Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Iron-Man 2: Trade-Show Disappointment

Having enjoyed the first Iron Man (especially its commentary on modern warfare) – and intrigued by Marvel’s interest in creating an entire Saturday matinee serial of Avengers movies – I, like most, was eagerly awaiting the new Iron Man. Finally, I thought, we would get to see a comic movie move past the creation saga and into the realm of modern relevance mixed with serious fun.

Alas, such is not the case with this Iron Man reprisal. Tony Stark – having effectively “privatized world peace” with his Iron Man suit, has retired into the role of bemused oligarch and trade-show host, handing the reigns of his company over to his under-confident factotum, Pepper Pots, while he struts his stuff on stage with scantily clad gun-toting bimbos, or gives a sardonic lecture to the perpetually annoyed congressman Gary Shandling (who is apparently representing the only useful inclination left for Congress – Borscht-belt comedy), practically inviting some foreign baddy to invent technology worthy of messing up his shit.

Somebody eventually does – a bulky, brooding Russian named Ivan Vanko, played effectively by Mickey Rourke. After dissing Mr. Stark with some ingenious high-voltage lion-tamer outfit powered by the same technology invented by Stark, but failing to cause any serious harm, Ivan explains his strategy. He doesn’t need to take out Iron Man. All he needs is to show the world that Iron Man can bleed. And so, after forty-five minutes of interminable setup, we finally get the most promising line of the movie: “Then there will be blood in the water, and the sharks will come.”

The idea is delicious: that we might see a super-hero movie effectively about the dangers of social media PR, and the ability of a single disgruntled customer to take down a corporate giant (one is reminded of Dave Carroll’s "United Brakes Guitars." If Ivan were to have created a theme-song – instead of a plasma-powered cat o-nine-tails – it might have been titled, “Stark Kills Millions”).

Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t take this idea seriously enough to pursue it. Instead, Ivan gets commandeered by rival weapon’s manufacturer Justin Hammer (played with that ever-entertaining “huh, what?” insouciance by Sam Rockwell). Hammer is supposed to be the movie’s bad guy – though he’s hardly much different than Stark in his morals and ambitions, which, in this movie’s topsy-turvy militaristic ethos, makes him something of a good guy as well. Hammer convinces Ivan to make something impressive for him – but kind of like a private chef, gives him free range to invent whatever his distorted mind can come up with. Unfortunately, the guy seems to think he’s in a Terminator movie, since what he comes up with looks like a cheap version of a Cyberdyne ripoff. This gives the whole remaining plot of mechanical Cylons shooting down trade-show goers, and Iron Man’s kung-fu methods of dispatch, the moral airs of a 1980’s video game. Meanwhile, Pepper Pots – as the representative woman on the spot – gets to stand around like a lost marketing assistant trying to find a way to reboot the sabotaged droids. Even a cameo by Larry Ellison, of Oracle fame, can’t give this trade expo any tech savvy.

Iron Man 2 also does some yeoman work struggling to establish the Nick Fury character and set up the upcoming Avengers movie franchise. However, neither Fury nor his minions ever seem to make much sense, for most of what they are up to is taking place off-stage and off-script, as if we've yet to sign the NDA to see what the rest of the movies are supposed to be about. It’s about half-way through this, however, as the Fury entourage dawdles about the Stark digs, talking to him about finding the answers within while text-messaging some other (presumably more interesting) action happening elsewhere, that I began to worry whether the entire franchise would end up seeming so absent from itself.

Combine that with a prattling script that trades on trade-show tits and flying robots, and what started out as a gleaming film franchise is now beginning to seem a bit rusty, and showing the seams of a cynical, somewhat misogynistic, basically soulless money machine. Don't ask me how they got here so quickly, but it's as if Tony Stark himself has, at least for this outing, taken over Marvel Films.

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