Time for a brief, random and rather rambling download of my thoughts on Iron Man 2.
It’s an odd situation with comic-book movies at the moment. There’s been two recent films that advertised themselves as game-changers, as daring and adult slants on the superhero movie – and yet Watchmen was, to be honest, a disappointment, and while I haven’t seen Kick-Ass (I have major issues with the original comic series), it hasn’t done as well as people expected it to. The realm of comic book movies is still fairly orthodox – for the most part, we’re left with DC on one side and Marvel on the other. DC are still experiencing wild variations of quality in their comic-book movie output – The Losers didn’t do especially well, and Jonah Hex looks, frankly, like a darker version of Wild Wild West (and I really don’t know why they’ve gone the fantasy steampunk route for a comic that’s been most successful as a pitch-black pure Western). They have been pretty hit and miss, but when they’ve hit – most notably with The Dark Knight – they’ve hit very big indeed.
Marvel, in the wake of the success of Iron Man in 2008, have been swanning around like the belle of the ball, getting terribly excited over the prospect of doing a movie of The Avengers in 2012, and generally acting like the cool kid of the school. Which is understandable, but I have to admit that while everybody and their aunt seemed to adore Iron Man, I wasn’t completely blown away by it. It’s certainly fun, and Robert Downey Jr. is fantastic casting as Tony Stark, and I can see that the general sense of frothy fun would be embraced by audiences who didn’t care for grim and gritty (There wasn’t a complete division, but a lot of the people who loved Iron Man didn’t adore The Dark Knight, and I believe vice versa). And yet, Iron Man felt very much like a film of bits – for a start, it lacked a real directorial identity. Jon Favreau is not the most exciting or distinctive director, and much of the film ended up feeling slightly flat. Of course, its set-piece driven, rather loose storyline was partly the fault of dumping the script shortly before shooting began (they were originally going to have old-school Iron Man villain the Mandarin as the villain – Jeff Bridges was supposed to be a support role who’d become a villain in the second movie, and was surprised to find himself beefed up to lead villain in film 1), but it’s the kind of film where there’s a distinct lack of connective tissues. There are fun scenes, and yet the whole thing doesn’t connect together or feel completely organic (and some editing shenanigans didn’t help at all – opening with the attack on Tony Stark’s convoy was very obviously a clumsy post-production choice, and I feel the film would have played much better chronologically, without a “Look! Big explosions!” opening). Without Robert Downey Jr., I felt like the film would have been fun but empty, a corporate blockbuster that smelled a little bit too much of product rather than movie, and with some slightly uncomfortable overtones (I really didn’t like the wish-fulfilment “Yes, I shall be heroic and go and save some poor helpless brown people from heartless terrorists!” aspects of the film).
So really, after all, it’s not suprising that when I went to see Iron Man 2, I wasn’t especially blown away by it, but I really wasn’t expecting to be quite as bored as I was. Part of it is just the fact that I think I’ve slightly burnt myself out on movies in general after my time as a film journalist – having spent years watching everything (including some very, very bad films) I’m much choosier now, and I do find it hard to get a film that truly holds my attention. Summer blockbusters are, to be honest, rarely outstanding, and while it’s nice to see some flash effects and escapism, I think I like it best when they manage to deliver a little more. And Iron Man 2 is the very model of a film that isn’t really interested in going outside its comfort zone – this is very much a ‘more of the same’ sequel that gives Robert Downey Jr. more chances to be eccentric, wisecracking and heroic, a mild plot arc, and a finale that naturally revolves around Iron Man fighting a big guy in a suit.
