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Thursday, June 3, 2010

Favreau Turns Iron Into Gold - Iron Man 2 Review


In 2008, Iron Man was released to an audience that wasn’t very familiar with the character and with a lead actor that had a history of personal demons that never allowed him to achieve the success his talent deserved. It turned out to be an explosive combination that raked in over $535 million worldwide. By taking the risk of giving Downey Jr. the role of a lifetime in Tony Stark, Director Jon Favreau pulled off a an amazing success story for both the movie and for Downey Jr. personally. For me, Robert Downey Jr. is one of the greatest actors of his generation but his past issues seemed to constantly derail a career that should have been celebrated far more than it has been. His past roles in movies such as Less Than Zero, Soapdish, Natural Born Killers, Wonder Boys, and especially Chaplin and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, showed his incredible range as both a dramatic and comedic actor.


His performance in Chaplin was so acclaimed that he was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor. It seemed to me that when he didn’t win the Oscar for Chaplin, Downey Jr. seemed to go into a personal and professional freefall. That freefall seemed to stop once he joined the Ally McBeal cast, but that ended badly too. It wasn’t until 2003 with Gothika, (where he met his future wife and good influence Susan), that he seemed to be back on the comeback trail. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang may not have been a huge commercial hit but his brilliant portrayal of sometime magician Harry Lockhart reminded the industry how good he could be if given the chance. Even still, it was a tough sell for Favreau to convince the studios that Downey Jr. was the right man to play Tony Stark. For Favreau though, it was a sure bet. “We didn’t want to just go with a safe choice. The best and worst moments of Robert’s life have been in the public eye. He had to find an inner balance to overcome obstacles that went far beyond his career. That’s Tony Stark. Robert brings a depth that goes beyond a comic-book character that is having trouble in high school, or can’t get the girl. Plus, he’s simply one of the best actors around.” [1]


For his part, Downey Jr. appreciated the support he received from Favreau and he intended to justify it. ”I’m more diligent than I used to be,” Downey says. ”I want[ed] to show Jon he was right to have faith in me. Whatever questions might have arisen about my life weren’t issues with him.” [2] The combination of the two of them produced a loose improvisational style for the first Iron Man movie that brought a more naturalistic and playful approach that was a far cry from other superhero movies such as The Dark Knight. While The Dark Knight was dark, operatic, and deadly serious, Iron Man was giddy and fun and the audience responded wildly to the fresh approach to the genre. With the massive success of the first movie, it seemed a foregone conclusion that there would be a sequel especially when the first one ended with Tony Stark announcing that he was Iron Man. Two years later and after taking a break to launch a new franchise with Sherlock Holmes and stealing the show as a dude playing a dude disguised as another dude, in Tropic Thunder, Robert Downey Jr. is back as the Invincible Iron Man.


The Film

Iron Man 2 begins six months after the first movie and the entire cast has returned with the exception of Terrence Howard as “Rhodey” Rhodes, which was fine with me as I thought he was the weakest link in the first movie. Director Jon Favreau has returned as well, despite some early contract disagreements with Marvel that threatened the chances of his return. We now find that Tony Stark has leveraged his already considerable reputation and popularity into new heights thanks to his one-man quest for peace. That crusade inevitably causes Stark problems both personally and professionally. 

Tony Stark by all outward appearances has everything under control, but in reality his private struggles are beginning to overwhelm him. Outside forces are conspiring against him, he is also dealing with his own self-destructive demons, all while fighting a senate committee for control of the Iron Man suit, which forces his best friend Rhodey (Don Cheadle) to walk a fine line between his friendship with Tony and his military duties. Stark’s enemies include a jealous competitor named Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) who wants nothing more than to be Tony Stark, and there is also the vengeful figure from his father’s past named Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke). 

As if all that wasn’t enough, Tony also discovers that the palladium element in his arc reactor that has been keeping him alive is also poisoning him. To survive, he must not only discover a new element that can generate the power he needs, but he also must make it work with his Iron Man suit. There is also the potential for romance between Stark and Pepper Pots (Gwyneth Paltrow), if he could only stop keeping her at a distance through his actions and banter. Stark’s seemingly irreverent attitude towards life is exposed to be a convenient front that hides his personal feelings that he feels he can’t share with anyone. It turns out that Stark has always believed that his father did not love him and it’s not until he sees some old footage of his father does he finally understand his family history and the legacy he has inherited.

