No rust on Iron Man for part 2

Posted: Thursday, May 13, 2010

Iron Man 2'

Paramount Pictures

2 hours, 4 minutes

I've always been a big fan of comic book movies -- I guess that follows, since as a kid I was a big fan of comic books. Comic book movies are usually big, fast, and action packed -- a cinematic spectacle that makes you glad you went to the theater to see it. But what I like most about comic book movies, or at least the current incarnation of them, is that they are growing up with the medium.

I'm not necessarily referring to the fact that in today's comic book films you are as likely as not to find lots of sex, language and brutal violence. Those elements may be appropriate for the story, or maybe not.

What I'm talking about is the lack of campiness. The silly, winking, over-the-top style that made the 1960s "Batman" so fun, and the 1990s "Batman" so awful. Starting with the recent incarnations of "Spider-Man" and "X-Men," and culminating with the two "Iron Man" films, campiness in comic book films has officially been excised.

Instead, particularly with this week's "Iron Man 2," director Jon Favreau has replaced the goofiness with real character development, fine acting, and an attention to detail and honesty in his narrative. "Iron Man" is no "On Golden Pond." It's still funny and a little over-the-top, at times, but it never assumes the audience won't take it seriously, and so it takes itself seriously. It's a movie with confidence in the story it's telling, and that makes it all the more fun to watch.

Beginning with the last few minutes of the original film, wherein Robert Downey Jr.'s media-loving eccentric billionaire Tony Stark reveals that he is, indeed, Iron Man, part 2 immediately introduces us to Ivan Vanko, a Russian physicist whose father was a partner in the creation of the very technology that powers our hero and fuels his fortune. The elder Vanko was deported as a suspected spy for the Soviets and lived a life of shame and poverty. His son, Ivan, was brilliant, but disturbed, and spent years in Russian prisons.

Played by the recently buff Mickey Rourke, Vanko is covered in gang-style tattoos which, along with his long, greasy hair and evil-looking mustache, give him the look of someone you really wouldn't want to mess with. While Vanko is cooped up in some shadowy basement in the Eastern Bloc, developing his own special brand of WMD, Tony Stark is basking in the fruits of his labor. World peace is on the rise, his stock price is up, and Iron Man is the most popular hero on the planet.

To a guy who was already full of himself, all this attention is akin to throwing a lit match into a swimming pool filled with rocket fuel. Tony is on fire, and his self-destructive tendencies toward excess are in full force. His winsome and efficient assistant Pepper Potts, played by the winsome and efficient Gwyneth Paltrow, is just trying to keep her finger in the dike, but a combination of a beautiful and mysterious new employee in the person of Scarlett Johansson, a congressional subpoena, and a near death encounter with Vanko in Monte Carlo, bring it all to a head. Tony Stark is in trouble. He's being slowly poisoned by the technology that's saving his life, but this is really just a metaphor for Stark's masochistic need for celebrity. There's no question that Iron Man can survive a battle with killer robot drones. But can he survive Tony Stark?

What I really appreciate about a movie like "Iron Man 2" is that it feels completely connected to and a part of the original. There's no difference in tone, look, or message. The characters that were created in the first film are not cardboard cutouts, and they remain consistent throughout the two films. Tony isn't that likeable a guy. It isn't like he reached the end of "Iron Man" and was a completely changed person. Yes, his perspective on the world had changed, but that doesn't somehow keep him from being a narcissistic jerk. I like that. I like that the filmmakers aren't afraid to give their hero some layers, some depth.

This near perfect continuity is a little ironic, actually, as the only major change from production to production is that Stark buddy Jim Rhodes, played by Terrence Howard in the original, is now portrayed by Don Cheadle -- the result of failed contract negotiations, I guess. I like Howard, but Cheadle is definitely a step up.

Another thing I liked in this film, and this goes back to my original thesis about a lack of silliness, is the portrayal of other superheroes and villains. In the comic book, Ivan Vanko is a villain called Whiplash, and that's how he's referred to. That's fine for comics, but just comes off as childish on screen. Here he's just Ivan Vanko, and his devastating weapon says much more than a silly moniker ever could.

Ditto for the characters of Black Widow (Johansson's super-sexy super-spy), and War Machine (Rhodes' beefed up alter-ego in a cast off Iron Man suit). These are real characters, not candy colored cutouts, and the respect that Favreau and the screenwriters show them is part of what makes "Iron Man" a cut above. Add to the mix the perfect casting of Sam Rockwell as a weasly Stark competitor and Gary Shandling as an uptight Republican congressman and you have an amazing ensemble.

I really enjoyed "Iron Man 2." Was it as good as the original? I guess not, but so what? It's still one of the most enjoyable movies I've seen this year, and a perfect counterpart to its predecessor.

I don't normally read other reviews before I've written mine, but I've noticed that this "Iron Man" is taking a little bit of a beating from the critics, something I really don't understand. The biggest complaint is that it's missing the freshness of the original, but I just don't see it. "Iron Man 2" is fun, fast, action-packed, all the while offering new and real insight into consistent and ever-growing characters. It's even got more Samuel L. Jackson as the rough and tumble leader of S.H.I.E.L.D, here to provide more tantalizing hints about the accumulation of the Avengers, coming to the big screen in 2012.

"Iron Man 2" is exactly what I hoped it would be, and if the national critics want to look tough by pretending it's lacking, more power to them.

Grade: A

"Iron Man 2" is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence, intense action, language, and a few double entendres.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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