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Monday, May 10, 2010


If you’d asked me to name the all-time best comic-book adaptation movie, my nominees would have been the first two Spider-Man movies...and 2008’s Iron Man.

As of this weekend, I’ve just seen Iron Man 2. Does it measure up to the first one? The conventional wisdom about these things is that once you’ve gotten the first movie and the requisite “origin” story out of the way, it frees you up to do better films and better stories. Does Iron Man 2 bear this out? Well, it’s good, but perhaps not quite that good.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked it. I think I was just expecting to be a little more impressed than I was.

Iron Man 2 continues the story of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), the super-inventor and one-man Halliburton who created a super-powered suit of armor to a) keep his injured heart beating after receiving a shrapnel wound in Afghanistan (originally Vietnam in the 1963 comic-book origin) and b) battle evil and keep the world safe from super-villainy. All the same stuff is in this movie that was in the last one, with just a different mix of ingredients (or components, if you prefer). There is, however, a different Jim “Rhodey” Rhodes, Don Cheadle replacing Terence Howard. Rhodey, as in the comic books, for reasons you’ll see, puts on a suit of armor that Tony isn’t using and becomes War Machine. A heroine is on board this time, as well: Also from the original Iron Man stories we get deadly super-spy Natasha Romanova, the Black Widow (Scarlett Johanssen). And there are naturally some different villains: From the comic books come “reimagined” versions of Whiplash and Justin Hammer.

It is to the credit of director Jon Favreau (who plays Tony’s chauffeur and pal Happy Hogan, and we’ll get to that in a minute) that they pack in all this stuff and somehow manage to screen a film that doesn’t seem overworked or overloaded. You don’t come away from Iron Man 2 feeling as if you’ve been assailed by four sequels at the same time--a neat trick that I wish the makers of Spider-Man 3 had managed to do. How exactly Favreau pulled this off, I can’t quite say except that the writing makes a difference, but gratifyingly, they did it.

For the virtues of the script, there are some drawbacks, though. The first one really goes back to the previous picture: By having Tony “come out” publicly as Iron Man at the end of the first film, they have eliminated one of the cleverest running plot devices of classic Marvel comics, namely Tony’s secret-identity ruse of letting the public believe that Iron Man was his bodyguard. I would have liked to see the movies work more with that. Instead, they went directly to Tony’s current comic-book status as a publicly known super-hero and celebrity like the Fantastic Four. Ah, well, it’s not such a big problem that it mars the picture. One of the main plots of the film concerns the Senate (led by an arrogant, obnoxious legislator played by Garry Shandling) trying to strong-arm Tony into releasing the Iron Man armor design to the military, a tale originally done in the 1960s Iron Man stories in Tales of Suspense. It’s a good and natural use of the character’s history.

The battle between Iron Man and Whiplash on a racetrack in Monaco reminded me of the intro story for another Iron Man comic-book villain, Titanium Man. Whiplash (Mickey Rourke, who I’m sorry to say has not aged well from the hunk he used to be) is not quite the same villain we know from the comics. Stan Lee and company made him a guy in a spandex costume with a whip that could cut through metal. (The comic-book Whiplash became Blacklash in the stories of David Michelinie, Bob Layton, and John Romita Jr.) In this cinema version he wears a power supply similar to that of Iron Man’s armor, and he has two whips that are actually whiplash energy bolts of ionized plasma. Oh, and he’s Russian, with a backstory that goes into Tony’s childhood and family history that I’ll let you find out for yourself. That, in and of itself, is really not so bad. The actual disappointment is our other villain, Justin Hammer.

Now, for those who don’t know the comic books, the evil financier Justin Hammer was originally a very clever invention of the aforementioned Michelinie, Layton, and Romita Jr. back in the 70s, and figured in some of the very best and most influential Iron Man stories ever done. (I mean really, these were wonderful. If you ever come across the trade paperback Iron Man: Demon in a Bottle and you don’t know these stories, READ THEM WITHOUT FAIL.) Hammer, conceived as a man probably in his 60s or older and modeled on film star Peter Cushing (the Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars Episode IV and a star of England’s Hammer Horror films, which is probably where the character’s name came from, now I think of it), was the guy behind the scenes of countless Marvel stories who supplied super-criminals and villains with their costumes, weaponry, and materials in exchange for a percentage of their ill-gotten gains. When the character was introduced, you wondered why no one thought of him sooner. Though evil, Hammer was well-bred, urbane, refined, sophisticated. You sort of wanted to admire him, but felt guilty about it. The cinematic Justin Hammer, as played by Sam Rockwell, is nothing like that. He’s a government contractor who helps Whiplash fake his death and then bankrolls his work to sell it to the military. Whiplash takes Hammer’s money and renews his vendetta against Tony/Iron Man. The movie Justin Hammer has none of the polish of the character from the comics. Here, Justin Hammer is nothing more than a rich, crude, conniving, avaricious jerk. It’s a wasteful rewrite of one of the best villains, and definitely the subtlest, in the Iron Man cast.

