Two out of Five Stars
Rated PG13/125 min.
Sequelitus: When a beloved original film is tarnished by a bloated follow-up that tries to top its predecessor by pummeling the audience with spectacle and ‘splosions.
Comic book movies walk a tightrope between fun fantasy and overwrought schlock. They’re also ready-made for sequels (and prequels), with new villains and origin-stories waiting to be unveiled. This is a dangerous, often lethal, combination, and even the good comic book movies fall victim. I thought The Dark Knight was wonderful when the focus was on Heath Ledger’s Joker but a mess when it tried to juggle multiple subplots and messy, drawn-out action sequences.
The original Iron Man was on my list of the best films of 2008 and a great example of what the genre can accomplish when character and story development are as strong as the action. Director Jon Favreau’s film provided the brilliant Robert Downey Jr. with a better-late-than-never career boost and is up there with the original Superman and Tim Burton’s Batman as the finest films of their type. Iron Man 2, meanwhile, is shaky from the start. Where the original had an easy-going vibe and allowed the narrative to build gradually, the sequel has a story that is cluttered, frantic and noisy.
Billionaire inventor Tony Stark is giving in to his worst, most self-destructive tendencies and embracing wealth and narcissism, which gets in the way of his being a beloved, now out-of-the-closet superhero. There are promising scenes of Stark going over to the dark side that mirror Downey’s own troubled past, but they come and go without any build-up or payoff. The same goes for the other characters and subplots: Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Pots, a major asset in the original, is now demoted to token damsel in distress; Mickey Rourke isn’t given enough to do in the juicy role of a Russian supervillain; Sam Rockwell does way too much as a smarmy corporate creep; and Samuel L. Jackson’s scenes don’t crackle like they should. Scarlett Johansson’s turn as Black Widow sums up what’s wrong with the movie: she looks great and has an intriguing role, but the movie never gives us time to know her; she comes across as a gratuitous guest star instead of a supporting player.
Downey Jr., as usual, never hits a false note and the big action sequences are fun, punctuated by a few fall-down funny one-liners. In the end, though, it’s clear the filmmakers are less interested in telling a compelling story than setting up future Marvel Comics franchises; instead of thoughtful dialogue, we get a lot of exposition for forthcoming summer blockbusters. It’s like the previews never ended.