by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The night before last Charles and I watched a recently released DVD of a film I’d been waiting to see, Iron Man 2, which while not a bad movie was surprisingly mediocre. To its credit, it avoided the strained seriousness of the most recent entries in the Batman and Spider-Man series (am I the only one out here who regards Christopher Nolan’s Bat-movies, Batman Begins and The Dark Night, as pompous, pretentious, overlong bores?); unfortunately, it also avoided the exuberance of the two Fantastic Four movies which I found more entertaining than the common run of recent super-hero films (especially ones derived from the Marvel mythos).
One fascinating aspect of Iron Man 2 from a Zeitgeist point of view is that it finally got rid of the atavistic Capra-esque tic of anti-corporatism that still hung on in the first two films in the current Spider-Man cycle and at least began the process of turning its hero, Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), into a full-fledged Ayn Randian mega-capitalist superman. In the opening scenes, Stark is giving a press conference and announces that as Iron Man — yes, he fully discloses his superhero identity (an interesting shift in this decade’s version of the superhero mythos after decades in which virtually every caped or hooded crusader from the comic books fought like the dickens to keep his or her normal human identity a secret) — he has successfully privatized world peace, and later he’s hauled before a Senate investigating committee (whose chair is played by a more corpulent, less hirsute Garry Shandling, of all people) and asked why he refuses to turn over the Iron Man suit to the U.S. government as a weapon. He basically says, as Howard Roark or Hank Rearden or John Galt would have, that the suit is his personal property and he’ll do what he likes with it. He also tells his girlfriend and confidante “Pepper” Potts (a monumentally overqualified Gwyneth Paltrow), “I’m bored with the liberal agenda now” — reflecting the mood of America as a whole in the year of the Tea Party.
To the extent that Iron Man 2 has a plot — even more than other recent superhero movies, it’s really just a slice of action porn and the expository scenes that set up each action sequence are even more dull and pointless than usual — it’s concerned with two main issues. One is Iron Man’s realization that palladium, the (real) rare-earth element at the core of his artificial heart, is slowly poisoning him — so he’s making half-hearted efforts to put his affairs in order and figure out how to continue the Stark Industries empire after he dies, while he’s also searching for a replacement element he can use in the device and soon realizes that only a heretofore unknown element will turn the trick. The other is Iron Man’s rivalry with Russian baddie Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke, unrecognizable under a hoodie and with dreadlocks), son of a former business partner of Tony Stark’s father Howard (dead when the film begins but played by John Slattery in footage he supposedly left behind), who’s developed his own version of Iron Man’s “repulsor” technology in the form of electrical beams that radiate from his fingers and which he can manipulate like bullwhips. Vanko crashes the Grand Prix at Monaco (for some reason staged with 1970’s-era race cars) which Stark is driving in, and also appears to be in some kind of cahoots with Stark Industries’ principal competitor, Justin Hammer (portrayed as an old man in the Iron Man comics but made Tony Stark’s age here and played by Sam Rockwell), who’s ripped off the Iron Man technology and built a series of remote-controlled drone versions of the Iron Suit, into one of which he puts Iron Man’s friend, Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle, who took over this role after Terrence Howard got fired in a money dispute with the Marvel company — so just two years after the first Iron Man Howard is reduced to playing an assistant district attorney on Law and Order: Los Angeles, showing how little leverage mere actors have with the studios these days), with the result that Stark and Rhodes have to have an unwelcome high-tech battle neither of them want to fight (much the way Emperor Ming tricked Flash Gordon and his friend Prince Barin into a duel in one of the 1930’s Flash Gordon serials).
There’s nothing really wrong with Iron Man 2 — though some of the Robert Downey, Jr. quirks which attempt to humanize his character only make him seem dumb and annoying, like the kind of a guest who gets drunk at a party and puts a lampshade on his head, and like the first Iron Man this film features a sequence in which Downey is writhing on the floor, (temporarily) mortally wounded, that’s obviously intended as an evocation and a reminder of Downey’s own struggles with substance abuse and the real-life scrapes he got into before he went into recovery. It’s just that there’s nothing much right with it, either: the exposition scenes setting up the action just go on and on and on, and even the action, when it comes, is staged so unimaginatively it hardly seems worth the wait.
It’s the sort of modish corporate entertainment Hollywood churns out these days for budgets that could probably end poverty worldwide forever (the official estimate on Iron Man 2’s cost was $200 million), the sort of sequel that doesn’t really bring an interesting new point of view to the original (as what are probably the three best sequels in film history — The Bride of Frankenstein; Ivan the Terrible, Part 2; and The Godfather, Part 2 — brought to their originals): it just offers more, differing from the first Iron Man only about as much as the Big Mac does from the Quarter Pounder — and it’s ironic that Charles and I watched this the night we started running the last Flash Gordon serial, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, which despite its being made in what was virtually the Stone Age of special effects is quite frankly a lot more fun and a lot better at mixing character with action and thrills.