Our other heroes, War Machine and the Black Widow, are well presented. The Black Widow was originally an anti-heroine, a Communist agent who went from enemy to ally and defected. (The original Iron Man stories were Marvel’s most politicized works, steeped in the Cold War and the Vietnam conflict.) This Black Widow turns out to be an agent of SHIELD who’s been planted in the corporate hierarchy of Stark Enterprises. This occasions another appearance of Samuel Jackson as the Ultimate Marvel version of SHIELD leader Nick Fury, which I have to admit is a writing/casting decision I wish they’d made differently. These films are based, as I’ve noted, on the original, classic Marvel comics, not the revisionist Ultimate Marvel comics; their Nick Fury should be the white guy that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created, not the black guy from the Ultimate books. It’s a bothersome inconsistency in the interpretation of the material. I’ve nothing against Samuel Jackson (or black performers getting work in movies), but if you’re going to do classic Marvel, keep it classic! The use of War Machine--a militarized version of the Iron Man design with a missile launcher mounted on his back and an overall meaner, “bad-ass” version of the armor--was inevitable. This character appeals to the visceral, blow-’em-up sensibility of adolescent and post-adolescent fans--the people who love Wolverine and the Punisher--and was going to turn up no matter what. At least Don Cheadle made him fun to watch. The showdown between the duo of Iron Man and War Machine and the armored Whiplash comes to a pleasing end that is very cleverly foreshadowed earlier in the picture. This was a nice touch.

In the original film, director Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan--one of the most important early Iron Man supporting characters--was such a throwaway character that I didn’t realize that’s who Favreau was playing until my friend Andy Mangels pointed him out. (Nice catch, Andy.) Happy gets more screen time and much better business in this sequel. But as I was watching the credits (for reasons I’ll explain momentarily), I noticed that an Iron Man character introduced by Michelinie, Layton, and Romita Jr. was in this picture--and was the same kind of throwaway that Happy was the last time. One of the Stark corporate employees in Iron Man 2 was Bambina Arbogast, Tony’s faithful and self-assertive secretary. I completely missed Mrs. Arbogast because they didn’t call enough attention to her! They did it to me again!

The personal subplot in this film deals with a complication in Tony’s condition--and his attempt to keep himself alive with technology--the solution for which, like the Whiplash story, goes back into Tony’s childhood and his relationship with his father, the Walt Disney-like Howard Stark (played on old films within the movie by John Slattery.) You’ll see for yourself what it is, but it involves Tony believing he is going to die and stepping down as CEO of Stark Enterprises, turning over the reins to assistant and girlfriend Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). This gives Ms. Paltrow some more interesting situations to play than she had last time.

I have one other disappointment about this film, which is the same one I had about the first one. Whiplash and Justin Hammer (such as he is here) are perfectly good villains, but Iron Man’s true arch-nemesis remains missing. We need a cinematic smackdown between our Golden Avenger and the Mandarin! The Mandarin, far more than a mere super-criminal or costumed villain, is one of the world-menacing, planet-threatening, would-be conquerors of humanity who represent the highest ranks of evil-doers. He is Iron Man’s Dr. Doom. A Chinese dictator with ten super-powered alien rings, one for each finger, the Mandarin was my first experience with world-class arch-villainy. I first discovered Marvel Comics on the Marvel Super-Heroes TV show; in the Iron Man episodes, the Mandarin was the villain who actually worried me. Every time he appeared, I was afraid this was the time he was going to get our armored ace. The Iron Man movie franchise is missing its number-one villain. Now, the moderator of The Gay League, whose opinion I respect, suggests that the Mandarin has been omitted because Paramount is afraid he will bring up the old “Yellow Peril” stereotypes and offend the Asian audience. I’m not sure I completely accept this as a real possibility; a sufficiently skilled screenwriter should be able to give us a Mandarin of the requisite evil who is not an Asian caricature. We’ve had Fantastic Four movies with (a character superficially resembling) Dr. Doom; Spider-Man movies with the Green Goblin and Dr. Octopus; Superman and Batman movies with Luthor and the Joker. So we really ought to be able to have a battle between Iron Man and the Mandarin on the big screen. I still want the Mandarin!

Now, about those closing titles. I know a lot of people are inclined to walk out of the cinema and not bother to stay and listen to the ending theme, but it’s my habit to stay for them unless I really can’t stand the music. (J.A. FLUDD FACTOID: If the soundtrack for a film is by John Williams, I refuse to walk out on the closing titles. I will not walk out on John Williams!) If it is your custom to walk out on the closing titles of a movie, you really must resist it for Iron Man 2. Be patient and sit through them, because after the credits have rolled you’ll be back in the movie for a few more minutes for a scene that will set up the next Marvel movie. All I’m going to tell you about this is that if you’ve read Fantastic Four #536 and 537 and/or you know which Marvel property is being filmed even as you’re reading this, you’ll immediately get what’s going on.

Final verdict: See Iron Man 2. It’s good and you’ll have fun.

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