Monday, May 03, 2010

Of super sequels and Stark contrasts

Iron Man 2 has all the ingredients of a kick-ass superhero movie: charismatic actors, awesome special effects, high-octane action sequences, and enough witty wisecracks to keep things fun, but not too many as to diminish its credibility. Yes, credibility. After all, this film genre has been elevated to a level which even the snootiest movie critics have to take seriously, and in this critic's humble opinion, the Iron Man franchise has greatly contributed to this rise. 2008's Iron Man was one of the most impressive comic book-to-film adaptations I've ever seen, and as far as sequels go, Iron Man 2 is no slouch. However, it's no The Dark Knight, which totally eclipsed the already excellent Batman Begins, but more on that later.

I still find the first Iron Man film the superior one, primarily because I hadn't been expecting to be so wowed by Robert Downey Jr.'s pitch-perfect portrayal of Tony Stark as an arrogant but adorable armored protagonist, so the surprise added a lot to my appreciation of the movie. Also, whereas Iron Man had the luxury of falling back on the obligatory origin narrative, Iron Man 2 bears the burden of building on that back story, and unfortunately, the build-up didn't blow me away. Blame it on the weak plot more than anything, because the acting was faultless: RDJ was still terrific, and his chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow (Stark's secretary-turned-successor Pepper Potts) was still very good, AND I was gratified by the replacement of pipsqueak Terrence Howard with Don Cheadle to play Lt. Col. Rhodes/War Machine.
Moreover, I was prepared to detest Scarlett Johansson (who plays Stark's new assistant) as I've never been a fan of the overrated sexpot, but she was actually a good fit for this part. Ms. Johansson-- blessed with more looks than talent-- should really stick to roles where she's not required to do much beyond looking good in tight outfits. Playing the antagonists, Sam Rockwell (Stark's business rival Justin Hammer) and Mickey Rourke (murderous physicist Ivan Vanko/Whiplash) were both good, as expected, but their characters seemed a bit one-dimensional, mere foils for Stark/Iron Man, which brings me back to the weak plot.

There was just something a bit too predictable about the whole thing: unscrupulous business competitor (Hammer) enlists the aid of vengeful villain (Whiplash) to take down the hero (Stark/Iron Man), who is secretly struggling with something which leads to reckless behavior, endangering everything he's worked for, but thankfully his trusty sidekicks (Rhodes/War Machine and Pepper) come through for him. Been there, seen that. What kept things interesting for me though were the bits involving S.H.I.E.L.D. (and Nick Fury, played to the hilt by Samuel L. Jackson) and dropping hints of the future Avengers movie. I get the feeling Tony Stark/Iron Man will be an even more engaging personality when we see how an egomaniac like him operates within a group.

As I mentioned earlier, as a superhero sequel, Iron Man 2 is not of the same caliber as The Dark Knight. But it may also be unfair to compare them if only because the franchises are so different. To the uninitiated (*coughRachandTarincough*), Tony Stark may seem like a more flighty, flamboyant version of Bruce Wayne, and Iron Man a more colorful, chromey Batman. But as one of my viewing companions (comic book expert extraordinaire Gerard Poa) pointed out, while Batman is all about revenge, Iron Man is all about redemption. In addition, while billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne is the facade and the brooding Batman is the character's true persona, Tony Stark is Tony Stark, narcissistic smart-ass showboat that he is, and Iron Man serves as an extension and an expression of his "Starkness", as Gerry put it. Drawing from that contrast, I can say that the differences are quite evident in the movies: while Chris Nolan's Batman films are dark and cerebral, Jon Favreau's Iron Man movies are slick and explosive. And the latter is not necessarily bad, especially where the realm of superheros is concerned. Hell, it's bad-ass is what it is.

So bottom line is, although Iron Man 2 could have been better, it still rocked. And it still made me want and look forward to an Iron Man 3. But before that-- bring on Thor and Captain America!


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