Dir. Jon Favreau. Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke
I’ve been workshopping this take since about halfway through this movie, and here’s what I’ve got: this is a significantly more interesting movie than Iron Man. It is not necessarily a better movie than Iron Man, because there is some real flab on this movie: the weirdly simple fixes for the seemingly insuperable palladium problems, the even simpler fix for daddy issues we didn’t know the character had, the action sequences that don’t have much to them, the abrupt semi-romance between Tony Stark (Downey, Jr.) and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) which is so absent of chemistry between the players that it’s hard to understand why that subplot even exists. These are serious problems that the movie has, and what people mean by “sequels have too much stuff in them” is “not enough of the sequel has the stakes we liked so much in the original movie.” There aren’t stakes to the palladium business if it can be solved as quickly as “here’s a shot from S.H.I.E.L.D.” and “Congrats, Mr. Stark, you made a new element.” There aren’t stakes to the daddy issue if it can be solved by Howard Stark (Jon Slattery) speaking to his adult son through a projector from the distance of 1974. There aren’t stakes to the Tony-Pepper relationship if so many bells and whistles can squawk around what they have and in the end they kiss and make up and pretend Tony never hid his impending death from her or that she took a CEO job for a major company and dropped it after fifteen minutes. Iron Man is almost certainly the better movie (though, insofar as I do star ratings, I wouldn’t rate it any higher than three stars either), but again, we’re not necessarily here for “good.”
Anyway, what doesn’t work in this movie really does not work at all, and even the stuff that people like about this movie—Tony Stark in his Iron Man getup eating a box of doughnuts from inside a doughnut—doesn’t work any better. If there is a complaint that’s been most prevalent in the intervening years, it’s that the movie is not particularly fun (true) and that Tony Stark has gone from charming to obnoxious. That the movie leans into Tony Stark as an unlikable little so-and-so strips a lot of the joy out of the entire idea behind this franchise, to say nothing of the franchise it would become. All you have to do to see that no one is ever that obnoxious again is watch a movie like Captain Marvel, which is so bland in terms of its humor and so colorless in terms of shading in Carol Danvers. Iron Man 2 is not good brand management;, down to the way that U.S. military branded robots try to kill our heroes. It’s impossible to imagine an MCU movie doing that kind of thing just ten years later! Captain Marvel, on the other hand, is the movie equivalent of every company on the planet sending out emails about the pandemic back in April. One may well argue that these movies are supposed to be fun without the complication of a complicated leading man, and I am sympathetic to that argument, but then again, what if Marty was right all along about these movies. All I know is that literal Elon Musk is in Iron Man 2.
In the first movie, Downey, Jr. completes a frankly remarkable balancing act, a man rehabbing from being one of the world’s worst people who still carries over a significant amount of the panache that signifies that world’s worst title. The arrogance in service of selling those psychotically enormous missiles is not entirely absent from the arrogance of the guy pushing his initial suit to its iciest limits in the atmosphere. Using his new weapon to ameliorate (but not emphatically not solve!) the problems his old weapons helped to further may even be the same arrogance. At the end of Iron Man, it turns out that the becoming humanitarian has the same reckless ego, the same extraordinary need for attention that he had before. When he says the words “I am Iron Man” at the end of that picture, he says “I still need to be in the spotlight.” We still like him at the end of that movie! He has changed enough, learned enough, that he might still have it within him to be heroic someday. Granted, this is a weapons dealer whose solution to becoming a better man is to make himself a better weapon, so the road must be long, but it’s clear that he’s attempting to walk it in the manner which takes his gifts into account.
In this movie, Tony is essentially living every hit band’s second album, in which the price of fame is exacting an incredible cost on him but the thrill of his roller coaster life is too great for him to set down. He turns Senate hearings into chances to expose his weaponmongering competition, Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) as a mixture of fraudulent and incompetent. His presentations are fireworks and busty women and, of course, the Iron Man suit, and so people go gaga for the man who has singlehandedly implemented a kind of Pax Ferrum over the early 21st Century and who delights in going gaga over himself. It is obviously all going wrong, and we need look no further than his drunken exploits in front of fans at his mansion to see that it’s all headed that direction where on his fifth or sixth album he’ll be able to express his regret that he couldn’t straighten himself out while he was still young enough to enjoy it. There’s an Iron Man 2 which might have been more interesting still in which this idea is expanded on more, a Tony Stark reaching rock bottom. Alas, this is an action movie for twelve-year-olds, so that strand is given over more to Robert Downey, Jr. and Don Cheadle punching each other in mechatronic suits instead to make their points.
This extended victory lap is also inspiring profound envy in his competitors and enemies, namely Hammer. Hammer is at least as obnoxious as Tony, although the ways in which he gets to that level of annoying are along obsequious lines instead. Justin Hammer has none of Tony’s brilliance, which makes him seem like a buffoon even when he’s doing regular Raytheon stuff, but the reason why he seems like such a goober is because he has an approach at all. Tony’s approach is charm; there’s that moment he casually throws in that champagne fridge with a sizable enough purchase from his corporation where the smooth talk feels utterly natural. There is nothing natural about Hammer’s approach, and while this movie definitely gives way too much screen time to CEOs dancing on stage in front of their new weaponry, seeing how badly Hammer tries to replicate Tony even in presentation is essential. Rockwell has always been good at playing people who learned to snivel before they learned to walk, and in that personal pantheon Justin Hammer must rank high. The closest he gets to Tony Stark is, interestingly enough, when he’s pitching the guns for the war machine outfit that Rhodes has basically janked from Tony’s garage. He lovingly describes these guns that they’ll ultimately glue to War Machine, and while I’m sure he feels very cool doing it, it’s a little sad compared to watching Jericho eradicate a mountainside in Iron Man. (Speaking of large scale demolitions, what this scene recalls most strongly for me is that sequence in Taxi Driver where Travis Bickle is inaugurated into the wonderful world of handguns. Suffice it to say there’s more Taxi Driver in this scene than there is in the entirety of a recent comic book movie which wore its Scorsese Halloween costume and screamed “I’M WEARING A SCORSESE HALLOWEEN COSTUME” at everyone else at at the party where he will not be invited next year.)
There’s very little Ivan Vanko (Rourke) in this movie, and what scenes he has are essentially present in the trailer. He’s given often as a disappointing villain, although I think that’s sort of a credulous way to read the picture. Ivan Vanko, with his own difficult father, with his own predilection for building arc reactors in a cave with a box of scraps, is not really the villain of the piece. He is a doppelganger (and in his own way, Mickey Rourke is kind of a hilarious evil twin for Robert Downey, Jr.), and he doesn’t spend a lot of time doing anything besides being Tony Stark with an accent via Russia and a face via the asphalt. So much of his role is just being a slightly menacing vibe who loves his cockatoo and programming robots to do what he tells them to do, and his basic absence from long stretches of the movie only cements for me that he’s not really the villain any more than like, Thanos’ glove is the villain. (I’m sorry if that comparison is off. I haven’t seen that movie, but I have been to Target in the past couple years.) Even if Hammer cannot control him, he is the tool that the movie’s actual and surprisingly realistic villain means to wield against its hero.