RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 23: Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man 2” (2010)

Iron Man 2

The Players…

Robert Downey, Jr, Mickey Rourke, Gwynth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johanssen and Sam Rockwell (with of course Stan Lee).

The Story…

So now the world’s aware of his identity as Iron Man, Tony Stark must contend with both his declining health, a would-be nemesis with ties to his father’s legacy and keeping the straight image of legit industrialist and armored avenger. That and keeping his boozing in check.

A tale of vengeance and fathers and scotch? To the movie mill!

The Rant (and it is indeed a rant)

What is it about sequels that polarize us so? A good story demands. The audience wants to know, “Then what happens?” A sh*t story demands…not a lot. At least, along thinking man’s curves. Hollywood has probably churned out more sequels than original movies, not that story has demanded it. That was never really the case. Hollywood exists, like any other enterprise, to make a profit. And if one of their properties wants to go franchise (with a healthy backing on name recognition, like say…Marvel Comics), they sally forth in hopes to make a profit on the value of “Then what happens?”

Since the first X-Men movie, Hollywood got hip to the idea of making movies from comic book plots. Nowadays, they’re expected fodder come summertime (at least). And since most comics are serial, there’s always gonna be another story the Wednesday next. There’s always the “The what happens?” at the end of every comic book story arc. Movies? It’s a gamble. Depends on how well the story was executed. Spider-Man demanded a sequel, since it was so well done and Spidey’s universe is rife with stories to draw from. The X-Men franchise demanded a sequel simply because the cast was so huge and ever expanding therefore demanding more story and more story and more story (fact: writer Chris Claremont was the head writer for X-Men for sixteen years straight. A feat no other comic book writer may ever top). The Fantastic Four…ummm, I’m gonna go watch Blade again.

Needless to say the proliferation of comic book movies, with their already storyboarded scripts, offer up sequel opportunities a-plenty. Like I hinted at above, sequential stories can be a crapshoot. It’s a checks-and-balances system of “can we make some money?” versus “is it worth trying?” The first Iron Man movie was very rewarding. Logic in Hollyweird dictates that if it worked the first time, it’ll work the second. And the third. And the fourth. And therefore is how the Fast and Furious legacy began. But seriously, like other superhero crusades, Iron Man also has a rich history to mine. Not as well known as, say, Spider-Man, but still being extant for almost fifty years counts for something, right?

Right. So, about the sequel thing. There are precious few sequels that are worth their salt in the history of film. The Godfather, Part II, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, from what I’ve heard The Lord of the Rings, pt. III (I was never much for fantasy. See the Oz, The Great and Powerful installment) was pretty decent, and a good portion of the James Bond and The Thin Man movies was a lot of fun, if they even count as sequels. Still, I think most (thinking) movie-going folks raise an eyebrow whenever the story is expanded, even if there is enough grist in the mill to keep it going.

Me? I think I’ve always been suspect of sequels, since so many of them seem to obey the law of diminishing returns. More money for less art and all that jazz. Diluted story, continuously wrung dry by the likes of Bay and others of his ilk. If there’s the “Then what happens?” feeling going on, I’ll play along. But five-plus installments of Saw? Endless derivatives of Halloween? Transformers 8: When Tickets Cost Fifty Bucks to Stream (I f*cking hate Michael Bay), then I get not only suspect, but downright hostile (surprise!). Sequels are generally put out to empty our pockets, regardless of “Then what happens?” Such cases reminds me of when my kid is wont to ask about a favorite story. But she’s seven, and after the ending of a seriously closed book. But since Iron Man is aimed at alleged grown-ups, and has a full and somewhat unplumbed history to draw from, even I was curious as to…well, you know. Scuttlebutt told me that this sequel was inferior, tired, Standard-worthy material. Welp, here’s what I divined.

But first, to the synopsis…!

Tony Stark (Downey) has been outed. By himself. He is indeed the armored adventurer Iron Man. And, oh, what a wonder he has done as his cyborged self to better the world with his high tech hubris. Peace in the Mideast! A deterrent to possible nefarious nuclear activity in North Korea! A danger to your liquor cabinet! It seems that with great power…oh, save it for another guy. Stark just wants to have fun as a superhero, a household name brand and a potential franchise. However, it’s very unfortunate that he’s been heist by his own petard.

