“Iron Man 2” may not have all that much to offer us as a movie, but it provides significant fodder for conversation about what it means to cinema in general. In my mind, it marks the first comic book movie of the post-“Dark Knight” era. Filmmakers have seen what made Christopher Nolan’s film such a hit on multiple fronts, and they are trying to strike gold using the same tools: namely, character development and strong plot over explosions and action. Jon Favreau and the other minds behind “Iron Man 2” had time to adapt their series in an attempt to replicate that success.
One thing this sequel gives us is confirmation of a theory that many have been advocating for almost two years: “The Dark Knight” really does mark a revolution in the way we watch movies and the way they are made. As soon as we saw it, we knew that we would never watch comic book or action movies the same way. We instantly scorned “Transformers 2” and other movies that only emphasized the visuals. But now, similar movies are trying to shift the focus to plot. That’s a really good thing for the average moviegoer because it means that studios are recognizing our intelligence!
But “Iron Man 2” also reminds us of an unfortunate reality: some revolutions are only revolutionary once. Some are meant to repeated; the American Revolution, for example, inspired similar uprisings in France, Haiti, and all over Latin America. “Iron Man 2” incorporates many elements used in “The Dark Knight,” hoping to continue the pattern of success.
But its inability to recreate what made Nolan’s film so incredible signals the dawning of an era in comic book movies not favorable to anyone. From now on, there will be “The Dark Knight” and every other movie who wishes they were “The Dark Knight.” These movies cannot simply try to concoct their own version as if there is some sort of a formula. Nolan’s movie worked for so many reasons. Now, filmmakers have to find their own way if they want to make a movie that doesn’t play like a cheap ripoff of “The Dark Knight.” A key factor to the success of Nolan’s film was originality. Any movie that tries to use that originality will end up creating banality.
So why the steep drop from the original “Iron Man” movie, which earned a solid A in my book? Surely it couldn’t just be the fact that it couldn’t harness the potency of “The Dark Knight?” It comes from various places, but I’ll start with the vapid and uninspired script. It’s as if they used up everything that made Tony Stark interesting in the first movie. It takes everything that people seemed to hate about “Spider-Man 3” (the inner conflict of the hero that threatens to destroy him) and then dropped in one too many supporting characters. This isn’t a horrible story, but it could not get me engaged at any level. In fact, it feels like “Iron Man 2” only existed so that there can be “Iron Man 3.”
Director Jon Favreau is off his game too. In the first installment, he balanced a serious story with a whole lot of fun. According to what I’ve heard about his Twitter, he’s a comic book enthusiast who makes these movies with the excitement and gusto of a child. But whatever childlike wonder he might have is lost here. He gives it the treatment of a serious adult drama when the script comes nowhere near those qualities. Favreau tried to get “Iron Man 2” to fall in a perfect median between the darkness of “The Dark Knight” and the levity of a “Transformers.” What results is something with no feeling or mood to it at all.
Yet Favreau’s work isn’t nearly as dreadful as that of the star actor. Whatever charm or allure Robert Downey, Jr. possessed in the first movie has mysteriously evaporated here. He seems disengaged from the story, not really putting any effort into making it come to life. He’s suffering from a sort of Johnny Depp syndrome: both created characters that won us over with their eccentricities and their smugness. Depp, as we all know, created an iconic character with Jack Sparrow, but by the third installment of his series, the role lost any sort of excitement. Similarly, rather than provide us with anything new or thrilling, we are treated to Downey Jr. just doing shades of himself.
It’s hard to believe from watching “Iron Man 2” that Mickey Rourke was being heralded as an Oscar nominee just 18 months ago. When we aren’t waiting for him to say a word, his Whiplash seems to be nothing more than an unkind Russian stereotype. Sam Rockwell is supposed to be villainous, but he acts like too big of a tool to be anything but laughable. I’ve seen him actually act before, and this was not him acting. This was him doing his best Robert Downey, Jr. impersonation, which really doesn’t work when you are in a movie with Robert Downey, Jr. Don Cheadle give us no reason to justify his replacement of Terrence Howard. As for Scarlett Johansson, she has absolutely no function other than to serve as the butt of a few jokes about what our crass casanova Stark would do to her. I can imagine the only direction she got from Jon Favreau was to stand still and look pretty (her one scene of kicking butt in the tight suit was probably all done by stunt double).
Indeed, the only person in the cast who seems to know what they are doing is the only one with an Oscar, Gwyneth Paltrow. She is grace and organization incarnate with Pepper Potts, Stark’s loyal assistant whose adventures putting up with her boss are quickly becoming the highlight of the series.
“Iron Man 2” gives us a preview as to what will happen when filmmakers go digging in Christopher Nolan’s mine. They don’t strike gold. In fact, the metal they get here is more like a rusty iron. C+ /