What’s surprising is how seriously weak the story is. It’s the kind of film that blows virtually all of its surprises in its trailers, and it’s very much of the Ocean’s 11 school of “Let’s just watch beautiful people being witty and then getting into mild danger”. There’s a sense that most of the cast have been let off the leash a little too much, while this is also a film that suffers from the X-Men 3 syndrome of too many plot threads. You’d think it would be a pretty straight revenge flick, with evil Russian criminal/scientist Mickey Rourke out to avenge his father, the co-inventor of the arc reactor that powers the armour. And yet, we get one big set-piece – a relatively spectacular fight on a race track in Monte Carlo – and Rourke’s character spends virtually the rest of the film sidelined from the action, and being shouted at by Sam Rockwell. For a slam-bang superhero flick, it’s amazing how much of the plot revolves around men in suits shouting at each other, and despite the subplot with Tony Stark on the verge of death thanks to being poisoned by the reactor in his chest, there’s a serious lack of jeopardy. It doesn’t really feel like much is at stake, meaning that we have to take advantage of welcome distractions like Scarlet Johannsen in a catsuit or risk getting rather unexcited.
It’s also got to be said that while Robert Downey Jr.’s career renaissance is something to applaud, he’s tetering on the edge of wearing out his welcome. What was fresh with Tony Stark two years ago has now ended up as schtick and is feeling rather tired – I actually found him massively unlikeable for chunks of the movie, and it doesn’t feel like RDJ’s going to be given any material that really pushes him (The film flirts with Tony being a drunken idiot thanks to his approaching death, but I can’t see them doing anything as dark as the classic Iron Man alcoholism storyline ‘Demon in a Bottle’). It almost feels like a TV series, in the way that they flirt with changes to the status quo and yet never completely go through with it, putting everything back so that we can have another jolly outing with Tony Stark in two years. Which is part of the problem – TV and comics are regular story machines, delivering adventure every week or month, while films like Iron Man take at least 2 years to turn up. When it does, I can’t help feeling that it needs to be significant, rather than feeling like just another bit of business, a loosely connected series of skits, scenes and setpieces that never really feel like they all belong in the same movie, and which leave much of the cast standing around twiddling their thumbs?
And, dear god, the “Look! Look! We’re doing The Avengers in 2012! Isn’t it exciting?” call-outs are getting old very quickly. I think I’ve been slightly spoiled with The Dark Knight – which has its flaws, but is also one of the most genuinely impressive superhero movies ever made, a superhero movie that’s actually about something. Not all movies have to be about something, of course, but Iron Man 2 has the pretence of being about something, and is also absurdly serious for much of its running time (especially in the way that they seem to desperately avoid using any of the original Marvel names other than Iron Man – Whiplash, Black Widow and War Machine are never actually referred to by name, which is an oddball approach to take. And yet, it is a film that’s divided between flip humour and look-at-me seriousness, a loud and flashy blockbuster that’s loud and flashy, and yet really doesn’t stay in the memory very long. Giving the people ‘what they want’ is all very well, but in the case of 2008’s The Incredible Hulk (the Marvel Studios reboot after Ang Lee’s original film) the results weren’t exactly that stunning, and while shifting the cross-referencing world of an entire superhero universe into movies certainly makes corporate sense, I’ve yet to be convinced that Marvel are going to pull it off. A lot of the directors they’ve been going for haven’t exactly been revolutionary or exciting – Joe Johnston helming Captain America is a fine example of going for a solid, dependable journeyman director. I am interested to see how Thor turns out next year – Kenneth Brannagh is at least a potentially interesting helmer, and this much more mythic take on the Marvel universe has to work, or The Avengers is going to be in serious trouble. I still can’t help feeling that X-Men 2 is still the finest Marvel adaptation so far, and that they’ll have to go some way to top that. And while it is oddly thrilling to see comic book characters like Iron Man hitting the screen, I’d far rather see someone trying to do the stories that comics does best – the experimental, wilder side of comics, the comics that push stories in dangerous directions. We’ve seen superheroes fighting it out a few too many times onscreen to be easily impressed (although, of course, soon we’ll be getting it ‘in 3-D’, to keep the novelty going for a while), and aside from the in-development third Batman sequel, I’m not sure that there’s a superhero film I’m seriously looking forward to right now. It’ll be interesting to see if and when this changes…