Turns out that the very tech he created to maintain his mini arc reactor heart is also killing him, as well as any excessive activity in his Iron Man suit. He knows time is running out, possibly for himself and the half-life on his Iron Man tech. After all, he learned from his father Howard (Mad Men’s John Slattery, cool cameo!) that the future is possible, if you learn how to mine it. That being claimed, it could only be a matter of time for another questing soul could capture the science that made Stark Industries so proud and powerful.

Someone did, and has passed it onto the son. Unfortunately, this son is a tad more maleficent than Howard’s.

Howard Stark’s industrial fortune was co-built with a very silent partner. Anton Vanko, lost in the shuffle that is the march of progress, becomes the flipside of Howard’s rich empire; destitute, dying and wasting away with his son Ivan (Rourke) in a hovel in a forgotten part of Russia. Upon his deathbed, Anton urges his son to follow his footsteps and continue the research that he started in hopes for Ivan to carve out a slice of the good life denied him by the whims of fate. And the Stark family. With a grinding of metal teeth and a taste for vengeance on Tony Stark, Ivan sets to work on said research, a virtual mutation of the arc reactor, this time with energies flowing outwards instead of in.

That’s not all which is amiss and unawares in Tony’s world. His Iron Man tech has also drawn attention from Congress, seen as a portable WMD worn by its maverick and often-reckless owner. With such unregulated power running through Stark’s enterprise (like he one made one suit, please), it was only a matter of time before the powers that be and the US military wanted a piece of Iron Man.

Now our hero finds himself attacked on both fronts. One side from a would-be avenging enemy that demands his share of the glory, and the other flak from the country he tries to defend. That and there’s this business of trying to run a trans-global company dynasty with his own body betraying him. Anthony Stark has seen it rough playing the hero, but is it his own humility and mortality going to be his downfall?…

As far as sequels go, Iron Man 2 is just okay. Then again, most sequels are just okay. As I mentioned above, sequels are a hit-and-miss kind of venture. The producers of Iron Man 2 tried to make lightning strike twice by repeating a mistake that happens with sequels to successful original movies: simply repeat the formula. What worked so well with the first Iron Man film is that everything was new. I mean, the plot wasn’t. There are only so many plots Hollywood writers can draw from, and the “humbled hero redeemed” is a classic theme and was put to good use with energy and humor in Iron Man. The second time around, well…It’s not so new anymore.

Iron Man 2 establishes a new concept I’d like to dub “sophisticated camp.” There’s a lot of cartoony flash-and-dash here, underlined with some drama that could be regarded as tongue-in-cheek. At least I thought so. This film feels a lot more carefree than the first, and it moves at a breakneck speed. Not as, dare I say, “heady” at the first Iron Man with its pseudo-socio-political undertones. Iron Man 2 has rapid-fire pacing, and I was unsure if I could keep up, let alone appreciate it. Despite that this movie was more freewheeling than the first, it lacked the verve of the first movie. This sequel played like a by-the-numbers action movie, period, with a lot of meta, subtle in-jokes and the crashing of metal on metal. Like I said, repeat the formula.

However, I liked the feel of the movie. Its breezy nature, though at times teetering on plain goofy, was what felt like a good waste of time. Part of the thanks falls to the director for that one. Jon Favreau has a style that is whimsical yet demands your attention very sternly. The scenes may be full of unrestrictive joking, winking, speeding and hamming it up, it does get in the pocket where the fun meets the drama (such as it is). There is substance behind all the antics, but it takes a keen pair of eyes and ears to grab onto it.

Speaking of the humor rife throughout the film, there were a lot of little touches that I dug. I already mentioned the in-jokes, but there are also quite a few clever verbal segues and cues. One I liked was shortly before our villain Whiplash AKA Ivan Vanko exacts revenge on Tony with his new weapon, hanging out in the pit crew on the Grand Prix wearing a helmet with “Intervention” emblazoned on its brim is pretty witty.

Since we’re talking about Whiplash, I really enjoyed Mickey Rourke’s portrayal of Iron Man’s new foe. Rourke was never considered the strong, silent type back in his heyday. But it worked here. He was menacing and funny, and used that battle-scarred mug of his to great effect (boxing sure took its toll on Mickey, eh?). He did have a certain presence in the movie. Was it charming? In a whacked-out kind of view, yeah. Right. He was fun. What makes me wonder is why the studio chose such an obscure villain as Whiplash to be the antagonist of this film? Because he looks cool has my vote.

