So I saw Jon Favreau‘s Iron Man 2, staring Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man (Tony Stark), Gwyneth Paltrow as Virginia “Pepper” Potts, Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Favreau as Happy Hogan, Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer, Mickey Rourke as Ivan Vanko (Whiplash), and Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanov (Black Widow), and Don Cheadle as James “Rhodey” Rhodes (War Machine). What follows is what I’d call a review of medium-high-level spoilerage; I give away some plot points–but nothing that you couldn’t infer from the trailer–and a working knowledge of the Iron Man comics. If you’ve not yet seen the movie, and that worries you, please: Read no further. We can always talk after you watch the glory that is this film. I’ll still be here. Also? This one’s a bit longer than Dom’s. Sorry about that. Kind of.
Now, to continue into the heart of this review, I have to say that I was extremely wary of the replacement of Terrence Howard with Don Cheadle. Not because I thought the latter man couldn’t do the work–if you’ve ever seen him in anything, you know that isn’t the case–but because, no matter the actor or their skill, there will always be a disconnect when a character you love is played by someone else. Always. We are looking at a completely different person, and nothing you do or say can make that not be the case. Your best bet is to just hang a lantern on it, as they say–draw attention to the fact that you’re aware of the problem–and let it be. This is masterfully handled in the film in the very first exchange between Tony and Rhodey. It is so subtle, in fact, that I missed it until I was writing this paragraph.
[ad#longpost]Anyway, my fears were for nothing. He is absolutely brilliant, especially when he provides tactical support in the War Machine armour during the chase scene. Cheadle owned the role and paid homage to Howard’s work, all at once. And speaking of Howards, how about that John Slattery as Howard Stark, huh? I mean what a freaking nuanced performance, for only having a few minutes of screen time. For the rest of the new cast, Rockwell’s Justin Hammer is the very portrait of disingenuous sleaze, Rourke’s Ivan Vanko is a heart-breaking rendering of a tarnished genius driven mad by the disgrace and death of his father, and Johansson’s Natasha Romanov kicks ass, takes names, and manipulates you into thinking it’s all for your own benefit so you’re left thanking her for the pleasure. The returning cast all brings their A Game. Everyone does a great job on their acting here.
On the plot side, there are subtle nods to lots of important notes and substantial comic-based back stories, like the discovery/creation of a new element to deal with the palladium poisoning (I’m just speculating, here, but I’m thinking that’s going to turn out to be Vibranium, in a small ret-con), and Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson being “Reassigned To New Mexico” (stay after the credits). But there are also plenty of things there for the new fans who’ve only ever seen the first movie, in the form of subtle nuances in presentation and thought about the progression of characters. For instance, in the first film, we have Downey’s Stark coming to the realisation that he has caused harm on an epic and global scale, and seeking to atone and to heal the world through his technology. In the second film, Stark has largely done this but as he comes to understand, he’s also incurred the wrath of powerful political and business figures in the process.
Not only that, but as we remember from the first movie, Tony Stark’s fame is largely built on his father Howard’s fame and name, something he struggled with when the he received the revelation of his company’s role in providing weapons to some of the more nefarious parts of the world. This time around, Tony struggles with his understanding of his father as a father, and also as a person. He’s given a new understanding of how his father felt about him and his intellect, and his father’s intentions for the world. But, before all of that, Tony is told that Howard Stark’s fame was built on the betrayal of a colleague–Anton Vanko–and that this betrayal ruined Vanko’s life and set in motion the events which would shape the life of Vanko’s son. Enter Whiplash.
So, let’s take another look here at the two things which set the tone for this entire film: The Death of Anton Vanko, in his son’s arms–Vanko, Sr. being the man whose work on the Arc Reactor helped Howard Stark become the man he was, but who received none of the credit–directly followed by the Grand Entrance of Tony Stark, at Stark Expo to the tune of AC/DC’s “Shoot To Thrill.” Do you get it? Vanko, broken and alone? Stark, triumphant and surrounded by admirers, through ill-gotten gains? AC/DC? This is Son of Tesla versus Son of Edison, with the fight for recognition, for legacy, for fulfilling a father’s dreams, played out on a grand, violent scale. It is subtle but completely intentional, and we even get the joy of seeing some mad-scientist-on-mad-scientist laboratory action, here, though not nearly enough. More on that later.
Aside from this, the conceptual arc of the movie is about Tony coming to terms with himself, and with the fact that it’s not just his brilliance and his will which make him a great hero, but the people around him, his friends and family–and this was interestingly handled. Favreau paired this reckoning with the fact of the palladium poisoning, painting a picture of a narcissistic “control freak” facing his own impending death, and simultaneously trying to manipulate those around him into taking the responsibilities that they would have gladly and willingly shared with him…if he had only asked. He forces Pepper to become CEO, drunkenly places Rhodey in the untenable position of having to “take” the Mk II armour, and plays both up and directly into the idea of an irresponsible drunken playboy having more unilateral power than the US Military, a thought which (rightly) frightens a lot of people. Stark does all of this so that people will be forced to “take” power from him, because he’s completely unable to allow himself to give it up. There’s a recurring motif about his “having a thing about people handing him things,” which is just a small psychological tic, and reflects directly this inability to take or give.
Now, let’s talk about The Tech for a minute, because–holy crap the tech in this movie. I want every single piece of it. The power suits, the drones, and particularly every design, fabrication, and interactive networking device in Tony Stark’s arsenal. During the Senate Hearing scene (that is, the opening to the main trailer), Tony uses a little handheld rectangular scanner to both hack and hijack the Senate chamber’s video equipment, forcing the screens to show the videos he wants. Much later, when he takes home a piece of his father’s design materials (which is one of the most genius devices in the whole film, by the way), and analyses it, he uses a 3D holographic wireframe/vaccuform generator to make a fully manipulatable 3D holographic image which he can then rearrange and interact with other 3D holographic images. This is what we call “Techie Porn,” and it showcases exactly how much of a genius Tony Stark is.
In fact, if I had a single gripe, it was that we didn’t get as much of the hands-on dirty work in this movie as we got in the first. Changes and updates are obviously made, and there are the aforementioned lab scenes, but we don’t get to see Tony or Vanko really thinking and working through the problems like we saw in Iron Man. Instead, many of these changes are simply there the next time we see them, and the some of the laboratory scenes feel like someone thinking “Time to SCIENCE!” and then soldering some stuff. But that is a miniscule gripe and overall, it is a great film.
So, while Iron Man 2 isn’t as groundbreaking as its predecessor, it’s still a deep, interestingly nuanced, and organic (which is ironic, at the very least) progression within the world being built through these films and, were I a formal cast member of http://grinding.be, I’d probably declare it Grinder Movie of the Year. Alas, I am not, so I’ll have to settle for giving this one a great big stamp of approval from the part of me that still wants to grow up to be a self-aware cyborg billionaire. Keep dreamin’ that dream.