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The Discreet Charm of Robert Downey Jr.: A Review of Iron Man 2

May 14, 2010
Iron Man

Don't believe that scowl. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is having a blast under that mask, in Iron Man 2.

In one of the first scenes of Iron Man 2, our hero descends from the sky to land on an open-air stage in front of an audience of thousands. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) steps out of the exoskeleton in a wrinkle-less suit, his hair a perfectly sculpted shambles, his skin the color of raw pecans. Insanely rich and equally beloved, he knows that whatever he says, the crowd will roar its approval. Much the same could be said for the makers of Iron Man 2. They know there’s no surer bet in show business than a sequel to a successful superhero movie. Like Stark, director Jon Favreau and screenwriter Justin Theroux are playing with house money.

Which makes it that much more refreshing that Iron Man 2 is such a fun, smart, entertaining spectacle. In some ways it improves upon the original, which itself was one of the best superhero movies. Sure, the film is a bit bloated, but like Stark, Favreau, Theroux and Downey know the power of self-deprecating charm to obscure nearly all faults.

As with the first film, the key to Iron Man 2’s success is Downey Jr., who has fashioned one of the most entertaining star personas since Archie Leach invented Cary Grant. Here, as in Sherlock Holmes, Downey is a hedonistic, narcissistic jester who has such fun sticking his hands in the cookie jar that we couldn’t care less whether he’s caught or not. Indeed, I suspect Downey and Favreau wanted to test the limits of our patience with Downey’s charisma, as Stark is a complete bastard for most of the film’s first half.

It’s appropriate then that the motivation for Iron Man 2’s main villain is nothing more than a desire to puncture Stark’s hubris. After tussling with Iron Man in a kinetic battle in Monte Carlo, and losing, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke, looking decreasingly human in each succeeding part) gloats as if he’s won. “If you make God bleed,” he says, in a baroque Russian accent, “people will cease to believe.”

What makes Stark even cockier this time around? After outing himself as Iron Man in the first film, he is now America’s favorite son, a demagogue vigilante billionaire who also happens to be the country’s central deterrent to foreign threats. Nemeses of a lesser evil than Vanko include Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), the insecure CEO of a competing weapons manufacturer, Sen. Stern (Garry Shandling), a smarmy politician who wants Stark to hand the “Iron Man weapon” over to the American government and even Lt. Col. James Rhodes (a wooden Don Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard), who is annoyed by Stark’s increasingly obnoxious behavior. It is one of the film’s cleverest conceits that every significant character—including Stark’s right-hand woman Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and bodacious new Stark Industries hire Natalie Rushman (Scarlet Johansson)—gets sick of Stark’s boundless egotism.

After Stark shows some contrition (in that stammering half-hearted way that only Downey Jr. can), the second half gets a bit overstuffed with non-essential plot strands involving Stark’s daddy issues, the invention of a new element to power the Iron Man suit and a dalliance with a super-secret agency called S.H.I.E.L.D. But it concludes with a much more satisfying battle sequence than the first film, as Stark and Rhodes go toe-to-toe with Vanko and an army of robots (question: why do all drones have the same narrow bird-like head?) in an artificial Japanese forest.

Like the original, Iron Man 2 dabbles with modern international politics without ever taking itself seriously enough to have, you know, a message. After belittling Stern in front of a laughing audience on Capitol Hill, Stark pronounces, “I have successfully privatized world peace!” With his pro-business, anti-government sentiment, Stark has the makings of a Tea Party hero. But like Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, Downey’s winking roguishness implies that we’re not supposed to take anything he says seriously. If anything, I suspect, we’re supposed to love the man but hate the politics.

Comedy, not consciousness-raising, is Iron Man 2’s driving force. There’s slapstick (a drunken Stark hilariously moonwalking in the Iron Man suit), visual humor (including a riff on the Shepard Fairey portrait of Obama, with Iron Man’s face) and most of all, screwball banter. When Favreau’s camera first leers over Johansson’s impossible curves, Stark asks Potts, “Who’s that?” “That’s a sexual harassment lawsuit waiting to happen,” replies Potts. “I want one,” says Stark.

Fitting right into the atmosphere of comic playfulness is Rockwell, who plays Hammer as a cross between a Texan oilman and a game show host. Rourke wisely plays it straight, bringing some gravitas to a plot that could have been too weightless for its own good. His revenge storyline is standard issue supervillain stuff, but Rourke’s grotesque build and natural oddness make him a more compelling villain than Jeffrey Bridges was in Iron Man.

But don’t take that to mean Rourke ever threatens to upstage Downey Jr. What makes the Iron Man movies different from the great majority of superhero flicks is that the hero is more interesting than the villains ever could be. In the Superman and Batman movies, the villain typically provides a sense of anarchic fun that their Boy Scout protagonists lack. That’s not a worry with Downey Jr. Like Stark, he seems to be having the time of his life.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Adam Marks permalink
    May 17, 2010 3:17 pm

    I just didn’t care for a lot of the characters in the movie. Downey, Jr. was great, as always, but Cheadle seemed awkward, Paltrow was even more pathetic then the first one, Rourke was just kind of there and Sam Rockwell just annoyed me more and more with every scene. The whole S.H.I.E.L.D. storyline seemed out of place and everything else was jumbled. I think part of my negativity is due to the fact that in our movie theatre were numerous parents with little toddlers at their side witnessing blood, guts and even the one hanging scene. It just made Jess and I really annoyed and angry. Maybe I am taking some of that anger out on the movie but nonetheless, I thought it was kind of weak.

  2. May 17, 2010 4:11 pm

    I agree about Cheadle and Paltrow. For reasons I don’t quite understand, I share critics’ affection for Paltrow out of all proportion to the quality of her work. As you note, she’s pathetic in the two Iron Man films.

    I disagree strongly about Rourke and Rockwell, though, although I accept that both–especially Rockwell–are acquired tastes.

    Just as your negative evaluation had something to do with your viewing experience, my positive evaluation had something to do with my psychological state of mind when I saw it. I was dealing with some gross post-relationship emotions; Iron Man 2 did the trick in diverting my attention for two hours. Contrary to expectation, I’ve noticed that I’m a much less discerning viewer when I’m unhappy. When I’m in fine spirits, I’m less vulnerable to the allure of fantasy.

  3. June 18, 2010 9:46 am

    “What makes the Iron Man movies different from the great majority of superhero flicks is that the hero is more interesting than the villains ever could be.”

    I agree with you. Sometimes I feel sorry for the superhero characters because we know that the villains are the ones who get all the attention. Look at The Dark Knight. I love Ledger’s Joker, but it feels like Bale’s Batman hasn’t been given any justice.

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