More on the acting. Downey as Stark is smarm incarnate. He’s like the cool kid in high school with the flash wheels and the blonde, dimwitted cheerleader girlfriend in the trunk. The Family Stark abode was the place to go when his parents were out of town and the keg was in the basement. Downey is a great actor. He’s always been left-off-center funny but can really tear into it when he has to. You can see he relishes this role. An aside: when I first caught wind that Downey was going to portray Iron Man, I thought it was a stroke of genius. My fellow comic book heads hemmed and hawed, for reasons I never got (comic nerds are a cagey lot). But look: here’s actor with a well known, well publicized substance abuse problem, has had scrapes with the law and habitually shot himself in the foot due to his own hubris. Sounded like Stark material to me.

Don Cheadle is a criminally underused, underappreciated actor. He is very literate, earnest and confident. He replaced Terrence Howard from the first film as Rhodey/War Machine here, and it was for the better. Despite the fact Howard looked more like Rhodes in the first film, Cheadle is better at delivering lines. Howard bounced back and forth from stern to…stern to…did he even enjoy the role? Cheadle really dug into his role. Then again, I think his delivery was troublesome and it’s mostly due to him undertaking mediocre roles. He’s better than that. (About the debut of War Machine: it was somewhat in line with the canon. But the mano y mano scene was kind of corny. I mean, really. Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots?)

Sam Rockwell as Hammer was the wild card. He’s a wheeler-dealer, and that kind of characterization stinks of a summer movie, this kind of heavy. It was kind of a bait-and-switch, with Whiplash seemingly posing as the head baddie (remember Christopher Walken in Batman Returns? Uh-huh). Rockwell is too hammy. Professionally, I’m a cook. The other day I nicked my thumb (just bear with me). It happens. However as a cut heals, and has to be sealed under a bandage. A certain “scent” of the healing sets in. The wound absorbs the toil of the day. The day consists of maybe 12 hours on average. That means very many times dipping it into salt wells. It stings and so does the smell of the wound. So smells Rockwell’s performance. I guess what I’m saying is I could’ve done without Rockwell as Hammer. I mean the role was good, just poorly acted.

By the way, Scarlett Johannsen is in Iron Man 2. Moving on.

For years in the comic book, it was kind of an open secret that Tony Stark was Iron Man. I liked the fact in the film that him outing himself did not result in the usual crap storyline of now the hero’s friends and family are in mortar peril. Stark just uses it as a smart business ploy. And this could be his undoing in a different way. If there is a message to Iron Man 2, it’s the classic we have met the enemy, and he is us. I suppose you have some have some meat on the well-chewed bone to satisfy the human equation.

But overall, this sequel lacks gas. The first film worked better because of more internal drama. You know, the human factor. This one traded in spectacle. Pretty good spectacle, but you can’t dig for gold in a silver mine (yeah, yeah. An Elton John lyric. I’m not beneath some things). If anything, Favreau with all his wonder-dealing is too slick. With all its whiz-bang, the movie’s a bit clunky. Despite all the snappy dialogue, there is too much exposition. In the final analysis, Iron Man 2 is schizo movie. There’s a lot to enjoy here, but it’s been done before and better. There’s a lot to carp about here (there’s a shock), but it’s mostly minor. But there’s a lot of it.


I guess I really wanted to like Iron Man 2. A part of me still does. Did Favreau capture lightning in a bottle the first time? Kinda, yeah. But was this sequel another exercise in separating the audience from their money, capitalizing on the ravenous appetites of more noise? Naw. We were operating on the “Then what happened?” dynamic. And there always more to happen in a comic book franchise.

I heard there was a third installment of Iron Man. Hmmm…

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Coin flip. It depends on what you’re tastes are. I’m gonna relent it. But if you want to watch it, be sure you’re wearing the proper lenses.

