Universe building, especially in it’s infant days, is a delicate balancing act. Concentrate too hard on the big picture and you run the risk of losing focus on your immediate story, making the events that unfold play second fiddle to a movie that hasnt even been scripted yet – however, go too hard in the opposite direction and you lose momentum with your over arching narative. Arguably the only franchise that’s nailed this elusive Combined Universe malarkey is, of course, the MCU, but Iron Man’s noticably laboured second outing proves that even Marvel had some stumbles along the way.
After spending some noticable time in the armour since being “reborn” as the smug, superhero Iron Man in a cave in Afghanistan, Tony Stark is finding that life behind the face plate is rapidly catching up with him. The government is demanding that Stark to turn the suit over to the military, odious industrial rival Justin Hammer is snapping at his heels and, to really add the filling to this shit sandwich, Tony finds that the Arc reactor in his chest that’s stopping him from succumbing to his shrapnel wounds is actually slowly poisoning him to death. However, all this crap has to be dumped on the worlds most stressful “to do” pile when a vengeful name from his father’s past rises up to get even with Tony with his own technology – that and whips… big, sparkly whips.
While Tony becomes more and more withdrawn and his inner circle of newly minted CEO Pepper Potts and perpetually frustrated airman James Rhodes become more and more conflicted, new allies in the shape of super spies Nick Fury and Natasha Romanov step up to aid the petulant hero against these seemingly hopeless odds – but can even Scarlet Johansson in a catsuit possibly help Iron Man against unified foes who also happen to rock a robot army? This looks like a job for… War machine?
The movie starts unbelievably strong. Stark bounces from rousing speech in front of a screaming crowd at his science expo, to trolling senators at a hearing. It reaches a climax at a Monaco set, James Bondian action sequence involving villain Mickey Rourke slicing F1 cars into fillets with plasma whips while Downey Jr. whips up an Iron Man suit out of a high tech suitcase to do battle. It’s a thrilling scene which sets up the villain’s formidable abilities and is frickin’ cool to boot and then all of a sudden the movie hits the brakes, curls up into a ball and dies on it’s arse and what happens over the next hour is essentially a bloated Avengers trailer where all the main players sit around in rooms, patiently waiting for the climax to kick in. Once the rip-roaring, rock-em sock-em, robot smashing finale kicks in it’s arguably all too late as guys in faceless metal suits punch, shoot and zap faceless metal automatons until the credits roll.
Funny when it needs to be funny and cool when it needs to cool, Iron Man 2 just isn’t a substantial enough adventure to stand out from the crowd and ends up merely being a stop-gap on the road to the big finish of Marvel’s phase 1 plans.
All the usual players bring their usual stuff.
Returning director Favreau seems obsessed with Disney iconography that the movie’s plot, making Tony’s father, Howard Stark, weirdly into Uncle Walt while the Stark Expo is the living spit of the Happiest Place On Earth, predating the sale of Marvel to the House Of Mouse by a good couple of years. RDJ is still a charisma dynamo giving the moribund middle section the boot in the colon it most desperately needs, Don Cheadle is a more natural fit as James Rhodes (subbing for a tagging out, disgruntled Terrence Howard) and Gwyenth Paltrow still does healthy work making Pepper Potts more than just “the girlfriend”.
As for the newbies to the cast, Sam Rockwell predictably shines as buffoonish Tony Stark wannabe Justin Hammer while Rourke’s performance seems to be made up entirely of character quirks, ticks and an accent thicker than a stack of mattresses, but slathered in Russian ink and constantly chewing on a toothpick, he certainly looks the part. Similarly Scarlett Johansson’s much hyped Black Window looks great in her comic accurate gear beating up an entire battalion of Hammer’s security detail, but ultimately doesn’t offer much more than being a teaser to future things as does an expanded role to Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury.
It’s not fatal (even underachieving Marvel still is hugely perky and mindlessly entertaining) but it’s clear that even in it’s early years the creases and wrinkles in the MCU need a good iron, man.