29 April 2010

Stark Contrast

As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments. That said, the Iron Man review will contain SPOILERS, because if you haven't seen the first one yet, I doubt you'd be here.

The Internet is abuzz with reviews of Iron Man 2, the definitive beginning of the 2010 summer blockbuster season. With such widespread interest in the sequel, there's only one thing your Mad Prophet could do, true believers. That's right- go back and review Iron Man. You know, because this blog started just shy of the opportune time to do a review of that film. Nah, there will be a quick snifter at Iron Man 2 as well, so sit back and enjoy a blog post that scrutinises the ongoing adventures of Tony Stark.
Iron Man begins with Tony Stark being ambushed by a terrorist group whilst in a military convoy in Afghanistan. He's a billionaire and genius, and his talents are understandably coveted by America's enemies. While in captivity, he pulls a Doc Brown by using the materials provided to create something much more awesome than he's meant to- in this case a mechanised suit of armour capable of dealing heavy firepower. Through these experiences, Tony's eyes are opened to the effects of his work, and when he returns to America, he vows to develop the armour and right his own wrongs as the titular superhero.

In the time since the film came out, Jeff "The Dude" Bridges has publicly decried Paramount's initial handling of the film, setting a release date and even starting shooting before they had a script or a cast locked down. In the same breath, he said that the film turned out as well as it did thanks to the improv skills of director Jon Favreau and leading man Robert Downey Jr. Certainly they make Iron Man the all-out riotous bit of fun blockbuster cinema that it is. You have to remember that Iron Man is no Superman or Spider-Man. With the upper tier characters spoken for, film studios are turning to lesser known characters, making this an unlikely hit when it originally came out.

Of course it's also the film that largely gave Downey the stardom he finally secured in the last few years. He earns every bit of it with his sardonic portrayal of Stark, making the audience like him from barely a minute after the film starts. Favreau wisely keeps him on screen for as long as possible, because in a superhero film where the alter-ego is entirely concealed by a suit of robot armour, there's little room for performance in major action sequences.

Save for a few ingenious finishing moves, there's little to show that Stark is Iron Man, resulting in a number of open-helmeted exchanges when he does don the suit. On which note, it's nice to see they partially employ practical effects for the suit, and that it's near impossible to tell the difference between the effects and the physical suit.
Also to be applauded is his chemistry with literally everyone on screen. He sparks off of Gwyneth Paltrow as his long-suffering assistant Pepper Potts without the film resorting to a traditional romantic conclusion. He mocks Terrence Howard's Colonel Rhodes without ever letting the audience lose sight of the fact that they're best friends. Downey is perfectly cast as Stark and is simply one of the best things about this film.

The plot rattles along wonderfully, especially considering they improvised much of it, and the only real problem stems from Iron Man being a second-tier Marvel hero. The first-tier heroes are often so well-known because they also have everyone's favourite villains. In Iron Man's case, his nemeses are more often bigger or more metal versions of himself- another guy in a suit.

Even if the action climax fizzles out, it picks up for one of the better final scenes of any modern blockbuster- a complete subversion of the angst around preserving a secret identity when you have superpowers. Tony telling the press "I am Iron Man" leaves the audience wanting more from the film from the second it cuts to the credits. And who could blame any audience? This is a witty, gloriously acted and hugely enjoyable film that stands up on repeat viewings and doesn't adhere too closely to superhero genre formula. Iron Man defies expectations by pleasing both comic fans and broad audiences, setting up both the origins of the character and some pretty intense anticipation for a follow-up.
It's that intense anticipation that threatens to overshadow Iron Man 2 for me. Beginning simultaneously with the first film's ending before skipping six months on, the sequel picks up with Tony being massively popular for the Iron Man brand and for "effectively privatising world peace." Opposition stirs within the US government, who want to replicate the armour for military usage, and across the globe, where a resentful Ivan Vanko plots vengeance on Tony. Whipping up an arc reactor of his own, Vanko embarks upon a mission to prove to the world that Iron Man is not indestructible...

On my first viewing? I don't think it's as good as the original. I wouldn't call it a disappointment, but it's just missing something. I will be seeing it again to check I wasn't compressing it under the weight of my expectations, but here's my review for now. The first hour or so is really pretty dull. The highlight, an fight scene at the Monaco Grand Prix, has been flogged to death in the marketing, and so has little impact in the context of the film. After a promising opening, it becomes bogged down in extended scenes of sub-poena hearings and corporate mix-ups, which is not what you want from a film called Iron Man 2.

After that second hour though, the film becomes preoccupied with selling the forthcoming Avengers film. The convergence of all the Marvel characters here takes up a sizable chunk of the second act, when I'd really much rather have seen a film solely about Iron Man. It wouldn't be fair to say it suffers from Spider-Man 3 Syndrome, but it does stretch itself massively to cover numerous plot points about SHIELD when giving proper focus to the narrative at hand would have been more satisfying. Despite the flab, it's a decent narrative with some strong action beats, but it seems divorced from the sense of fun that made Iron Man so good.
Of the cast, I can't really declare any faults. Downey is once again superb as Tony, becoming ever more isolated as the tide of opinion turns against him, but special mention should go to Sam Rockwell. Assess your wants and needs, and I guarantee you there is nothing you want as much as Justin Hammer wants to be Tony Stark. He's an incompetent shadow to Tony's genius and Rockwell knocks it out of the park completely in every scene he's in. Don Cheadle makes a better Rhodey-cum-War Machine than his predecessor Terrence Howard right from the off, and Mickey Rourke proves an interesting casting decision, playing Vanko. His righteous anger is pretty much the length and breadth of his character, but Rourke sells it well, proving a threatening screen presence throughout.

Downey has always been fast-talking as Tony, often speaking at the same time as an equally flustered and garbled Gwyneth Paltrow, but it really jars this time around in the early instances of their dialogue together. If there's one character who's perfectly legible and well-covered throughout, it's Happy Hogan, played by... director Jon Favreau. Expanding a cameo from the first film, he gets lots of dialogue in this one, gets involved in action scenes and at one point is pinioned between Scarlett Johansson's legs. If you have to do a cameo, make it more like Hitchcock and less like Shyamalan. I do have to wonder where director Jon Favreau's head was this time around, other than locked between ScarJo's thighs in that one scene.

Is Iron Man 2 solidly entertaining? Ultimately, yes, but it's not a patch on the first one. The unconventional ending of the first film is countered with a bog-standard denouement for two certain characters and a final scene that's kind of copied from the ending to one of the Star Wars films. And just prior to those scenes, we have a villain face-off similar to the end of Iron Man- as mentioned earlier, his opponents are invariably other robots, and that's the case here. I'll hand it to Favreau though, it still seems fresh if not entirely as enjoyable as what's gone before. And it held my attention throughout, so it's visually top-notch even if the meat in the story is a little thin at the outset.
It's funny really, how Iron Man proved a winning formula with little planning and a largely improvised production and this one didn't. The signs of aforethought are all too clear in Iron Man 2, and the half-hearted attempt to recapture that formula turns it into just that- a formula. There aren't many original thrills, but it has a better cast giving better performances than many other films you'll see this summer. Thankfully it hasn't attempted to stray into the intangible territory of "darkness" that many Hollywood sequels try to broach, but sadly it doesn't really try anything else new either.
With the caveat that I may well be kinder to the sequel on a second viewing, let me know what you think of the Iron Man films with a comment below!

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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