There was a lot of potential for Iron Man 2 to deliver what all the best sequels hope to offer, a darker take on familiar themes with unexpected escalations that send established characters reeling in whole new directions. Instead, Iron Man 2 is a moronic and haphazard attempt at summer blockbusting that shares more in common with the uninspired sequel to Transformers than its own predecessor. Iron Man 2 systematically disrobes and molests all fragments of credibility left over from the first film by choosing tongue-in-cheek “ain’t I cute” mugging over believable conflicts or interesting characters. Rather than painting Tony Stark as the arrogant but charismatic hero we’ve come to expect, the Stark of the sequel is a buffoon, an egomaniacal preening nincompoop hellbent on destroying his legacy without a second thought. The evolution of Stark’s character from self-obsessed warmonger to national hero was the backbone of the first film, but here Stark is so overconfident in his effortless charm that the whole thing reeks of hubris. It takes “textbook narcissism” to expect even the most dull-witted observer to overlook the gaping narrative flaws, listless plot progression and lack of palpable drama in this picture. The difference here is that the original Iron Man was palpably entertaining in spite of its flaws, and if the talent involved could be trusted as any indication, a sequel should have deepened and revised upon the universe in a way that could course-correct the missteps already in progress, similar to The Dark Knight‘s affect on Batman Begins. No such luck for Iron Man 2. The movie nosedives toward tripe so suddenly and irrevocably that you’ll be lucky to notice before you’re knee-deep in dreck.
There’s no way to approach a film this disappointing without dissecting it scene-by-scene, thereby ensuring that the reader absolves to avoid contact with it at all costs, preventing further such monstrosities from happening. From moment one, Iron Man 2 is an awkward mess of muddled tone. Amongst all too dour re-broadcasts of the final press conference from the first movie we’re introduced to Mickey Rourke’s villain Whiplash, a Russian who hates Tony Stark for inexplicably poisoning his father with a hereditary disease that causes melodramatic overacting. Once Rourke finishes belching out some Oscar-worthy melancholy, assumedly reacting to his own appearance in an off-camera mirror, we are greeted with the opening title. What does this too somber villain have to do with our hapless protagonist? Your guess is as good as mine. Even after several mumbly interrogations by Stark, it’s patently unclear why Whiplash hates Iron Man so much, enough to make you question the screenwriter’s decision to include the character at all. If you’re going to bring up the history and troubled past of two antagonistic characters, maybe it would help if the two characters had ever met or interacted before. Once it becomes clear that Mickey Rourke’s hideous dental work is a character choice and not the result of a bad tinfoil make-out, we shoot over to the Stark Expo for a brief exercise in torture.
I’m not sure how many times screenwriter Justin Theroux has set foot inside an Expo center, but based on the sheer number of dialog references to Expos, scenes that take place at Expo centers, and flashback footage featuring father-figures relating their personal thoughts on Expo development, it seems like the guy really digs Expos. There’s nothing wrong with Expos per se, and Theroux would have you believe that they are in fact the greatest setting imaginable for expositional dialog and needless dance numbers to take place, nearly out-edging Spider-Man 3 in terms of sheer masturbation. They’re also a great locale for an action movie to lose all narrative momentum, get lost in its own ego, splatter some patter, and move on like nothing happened. This would be well and good if there weren’t so damn many Expos to contend with, or if anything remotely interesting happened at any of them. The first Expo is the one you’ve seen in the trailer, with an abbreviated version of the likable yet cut “kiss the helmet for luck” sequence. Stark lands in the center of his own ego, delivers a wank-fest monologue and wanders off to his next booze-cruise in search of tail and easy choices. Downey Jr’s reprehensible portrayal of Tony Stark is bookended by abject refusal to change or evolve, plus pointed ignorance toward the character’s previous arc. Would it have been interesting for Downey to portray the thrill-seeking death-defying boozehound from the comics, whose personal problems wreaked havoc on his life in legitimate and dramatic ways? Perhaps, but that opportunity is undermined at every turn by the half-assed, jokey dialog that permeates this picture. Rather than dealing with problems in a realistic way, Stark is shuffled from set-piece to set-piece with an alarming disregard for pacing or consistency, often resulting in multiple scenes of asinine dialog justifying the previous terrible sequence. At one point, Gweneth Paltrow’s character explicitly comments on what a huge waste of time the Stark Expo was, out loud, to both Stark and the audience. You would think this dialog would have served as a clue to the filmmakers that maybe the sequence is unnecessary, and that this kind of ex-post-facto dialog is only beating a dead horse. Somehow this foolproof logic fails to prevent the 30-to-50 tech Expos that barrage the audience with pointless spectacle over the next two hours.
