Watching Iron Man 2, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that I was looking at a test run for Marvel Studios’ long-gestating, star-studded superfilm The Avengers, currently on track to hit theaters in 2012. That film, if all goes according to plan, will feature an all-star lineup of superheroes, sidekicks and villains, including the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Nick Fury, Black Widow, Ant-Man (yes, Ant-Man), War Machine, Hawkeye and Loki. For those scoring at home, that makes it Joss Whedon’s task (assuming he does accept the job, and if Marvel Studios is at all intelligent they will make him a Godfather offer ASAP) to find ample screen time in a 2, 2 1/2 hour film for Edward Norton, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johannson, Nathan Fillion (strong rumors), Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner (rumored) and Tom Hiddleston, AT LEAST.
If Whedon does take that job, I imagine he’ll take a long look at Iron Man 2, which faces the similar problem of possibly having just too much acting talent. I mean, on top of Downey Jr., Cheadle, and Johannson, here you’ve also got Sam Rockwell, Gwyneth Paltrow and Mickey Rourke, not to mention director Jon Favreau himself stepping in. I won’t say the ensemble is at the top of their game, since I’m pretty sure that would require a script far beyond what Justin Theroux offered them (not particularly a dig at Theroux, understand; it’s not like anyone was asking him to write the next Citizen Kane). But, all of the actors are clearly trying to make the best out of their limited material; no one here is openly condescending toward the superhero genre, anyway. So, if you’re Favreau, how do you find a balance? Oh, keep in mind that you’ve got a special effects budget bigger than Sarah Palin’s war chest and are expected to pump in as much exploding stuff as possible.
You can’t help but wonder what we would get if Favreau didn’t have those last requirements hanging over his head, but this IS summer movie season, after all, and audiences expect a certain amount of CGI to go with their witty banter. Favreau found that balance in the first Iron Man movie two years ago, a memorable romp anchored (like last year’s Star Trek) by a talented acting ensemble that took its job seriously, but not too much so. When you get right down to it, Iron Man 2 is pretty much exactly the same: it avoids getting bogged down by too many villains (as in Spider-Man 3), lets Downey Jr. do his quick-talking, devil-may-care genius bit, and provides some clever enough action set-pieces. In the end, that’s the major problem: in an attempt to give his audience more of what they enjoyed in the first film, Favreau doesn’t really step out of the box at all, giving the film the staleness of…well, a sequel.
I could give you a summary of the plot, talk about how Tony Stark, formally outed to the world at the end of the first film as Iron Man, struggles with a pissed-off U.S. Congress, a pissed-off Russian genius/bird enthusiast (Rourke), a pissed-off and overworked personal assistant (Paltrow), a pissed-off best friend (Cheadle), a pissed-off secret government agency (represented by Jackson) and a pissed-off competitor in the arms industry (Rockwell). It’s all your pretty standard superhero-film narrative, though, excuses to move on to the next bout of loud exploding things.
So, what still separates Iron Man 2 from many of its peers in the genre, in case I haven’t made it clear, is the acting. The banter between Downey Jr. and Paltrow is certainly the film’s high point, with the two bickering back and forth, their dialogue overlapping almost in the style of a Robert Altman film (I assume that a fair bit of these sequences was improvised). Rockwell plays the cowardly, pompous weasel Justin Hammer to a T, and Rourke sneers and mumbles incoherently amidst the snowfall of an eternal Cold War Russia, like a villain from the glory days of James Bond films past (though perhaps his best moment was robbed from any viewer without a knowledge of the Russian language; at one point, as Hammer berates Rourke’s character Ivan Vanko, a viewer might catch Rourke mutter something that sounds like “Slishkom mnoga govarish” – translated from Russian, this phrase means “You talk too much”). Scarlett Johannson’s acting does nothing to add or detract from the film, but I’ll guiltily concede that I, to say the least, enjoyed a particular scene where her character makes her way past a hallway of armed guards, with nothing but a tight catsuit and a utility belt that would make Batman jealous. Samuel L. Jackson, meanwhile, plays Samuel L. Jackson, as he has in essentially every movie he’s ever been in.
Is Iron Man 2 worth a viewing? Sure, especially since you should enjoy not paying 3-D surcharges for your summer blockbusters while you still can. Is it worth multiple viewings? Nah. See it, get the exposition you need for The Avengers. Enjoy the scenery chewing. Walk out, move on.
Verdict: 2 1/2 stars out of 4