeat by the hero. You could almost do it as a concept piece, giving sections off to different directors and letting them make their own mini-movies with the super-heroic lead as a linking device. Iron Man could be the Keyser Soze of a film structured like Pulp Fiction with a group of former Soviet villains training for a segment, and maybe one of the Titanium Men buying it at the end. In the meantime, you could set up the Gremlin, Red Guardian, Crimson Dynamo, another TM or whatever for a sequel that could get straight to the story, as the set-up was already out of the way. Black Widow couldn’t support a whole movie, but give her and Hawkeye a segment where she steals plans for an Iron Man armor while seducing Hawkeye to pit his low tech archery against weak points discovered in the armor. It worked in Vietnam, its working in the desert wars, it’s how Stan Lee did it, and how a movie could do it again. Give the audience a series of smaller pay-offs, send them home happy, and then really own them come installment number three.

Well, Iron Man 2 didn’t do that. The main story is that the device that keeps Tony Stark alive is fairly rapidly poisoning him, so he’s got to find a cure. Unfortunately, he’s distracted by seventeen subplots that keep the movie from being about anything but set pieces and characters. Fortunately, those set pieces are fairly well constructed and diverse, as are most of the characters, so the movie manages to coast on those charms. Still, there are areas where the flick tries to be sober, but the gravitas isn’t there, and the relationships aren’t as strong this time out. This is the thinking man’s stupid popcorn movie, clever enough not to offend, and entertaining so long as you don’t pause to analyze anything.

I don’t need to tell you Robert Downey Jr. is awesome, so we’ll skip that. Gwyneth Paltrow isn’t as enjoyable this time, as she’s forced into a role of such great responsibility that she has no time to flirt while cleaning up Tony Stark’s increasingly messy leavings. Sam Jackson’s looking a little pudgy as Nick Fury, but he’s having fun, and it was cool that both of Stark’s main bromances of the film were with brothers.

Jeff Bridges was so powerful as Obadiah Stane, that attempting to compete with him would be madness. There was a familial intimacy between Stane and Stark that couldn’t be replicated, and I loved how his firm hand on Tony’s shoulder usually mean his other paw was up the ass, working him like a puppet. In retrospect, there was a lot of Justin Hammer, the mafia don of technophiles, in Bridges’ Stane, so what did that leave Sam Rockwell? Well, this is Justin Hammer in name only, truly a poseur Tony Stark motivated by jealousy to overtake the real deal. Regardless, Rockwell steals every scene he’s in, partially because of his character’s awareness of when he falls short of the mark, whereas Downey’s Stark sometimes overestimates himself to the point of teasing an audience backlash. I love RDJ, but he’s not quite as cool as Stark is supposed to be, and Rockwell’s intentional posturing almost comes off as a mockery of RDJ’s arrogance as Stark.

Meanwhile, Mickey Rourke’s physical presence may be bigger than Bridges’, but his screen presence is running at an unusually low wattage here. Usually, you don’t so much cast Rourke as unleash him in a role, but it feels like the lion’s share of his eccentricities were left on the cutting room floor. His Whiplash has moments, but never fully comes across as a threat, and has too few scenes to play of Downey.

I’ve come to appreciate Terrence Howard’s performance in the first film, but had he returned, Rhodey’s strained relationship with Stark would have come off more as quarreling lovers than friends. Blessedly, Don Cheadle has the stones to pull off acting as a War Machine, and is the best black super-hero the silver screen has seen after Blade. I do wish Cheadle would rock a goatee, though, but he has good tension with Downey, and I hope he gets to continue strutting into the Avengers movie.

The one unforgivable weak link in the picture is Scarlett Johansson, a performer so poor even Paltrow, one of the least worthy Academy Award winning actresses in recent memory, can run circles around her. Johansson has no range whatsoever, and even her face seems mostly frozen in sex doll mode. She’s about the worst reasonable choice to play Natasha Romanov, but her character is sort of a mash-up with Bethany Cabe anyway, though her personality vacuum means this is inferred more by her hair and how she’s positioned at Stark Industries than anything else. Things only get worse when the Black Widow suits up for battle, by which I mean a totally unconvincing Johansson awkwardly assuming positions intercut with a blatantly obvious stunt double. An effervescent Russian secret agent with a gymnast's body who can bring the kung-fu grip? Milla Jovovich was born to play this role, but barring that, any random Soviet Bloc model could have made a more lasting and legitimate impression, no acting experience necessary. Thankfully, Johansson’s prominence was massively overplayed in the advertising, as her role is both small and undemanding.

Finally, at my friend's insistence, we saw this in the best "IMAX" theater in town, but seeing as the picture wasn't shot in IMAX, it was a wasted expense. Unless you're seated middle center, and we weren't, you're only going to strain yourself unnecessarily to see the whole screen. I'm glad Favreau isn't a flashy director, because it was only during the most rapidly cut scenes I couldn't forget the IMAX and avoid eye irritation.

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