Iron Man 2 Review
The traditional approach to the comic book movie adaptation has evolved considerably in the last decade, mirroring to some extent the evolution that has taken place within the comic book medium itself. Up until recently you could, broadly speaking, divide the genre up into two camps – on one side there was the traditional unreconstructed comic-book good-versus-evil struggle between superheroes and supervillains, where the emphasis was on spectacle of the battle; and on the other side there’s the postmodern revisionist view of the crime-fighter, where their actions are more ambiguous, their motivations perhaps not so pure, leading to a darker, supposedly more realistic study of the psychology (or indeed the psychotic tendencies) of those who believe they have the right to act with a certain moral authority, still however with the emphasis on spectacle.
The original Iron Man movie most certainly belonged to the former camp, refusing to take itself seriously, playing rather as a straight action-adventure in the best tradition of Marvel Comics, with tongue firmly in cheek, but at the same time never entirely resorting to camp or self-knowing references. It didn’t want to examine the psychology of Tony Stark, make a commentary on real-world American foreign policy, international weapons dealing or terrorism, other than purely within the context of the Marvel universe. It was a lot of fun, if nothing more than that.
In the mere two years between the original Iron Man movie and its much anticipated sequel, the approach to the comic book adaptation has however changed considerably. While those dark, grimly serious visions of the tortured crime-fighter seen in Christopher Nolan’s Batman adaptations were influenced principally by the post-‘Dark Knight Returns’ vision of Frank Miller, they had completely lost any sense of irony and parody in the process. Miller tried to redress the balance and undo some of the damage he had inadvertently caused with his film adaptation of The Spirit, but no-one got it (true, perhaps Will Eisner’s creation may not have been the best vehicle for the parody). In short, it was as if ‘Watchmen’ had never happened, and indeed, as far as the movies were concerned, it hadn’t.
Since the original Iron Man movie in 2008 however, not only have we had Miller’s flawed but ahead of its time The Spirit, but the long awaited film version of Watchmen finally found its way up onto the screen in Zack Snyder’s impressive adaptation that was utterly faithful to intent and purpose of the original graphic novel. While the impact hasn’t been as revolutionary as it was to completely shifting the direction of US comics, there are very clear signs however that it may have had a significant and similar impact on the way superhero movies are now made. A straight split between the more innocent superhero action adventure and the grimly realistic violence of the modern revisionist approach now no longer seems possible – or at least, it is no longer fashionable – but some acknowledgement or concession must now be made to irony before you can have your fun.
Kick-Ass, the other significant superhero movie of the new era, exemplifies that approach done reasonably well. In the post-Watchmen world of comics and movies, Mark Miller and Matthew Vaughn’s creation doesn’t have anything unique or original to say itself about the place of superheroes in the consciousness of the general public, but including enough self-knowing references and post-modern irony it is able to a large extent to justify its otherwise traditional approach to comic book plotting and violence. Iron Man 2 on the other hand gets it wrong on every level.
The fault must lie squarely with screenwriter Justin Theroux. Without even getting into the merits or otherwise of Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko (a pretty feeble villain with no real attempt to give him motive or credibility, he would be fine on the comic page but is rather weak here), the same team and all the main elements that made the original Iron Man a great deal of fun are still here, albeit not quite so much fun second time around. There was a delicate balance in Robert Downey Jr.’s playing of Tony Stark the first film as part naïve weapons manufacturer and part smug genius, one that was neatly undercut in his sparring with Gwyneth Paltrow’s turn as his prim and fussy PA, Pepper Potts. That balance is lost completely in the sequel, there being nowhere else to take their relationship other than towards a predictable falling-out and making-up. Stark meanwhile is transformed into a complete egomaniac showing off his brilliance at all year-round Expo, in competition with rival weapon maker Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell). There’s something rather obscene, not to mention hard to believe, about these two businessmen putting on demonstrations of weapons of mass destruction while backed by cheerleaders and cheered on by whooping fans as if they were rock-stars. What’s that all about?
Well, I guess it’s supposed to be irony, but if it is, the subtleties are largely lost on the viewer, particularly since throughout the film Theroux’s idea of irony consists of nothing more than building something up to enormous proportions and then deflating it. Note, for example, Hammer’s demonstration of various weaponry to the arm the US Military’s version of the Iron Man suit, building it up to an all-powerful, but neatly compact missile which, in the end, of course turns out to be a complete dud. This approach can be seen throughout the film, from the absurd notion of a trainer suggesting Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff step into the boxing ring (Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson as SHIELD agents moreover impossible to take seriously after The Spirit), to her Hit Girl-style acrobatic dismantling of Hammer’s goons that ends with a pathetic Mace-spray taking out of the last man as a punchline. It’s all about building up and deflation, and ultimately, after all the build-up, Iron Man 2 falls just as flat.