The film primarily focuses on the concept of family legacy and how one generation can pass down their successes and failures to the next. In the 70’s Howard Stark and Anton Vanko teamed together to try to create a new energy source but their partnership fell apart due to their different objectives. Howard Stark had a dream of providing abundant energy for all while Anton Vanko was only interested in the technology solely for his own financial gain. Their falling out led to Vanko’s descent into obscurity and poverty while Stark’s fortunes skyrocketed. Just like their fathers before them, Tony Stark and Ivan Vanko are the flip sides of the same coin. On one side of the coin is the celebration of ingenuity and the good fortune that comes with it and the other side being a cautionary tale of what can happen when you use that genius for selfish reasons. As flippant as Tony Stark presents himself, he does want a peaceful world and is working hard to make it happen. Ivan Vanko on the other hand, only wants Tony Stark to pay for the injustice he believes Howard Stark perpetuated against his father. They will both use the same technology that was invented by their fathers to try to achieve their different goals.


Robert Downey Jr. is superb once again as the narcissistic and arrogant Tony Stark. It is a testament to his acting ability that he keeps Stark likable and easy to root for despite the character’s many flaws. I can’t think of another actor that could portray this role as well as Downey Jr. It’s obvious that a lot of his own personality and humor has gone into the role with a lot of dialog improvised by him during filming. It was the role he was born to play and it’s typecasting in the best sense of the word. He is aided by a stellar cast who all do well in their respective roles. Don Cheadle makes Rhodey true to the previous installment’s version but also makes it his own. Other newcomers to the franchise include Mickey Rourke, who makes the most of his limited appearances and exudes menace. He is a serious threat as he has Stark’s intelligence as well as the brawn. 

Another new addition is Sam Rockwell who is great as the weaselly Tony Stark wannabe Justin Hammer who will do anything to beat Stark at his own game. The beautiful Scarlet Johansson plays S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, the Black Widow (although she is never referred as such in the movie). Past stalwarts from the first movie include Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark’s longtime aide who has to assume more responsibility this go around and Nick Fury as played by Samuel L. Jackson who does his best to help Stark be the man his father wanted him to be. For continuity fans, Iron Man 2 takes place during the events of The Incredible Hulk as the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents are sent to New Mexico to try to resolve that situation. I love how Marvel is cross-pollinating each of their franchises. There are several easter eggs that I won’t reveal that will definitely play a part in future productions such as Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and of course the ultimate team up movie: The Avengers. The groundwork is being laid by each movie and Iron Man 2 does its part too. I am really looking forward to seeing all of the characters join forces down the road.


Jon Favreau’s direction is more assured this time and the ambush of Stark on a Monaco racetrack is well staged and exciting as well as the final battle at the end. There is a lot more action this time around but there is also a lot more time spent on the characters as well. In fact, the middle of the movie slows down while Stark has to come to grip with his family legacy and his feelings about his father and the people in his life. Rhodey and Pepper are both getting concerned about Stark’s irresponsibility with the Iron Man suit and doing what they can to help him, which causes some friction between all of them. Some may complain that all of these interactions should have been edited more but I enjoyed seeing a big superhero movie take the time to examine what makes a hero but also the cost that comes with it. 

For Stark, being Iron Man is literally killing him every time he uses the suit but he continues to do so because he believes in his cause. Once he learns to let go of his negativity (which Vanko never does), Stark can see things from his father’s perspective, which changes everything for him. The idea of accepting or cursing a family legacy and dealing with the fallout from that decision is an interesting one to be found in a summer popcorn movie. Like The Dark Knight before it, this is a superhero movie that isn’t afraid to offer more than the usual formulaic hero beats the villain story. All of the characters have their own flaws and they succeed or fail despite them. Despite being worth millions of dollars, Tony Stark is still relatable because he is as human and as imperfect as the audience watching him. That fact, along with Downey Jr.’s fantastic portrayal of Stark combines to make a winning combination that elevates the genre once again.


Final Thoughts

This is a great movie that expands on the first one and allows some character growth along with some great action scenes. I highly recommend seeing it in on an actual IMAX screen while you still can! Make sure you stay to watch the end credits so you don’t miss the scene that take place once the credits are over.


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