The following is part of a series where I bring back some of my "older" reviews (those written during my 2004-2011 tenure at the now mostly defunct The Cinematheque) and offer them up to a "newer" generation. This is a special edition of Retro Reviews, looking back at the films that have led up to the May 4th release of The Avengers.
There is no denying one of the best casting jobs in recent motion picture history - past tabloid bad boy Downey Jr. playing the drunken playboy Tony Stark a la Iron Man as if by osmosis - and there also may be no denying an above average screenplay - especially by genre standards - and a sly coolness brought to the table by Downey and director Jon Favreau, but there is also no denying that this is a comic book movie and being so (no matter what that blobbish blemish of an ogre Harry Knowles has to say about it) can never crawl any higher than its slightly above mediocre entertainment-for-entertainment's sake accomplishment we see on the screen. I really wish it could, and perhaps someday it will, but for right now it may be quite fun, and quite adventure-riddled, but it is still something short of truly great.
Then again, perhaps true cinematic greatness is not really what a film like Iron Man should even be striving for. I mean really, how can we seriously expect something akin to action classics like Seven Samurai or Stagecoach. Perhaps sheer fun, just like one gets in the comics on which the film is based (even when they went deeper than expected) should be enough for any comic and/or movie fan. And yes, if nothing else, this film is indeed fun. Symbiotic lead performance aside, the cliche that befalls this film and its inevitable obviousness (is anyone even remotely surprised when the villain is "revealed"!?) not to mention its franchise-in-the-making nods and winks, is nearly enough to sink the film altogether, but in the end, it is its cockiness, its inherent fun, that saves the proverbial day. That and the surround-sound thump of Black Sabbath as the hero first kicks his requisite ass. Da da da da don.
ed. note: A few months after writing this review, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight came out and I was proven wrong that there could never be a truly great superhero movie. Oh well, it is good to be wrong in this case.
Iron Man 2
The first Iron Man movie, with its pitch perfect casting of Robert Downey Jr. as the titular hard-drinking, fast-living, egomaniacal, playboy superhero, and director Favreau's shoot first and never really ask questions at all action sequences, and a general irreverent outlook which was perfect fodder for such fare, was a surprisingly enjoyable Summer romp and one of the better superhero movies to come out as of late. This second edition of the franchise, mainly the first in a series of set-ups for the eventual Avengers Assemble uber-franchise set to start its engines in 2012, and now starring a seemingly bored Downey as an equally bored Tony Stark/Iron Man, is not only a much inferior film to the first, but also a frustrating let down in almost every department.
Action-wise, it is as scattershot and poorly executed as a Transformers movie. Story-wise, it is mere boilerplate foreshadowing for the aforementioned supergroup movie extravaganza. Cast-wise it fares a bit better, but just a bit. Downey is still a joy in any role, though, as I said earlier, quite bored it would seem. Comeback kid Mickey Rourke plays at a frenetic kind of stoicism as requisite baddie Whiplash, even though his role is mere cliche. Scarlett Johansson looks great kicking ass in skin-tight leather as the master spy and femme fatale Black Widow but is nonetheless a drag. Gwyneth Paltrow, returning as Stark's sidekick and periodic lover Pepper Potts is even more of a drag than Johansson.
Don Cheadle, as Rhoady/War Machine, may be a better actor than the rather lackluster Terrence Howard (who played the part in the first film and who was infamously ousted for part deux) but is given very little to do other than pose in a big-ass tin suit. Samuel L. Jackson is superfly as always as Nick Fury, but there is much too little of the superspy to make it worth your while. Only Sam Rockwell, as Stark's business nemesis and Whiplash's benefactor Justin Hammer, manages to do anything along the lines of stealing the show. In fact he does just that. Unfortunately there is not much of a show to steal in the first place.
From an auteuristic viewpoint, unless it is directed by someone with the chops/cahones of Chris Nolan, no one expects greatness from a superhero movie in the first place (even this comic geek can admit that) but after the giddy popcorn ride of the first film - replete with the obvious title track blaring over Downey's excesses of bad boy charm - one hopes for something better than this mediocrity in iron clothing. Much like the third Spider-Man, which was enough to put that franchise in deep sleep for a while and send director Sam Raimi racing back to his schlock comic-horror roots (and incidentally making one of the best films of his career!), this second coming of Marvel's tin soldier is both too much and not enough.
Seeming rushed and yet too laid back (I know, it makes no sense to me either!) Favreau's lack of directional skills, a thing that seemed to be a refreshing help the first time around - forget the dark, dank depths of the properly sinister Dark Knight, Iron Man is pure adolescent frivolity at its heartbroken metal core - ends up as much a hindrance this time as the shotty script that hovers around waiting for some hardpressed action scenario to rear its haphazard head. It may be a strange criticism, but it seems as though everything that made the first film work on the level it did, are exactly the things which make this followup misfire like a short-circuited repulsor ray.
I suppose this being just a cog in the wheel of what someday is meant to be a fully interlocking cinematic Marvel Universe, where each film crosses over with every other film just like the comic book world does (and where one day we may very well see The Incredible Hulk smashing Iron Man's shiny tin suit all up!) means the sum outweighs the parts, and therefore we are meant to just sit through the fodder in fanboy hopes beyond hopes they don't screw up that aforementioned Avengers Assemble movie and all the comic adaptations that come after it. Of course if Nolan's Dark Knight (and to an extent, Zack Snyder's Watchmen) hadn't come along and raised the bar on superhero movies in the first place, perhaps the mediocrity of Iron Man 2 wouldn't seem all that strange after all.
[Iron Man originally published at The Cinematheque on 05/05/08 / Iron Man 2 originally published on 05/11/10]