Superhero movies are an odd breed.
The modern era of the genre, which had its origins in Tim Burton’s oddball 1989 production of “Batman” and came into its own with the likes of, among others, “Blade,” “X-Men” and “Spider-Man,” has been as varied in quality as the quality of the comic book avatars the genre represents. Let’s use some notable members of DC Comics’ superhero stable as examples.
First, you’ve got your Plastic Mans – films intentionally designed to be camp, riffing on the inherent silliness of the whole superhero idea. Often not appreciated by those who call comic books “graphic novels,” the campy entries (see “Batman and Robin” and “The Spirit” for primary examples) fill a pretty hilarious niche for those willing to give them a shot.
Next, you’ve got your Captain Marvels – films that are just bad, sorry wastes of time and money. Whether they forget that stories need more than just special effects or boast a terrible script and mediocre acting (usually both), these are the movies that can be conscribed to the dump heap. See (or better yet, don’t see) the Fantastic Four flicks, “Daredevil,” and just about every incarnation of the Punisher.
Coming in third are the Green Lanterns of superhero movies – stories that are pretty good, if not for a few goofy, distracting elements. See the overabundance of villainy and outlandishness in “Spider-Man 3,” the over-the-top superpower lovefest that was “X-Men 3: The Last Stand” and the good-except-for-the-weird-asthmatic-child “Superman Returns.”
Finally, you’ve got your Supermans – Solid, admirable movies, modern day “classics” of a young genre. In most circles, this category used to be ruled by three films: “Spider-Man 2,” “X2: X-Men United” and “Batman Begins.”
In 2008, another class of movie was added to the mix.
Call this class the Batman of superhero movies – a rarity, able to dish out equal parts action and thought, elevating itself above the rest in its field. 2008 saw the first undisputable Batman of superhero films: “The Dark Knight,” a Christopher Nolan-directed triumph that will not likely be matched in its field for years to come.
However, 2008 also saw another superhero movie come out, one that’s a little harder to classify. First thoughts have it going straight to the Superman echelon, but there was just something about it. Something more. Something different.
No, I’m not talking about “Hancock.” I’m talking about “Iron Man.”
While it was no dark, brooding opus, “Iron Man,” the first title produced solely by Marvel Studios, brought viewers more than some dude in cool looking body armor; it brought them Tony Stark, industrialist, a protagonist brimming with unprecedented wit and verve, a rougeish charmer who, for the first time ever in a mainstream superhero movie, was more interesting as an alter ego than he was as a man in a suit.
As a story of a man with a futuristic power generator in his chest who then chooses to fight crime by wearing a pimped-out metal costume, it also looked pretty cool, too.
A cool $318 million domestic gross later, and Marvel’s studio launch was a success. Meanwhile, Robert Downey Jr., who played Stark as an oddly lovable narcissist, was well on his way to re-jumpstarting his career.
Then again, I don’t need to tell you. If you’re reading this, odds are you’re wondering exactly what I was when I walked into the theatre: Does “Iron Man 2,” the new sequel, live up to the impish pedigree of its successor.
The answer? Well, yes and no. Either way, it’s still a movie to check out.
One of the most notable things about the first “Iron Man” is that it sought to juggle comedy, action and characterization all at once, during what was ostensibly a popcorn flick. It rather impressively succeeded, as exemplified by the first film’s three best scenes/sequences: the establishing “Tony Stark is a narcissist” sequences in the opening minutes (comedy), the village rescue and fighter jet escape (action) and the quiet trust and sweet dialogue shared by Stark and assistant Pepper Potts as Pepper is tasked with pulling a wire out of Tony’s chest (characterization).
“Iron Man 2” seeks to find the same balance, and it is a successful if less striking sequel for doing so, even following the same basic storyline: narcissistic man is shaken up by a problem, the problem motivates him to behave differently, he must overcome personal problems, as well as relational awkwardness with Pepper, to triumph, also there are two bad guys who wish for his destruction, and he must fight them.
In the first movie, these elements were carried out through the traditional origin story. This time around, the catalyst for Tony’s problems is that the palladium in the arc reactor electromagnet that’s keeping him alive is poisoning his bloodstream. He tries to keep this a secret by amping up his bravado, but it’s hard for his friends not to suspect something is amiss as he acts even more erratic and boorish than usual.
While Tony struggles to come up with a cure for his ailments, competing industrialist Justin Hammer (comically played by Sam Rockwell) joins forces with the devious and chilling Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke plays him as mad at the Stark family because he believes Tony’s dad stole the arc reactor technology from his dad) to make multiple better versions of Iron Man. Vanko, however, has ulterior motives: in both his regular guise and in his supervillain role as Whiplash (who, like the last movie’s Iron Monger, is never explicitly named), he wants Stark dead.
These plot points work much in the same way as the first movie’s do, even down to a corresponding three best scenes: one where Tony sasses off a senator during a Congressional hearing (comedy), another when he faces a truly menacing Whiplash as a grand prix race buzzes by (action) and finally, a surprisingly dark scene clearly meant to set up the portrayal of the comic book Tony Stark’s alcoholism in a future film (characterization). You’ll know that scene when it arrives; it involves, at one point, watermelons.
Indeed, the characterization actually trumps Iron Man’s first cinematic outing, as Downey Jr. showcases Stark’s personal problems in a variety of understated settings. We get the picture of a vulnerable, scared man who only sometimes succeeds in tricking himself into believing that he’s got it all together. Again, to see that melded seamlessly with action and humor is impressive, and laudable.
However, there are a couple of issues that make this movie not quite as good as the first. The first reason is that it doesn’t stand alone quite as well as its successor did. In the film’s middle act, there is a good bit of reference to the Avengers, with little to no explanation. It’s more or less assumed that you’ve either read the comic books or saw the after-credits scene from the first movie in which Nick Fury shows up and talks to Tony about joining Marvel’s resident superhero club. One sequence at the end of the movie is so unrelated to the rest of the story that it feels like an ad for the upcoming film, to say nothing of this film’s after-credits scene, which essentially is an ad for the upcoming “Thor.”
The second problem is attitude. The first “Iron Man” was cool, but it felt kind of scrappy. Iron Man was not that well known outside of the comic book world, and his introduction to cinema was handled accordingly: there was a charm to the proceedings, a hint of “I hope you like it” amidst all of the bravado.
This time around, when Stark gaudily flies into his technology expo and mugs “I’m back” to the screaming throng, you feel like it’s directed at you. “Iron Man” the franchise has evolved into something else – that kid in high school who was pretty cool, but who was made worse for the fact that he knew it and acted like it. It doesn’t defeat the film (as it does in movies like “Transformers”), but it does lower it a little.
Overall, however, what you’re getting is more of the comforting and satisfying same. More laughs, more ‘splosions, and more characterization of these newly beloved characters. If this kind of movie is your thing, go see it.
Or, as Roger Ebert said in his much less winded summation, “You want a sequel, you got a sequel.”
Addendum: The Iron Man films share one other odd thing in common, which is that both films’ best action sequences come in the middle of the film. The two finales both get rather long winded and at time feel tacked on for the fanboys, which is acceptable but unfortunate. Iron Man is most impressive as a superhero when he’s showing off his cool technology, not when he’s punching another metal guy ad nauseum. Both the final confrontation with Iron Monger and with Whiplash and Co. end up getting just a bit too Transformers-esque for me.
Hear another perspective on Iron Man 2 from Faith and Geekery’s Aaron White in our latest TWG Podcast.