Saturday, May 08, 2010

Stark Relief

Zaki's Review: IRON MAN 2

Two summers ago, director Jon Favreau's Iron Man arrived in theaters under the bat-winged shadow of an impending superhero sequel armed with more anticipation and more buzz.  That was The Dark Knight, of course, and from what I hear it did alright when it came out a few months later.  But it was Iron Man's early May success that opened an unexpected new front in the comic movie sweepstakes.  Marking the debut offering from Marvel Comics' production shingle, the unlikely pairing of a mostly-unknown property with a resurgent star managed to strike just the right chords to resonate with audiences, instantly christening the new studio a Hollywood player.  

With this weekend's release of Iron Man 2, the armored avenger has gone from plucky underdog to standard-bearer for the entire Marvel Films enterprise (which already includes the Hulk, and will eventually number Thor and Captain America in its ranks).  That's no shortage of pressure when mounting a follow-up, and while this entry fails to match its predecessor's freshness and thrill of discovery, that's less a ding on the sequel and more a testament to how effective the first one was at pushing against the boundaries of its genre box.

Let's cycle through the synopsis, and I'll meet you on the other side.  Since last we left billionaire (or, in this economy, is that millionaire?) industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., really enjoying his career's second act), a lot has changed and a lot hasn't.  The same: still arrogant, still egotistical, still brilliant, still rat-a-tat-tat bantering with long-suffering girlfriend/Girl Friday Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).

What's changed is that Stark is now a world famous superhero who has (in his words) "privatized world peace" thanks to his ironclad alter ego.  Oh, it also turns out the fluorescent battery pack in his chest that he previously built to keep his heart beating is now slowly poisoning him.  And in another change, trusted compatriot Jim Rhodes, who used to look a lot like Terrence Howard, suddenly bears a striking resemblance to Don Cheadle.

With the government desperate to possess Stark's weaponized "prosthesis" (again, his words) and rival industrialist Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell, doing the used car salesman thing he so excels at) trying hard to bottle some of that Tony Stark mojo, the answer to both seems to arrive in the form of Ivan Vanko (an especially leathery Mickey Rourke), a disgruntled Russian scientist who may possess the secret to replicating the Iron Man armor.  Before you can say "Whiplash," a new supervillain is born.

Facing crises both corporate and coronary, the race is on for Stark to find a cure in time for his company to save face at its impending tech expo.  All in a days work, right?  Also, as promised in the last film (and the trailers for this one), Rhodes dons his own set of metal long johns to become the fully-loaded War Machine.  Toss in Marvel stablemates Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and you're lurching dangerously close to Spider-Man 3 levels of overstuffed.

In striving mightily to avoid that trap, what the returning Favreau (who, in addition to reprising his behind-the-camera duties, again clocks some screentime as Stark's bodyguard) skillfully executes is the high-wire act of letting enough plot threads play out to give the audience a sense of satisfaction, while leaving just enough balls in play to leave folks excited for the next go-round (which, in this case, will be the Favreau-produced, Joss Whedon-directed Marvel jam The Avengers two years hence).

And when you think about it, it's Avengers that's really the goal line here.  Unlike The Dark Knight, in which director Christopher Nolan forever raised the bar for comic book sequels by twisting and prodding the standard superhero formula into a Heat-style crime epic, Iron Man 2 is happy to play out its role as one cog in a far more expansive machine.  Sure, like the best of sequels it builds on prior success and further fleshes out its protagonist, but what it's really about is laying the pipe for the expanded Marvel movie-verse only hinted at last time (and in '08's The Incredible Hulk).

Like the red-and-gold icon at its center, Iron Man 2 is smooth, stylish, and whizzes and whirs along with machine-like efficiency, occasionally displaying just enough spontaneity to lend the proceedings some humanity.  It doesn't reinvent the wheel, but then it doesn't need to.  What it does do exceedingly well is prime the pump for future installments in this series, as well as future visits to this universe.  Based on what we've seen so far, the next few years promise to be one heck of a ride.  B+

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Love the review. Hated the movie. Noisy, convoluted, painful to sit through. Then again, I'm not the target audience.

Shazia said...

Excellent Review. I agree with how you describe the setup for the Avengers goal. I look forward to the next review. My favorite scene was the one at Randy's Donuts. I love the chemistry between Samuel and Robert. They didn't have much time together, but those short snippets were million dollar moments.