Stray Observations…

  • John Slattery as Howard Stark! Garry Shandling as Sen. Stern! Stan Lee as Larry King! Exclamation points!
  • “I’ve successfully privatized world peace.” Ironic Nixon salute.
  • Once when I was musing with comic book dealer Jeff (shortly before the first Iron Man came out) I claimed, “You know who’d make a good Jarvis? Paul Bettany.” When I finally saw the movie and read the closing credits, I accidentally smacked my fiancée in the face with surprise. Guess I won…something.
  • “Don’t say wind farm; I’m already feeling gassy.”
  • I love the soundtrack.
  • “Sir, I’m gonna have to ask you to exit the donut!” Only Sam Jackson (that and the Pulp Fiction throwback).
  • “Coffee Bean?” More meta for Marvel zombies.
  • “Why is drone better?” “People make problem.” Yep.
  • I was a kid in the 80’s and getting into comics when I first read Iron Man I thought he was a black guy. Then I didn’t know of any black superheroes, so I was entranced. Later I learned that Tony Stark was MIA as Iron Man due to his alcohol abuse, and Rhodes took over for a time. I was bummed that Iron Man was originally a white guy. Needless to say that since then, I’ve been a big backer of War Machine in the funny pages. He came across as more focused, tougher…and sober. And he had a bigger armory.
  • “Nice work, kid.”
  • By the way, Black Widow is a lot older than she seems.

Next Installment…

What, another comic book film? Not again! Aw, c’mon. You gotta get into The Spirit of things!


RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 21: Kerry Conran’s “Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow” (2004)

Sky Captain

The Players…

Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Giovanni Ribisi and Sir Laurence Olivier(?).

The Story…

The world’s cities are under attack by huge robots! Prominent scientists from around the globe have mysteriously gone missing! Who is this fearful Totenkopf being whispered about in the scientific community? Reporter Polly Perkins’ inquiring mind needs to know. So she better enlist an old flame from the past with the skills (and the ride) to get her to the bottom of these mysteries.

Calling Sky Captain! Come in, Sky Captain!

The Rant…

I think I’ve always had an affinity for old technology. When I first ventured into writing, I started on my grandparents’ old “portable” Underwood typewriter. This so-called portable clunker was the size of and weighed as much as two cinder blocks. I later graduated to my aunt’s hand me down IBM PCII. It was already a decade outmoded when I inherited it. No mouse, floppy disks, the on/off switch at the rear of the CPU the size of a late 70’s VCR and a clunky monitor with no graphics, just ghostly algae-colored letters on a screen. This was in 1992, before God. I had only a Gibson-esque idea what real computers were for or like. My first car was a very used ’78 VW Rabbit. The first video games I played were on an Atari 2600. Hell, I had a sh*t TV with dials on the fool thing. I guess I say I “think” I’ve had an affinity for old tech probably because I didn’t have a choice. Old tech is better than none I suppose.

Still, I do enjoy me some old timey stuff. In addition to futzing around with ancient tech like in an episode of Fringe, I also figure this kinship came from frequent visits to my Mom’s parents’ place. Their house was in their family name for what had to be close to a century. The place was not unlike a museum, filled with antiques, old portraits, sterling silverware on the mahogany dining table. Even the backyard garage had its own—albeit nonfunctioning—gas pump. The place kinda stayed in the realm of 1949; nothin’ fancy to plug in. For example, even when there was access to cable television, my Grandfather was faithful to the aerial receiving only seven channels from the reliable New York airwaves (he even went to far as to protect this vital connection by unplugging the TV at night, just in case of lightning strikes. I didn’t get it either).

Needless to say, being somewhat unknowingly deprived (no f*cking mouse. In 1992) of newfangled gear and being entrenched in my extended family’s time capsule of a house, I gained an appreciation of stuff-that-was-before-me. It seemed like the producers of Sky Captain were of a similar mindset, and when I caught wind of their highly stylized, retro-minded, full of classic machinery in action, Art Deco movie magic, I assumed it would a sort-of Flash Gordon kinda narrative. Splash and dash and a healthy amount of tongue-in-cheek humor. Hell, look at the freakin’ title already.

Was it? I’m here reporting on it, aren’t I? Speaking of reporting…

Dauntless New York Chronicle reporter Polly Perkins (Paltrow) may be onto the scoop of the decade. She’s got a lead from a prominent scientist that his colleagues have all disappeared without a trace, and he may be the next on the list to go missing. All the good doctor knows is who may be behind these vanishings, a dastardly man known only as “Totenkopf.” And before the night is out, Polly’s lead has gone missing himself.

