Thursday, May 13, 2010

Iron Man 2

It seems that Iron Man 2 has come under a good amount of unfair criticism following its release a couple weeks ago. The word was relatively positive at first, but then the box office intake took a dive in its second week and then the backlash began. Admittedly, comic book movies are now held to a higher standard thanks to Christpher Nolan's Batman epic The Dark Knight, which in this case is wholly uncalled for. On their first outing (also born in the looming Shadow of the Bat) director Jon Favreau and star Robert Downey, Jr. proved that you could have a hero grounded (relatively) in reality and still have fun with it. The same rings true for it's sequel.

This time out Tony Stark, now completely outed as Iron Man, finds himself poisoned by the arc reactor he'd originally streamlined to keep him alive after his Middle Eastern run in with his own weaponized shrapnel. Enter the new flies in Stark's respective ointment, Justin Hammer, a fellow merchant of destruction (who just so happens to be a funhouse mirror reflection of a first act Tony Stark from the original film, played brilliantly by Sam Rockwell) and Ivan Vanko, Russian son of a former Stark associate, Anton Vanko who was ousted and deported for allegedly selling secret tech to the USSR. Vanko has sworn his revenge on the Stark legacy and Hammer is determined to one-up the Iron Man model in one form or another and the two forge an unlikely and ill-advised union for their respective personal gains.

And this is just the main narrative through-line. On the outskirts of this plot is the quickly developing "Avengers" movie which involves Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury (agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and Scarlet Johannsen's Black Widow, and for a set of characters and structural threads that won't come into play until well after next summer they are surprisingly well balanced with the core of the film. It sets the stage for something much larger, but doesn't demand more attention than is required to thoroughly enjoy the story at hand.
While Downey, Jr. took the cake and devoured it whole in the first film, he's found a worthy acting adversary in Sam Rockwell. Taking a break from his indie success for a moment to cavort with the A-Listers, you'd be surprised that Rockwell hasn't broken in to a more mainstream market when you see him acting circles around 90% of the Iron Man cast. His portrayal of Hammer as the cocky weapons entrepreneur is pure gold, every line of dialog smarms its way out of his mouth with an unadulterated zeal that shows that he's the kind of actor that digs in to the character, finds what makes them tick and drives it straight home. Which isn't to say that Mickey Rourke's turn as the Russian powerhouse (and apparent amalgam of 2 classic Iron Man villains, Whiplash and Crimson Dynamo) isn't as awesome as it sounds. The extended version of the drag race fight featured in most of the coming attractions is one of the more awesome spectacles in recent comic book movie memory. Though similar to Jeff Bridges' Iron Monger finale beat-down, Vanko's last hurrah seemed a little bit rushed.

The recasting of Terrence Howard for Don Cheadle in the role of James Rhodes (read: War Machine) was probably the smartest recasting move this side of replacing Katie Holmes with Maggie Gyllenhaal. Howard's cocksure version of Rhodes didn't curb the Stark persona the way their relationship requires. Cheadle, a more accomodating dramatic actor, provides a more believable voice of reason to Tony's playboy mentality and their dynamic as Iron Man and War Machine, respectively, is better for their individual talents as actors.

Iron Man 2 isn't the perfect comic book movie, or even the perfect sequel, however it IS the perfect follow up to the already established cinematic canon presented in the first film. If all the pieces of continuation mythology pan out as well as their predecessors, the upcoming Thor and Avengers movies could prove to set a new standard for adapted cinema. Then again, there is still another Christopher Nolan helmed Batman on the horizon, so anything is possible.

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