Unnecessary is the key word with regards to Iron Man 2, and Justin Theroux’s arrogance and over-indulgence eradicates even the slim slivers of poetic language he manages to string together. Rourke has a particularly stirring line about attacking Stark to “make God bleed,” but in a microcosm of his unique idiocy, Theroux decides to take the metaphor one step further and explain that once God’s blood is in the water, the sharks will come, as if we should have been praying to sharks, the silent God-killers, all along. Must have missed the aquatic chapter of the Bible. It reminds me of the priest at my high school. He used to mix metaphors and say things like, “Looks like the little boy scout’s got his tail caught in the screen door.” Even that phrasing suffers from a sort of retarded brilliance absent in Iron Man 2, where subtlety and beauty are fleeting or beaten by the brunt of the movie’s ravenous marauding dialog. My friend JP even scoffed out loud when Stark’s father posthumously commented on the technological limitations of “his time,” anachronistically implying a preternatural knowledge of things to come. As if the fact that Stark’s dad is played by Roger Sterling isn’t distracting enough, now I’m expected to believe that the man was so smart he predicted the future but failed to prevent Tony Stark from being an utter fuck-up. Any father with the psychic knowledge that his son would be involved in Iron Man 2 would inevitably abort the pregnancy.
Gweneth Paltrow and Sam Rockwell serve as this movie’s most likable characters in that they both seem to hate Tony Stark as much as the audience. Rockwell loses some credibility at the three-quarter mark when he launches his own Expo and starts dancing across the stage, in order to meet the retardedly childish expectations set by the movie’s first act. If you’re wondering what happens between the first and third acts, again your guess is as good as mine. Claiming this movie tells a story is an affront to stories everywhere. Three concurrent and unrelated plotlines collide in the last scene like revisions from earlier drafts, stumbling to the same boring set pieces you’ve seen advertised in the trailers. There are so many stupid and ancillary scenes in Iron Man 2 that I would be remiss not to mention a few of the more glaringly bone-headed narrative decisions. When Tony Stark meets Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson in all his eye-patched glory, the last vestige of hope for comic book fans looking to see an Avengers or Captain America cross-over movie in a relatively stable and realistic universe, Stark is sitting hung over in a giant plaster donut on top of the roof of a donut store, eating donuts. Sam Jackson appears in this movie as a wake-up call to both Stark and the screenwriter, who forgot until this point that he had obligations to more interesting franchises. While it’s funny to see Tony Stark flip the bird to the other Marvel characters, you can’t help but wonder if the “fuck you” quality of the joke is lost on the filmmakers. When so many problems abound, these potshots read like last ditch-efforts to make Iron Man 2 seem superior to something, anything. If you think that’s ridiculous, let’s not forget the Ninja Turtles-esque scene where Tony drunkenly dj’s his own birthday party in full Iron Man attire, eventually reverting to exploding watermelons and dated Gallagher jokes to keep both his fictional and theatrical audience’s attention. If the original Iron Man had any shreds of dignity, they’re long dead now.
You can stay after the credits to see a teaser for another Marvel picture, but the absolutely dreadful treatment of the Iron Man property makes this brief advertisement even more questionable. Scarlett Johanssen looks hot yet bored throughout the movie, and Don Cheadle serves passably as replacement for his equally boring Traffic co-star. There is absolutely nothing here that you couldn’t assume from the previews, and aside from the opening flight sequence there is relatively little special effects-wise to admire. For a movie called Iron Man, there is a surprising dearth of Iron Man. The movie generally follows Tony Stark’s smug expression as it meanders around town corroding paint and stripping wallpaper from local businesses. In spite of the few laughs he provides early on, Garry Schandling fails to escape the curse of the crud, returning at the end of the movie to present Iron Man with a needless medal of bravery. No one considers that the only attack on American soil that Iron Man prevents in this movie was caused by a contract employee of the U.S. Government, or that the whole debacle was Stark’s fault from the get-go. And outside of Rourke’s psychotic mumbling there doesn’t seem to be a villain in the universe who can fight Iron Man for longer than thirty seconds without folding like a house of cards. If your superhero is so overpowered that it’s not even interesting to watch him fight, I suggest you reconsider where you spend your hundreds of million dollars, let alone your ticket price. There is absolutely nothing positive or memorable about this slapdash recreation of comic book spectacle, and the whole thing stinks like the literary equivalent of Marmaduke. Not only are you bored, you don’t even realize how bored you are until it’s finally over, and by the time it’s over, it’s already too late. You’ve just wasted two hours on a movie whose greatest aspiration is to build a few rooms onto Robert Downey Jr.’s summerhouse.