Not long after, sirens wail into the night. People scattered onto the streets. Up in the air is the formation of invading planes, ready to rain down on the city. But it’s not planes. Rather, its giant looming robots that crash onto the streets and stomp up and down the avenues, as if looking for something.

The call goes out. The city needs rescue from these mechanical menaces (all bearing a peculiar insignia on their chests). It’s up to one man and his air force for hire to halt the invasion: Joe “Sky Captain” Sullivan (Law) and his souped up aircraft at the ready. He handily thwarts the invasion, but only after the robots find their quarry. Generators. Huge electrical ones from the bowels of some felled building. Curious for all the collateral damage. What do robots need with generators?

Turns out this isn’t an isolated incident, but most of it has been kept under wraps. Robots of all shapes and sizes have been popping up around the globe for some time now, all bearing that curious emblem, snatching tech and vanishing to elsewheres unknown. Well, the Captain and his crew has got a few leads of their own to follow, and of course Polly has a nose for news. She demands to tag along with Cap to get to the bottom of the disappearances, the robots, who this mysterious Totenkopf is and what’s his aim.

So we got ourselves a mystery, a fearless pilot, a reporter with some moxie and lot of globetrotting ahead. Let’s take to the skies…!

I wasn’t completely let down by Sky Captain’s promise of CGI-rendered classic tech. It sort of was what I expected. Kind of a Jules Verne meets Will Eisner meets Max Fleischer meets Jonny Quest vibe going on here. Captain’s a visual treat, to be sure, but it’s kind of a muted treat. In fact, most of this movie seems muted.

I liked this movie; it was fun. However throughout my viewing, I could not but help thinking that writer/director Conran was holding back on us. Yes, the visuals were stirring (I loved the lighting, CGI or no), the score was majestic, the acting was charming and the overall story read like something out of a Golden Age comic book. Fine, fine. The issue I take is that the whole movie felt confined. No, not confined. Compartmentalized. Each arc of the story didn’t really feed seamlessly into the next. Hence the comic book allusion. Frame by frame. Going through the numbers. Couldn’t get it into gear. Pick whatever analogy you like. It’s like Captain was a firework ready to blow and someone just cut the fuse. There just wasn’t a lot of verve you’d expect from a movie titled Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. It was more like Sky Captain and He’ll Eventually Get That Plane Reaching for the Heavens.

It wasn’t as if Captain wasn’t trying to reach for something more. There is an underscore of big deal, grand, gee whiz bucky gizmo threading through the movie. Like I said, it’s reaching. Captain’s trying to be over the top, but it never seems to reach it. I had this desire to get some “more” here, whatever that more was (robots, I hoped) and it didn’t happen. Conran screwed the pooch on a movie with a lot of potential.

But don’t get me wrong. Like I said, overall it was fun. And there are a lot of nice touches throughout. For instance, the editing was excellent. Despite the paint-by-numbers pacing, how the scenes played out when Conran wasn’t hitting on the Robutussin were great, as was the cinematography. I know camera placement ain’t no real thang in a CGI-rendered movie, but most angles were executed quite well here (or at least programmed well).

You know what the style of Sky Captain reminded me of most? Rotoscoping. Back in my bilious review of A Scanner Darkly, I pointed out that this particular animation was the guts of that film in how it was shot. For those out of the know, rotoscoping is an animation technique in which animators trace over footage, frame by frame, for use in live-action movies. It was used a lot in the old Superman serials from the 40’s. With the lighting as it was, the actors and sets in Captain looked very close to cartoony, but not in a goofwad after school way. I guess this was an homage to the serials and comics that must of inspired this movie in the first place.

There’s a light-heartedness to Sky Captain that I found endearing. It’s kinda goofy, as if the actors are quite aware this little trifle is a riff on the tried and true Indiana Jones model, with planes. And robots. And Sir Laurence Olivier back from the dead (really!). But it’s got a lot of light humor I dig. Not self-effacing, but definitely tongue-in-cheek. Angelina Jolie with an eye patch and working her best British/Lara Croft accent? Come on now. Get hip.

The acting was as best could be called a lark. To review, Law tried to play the Captain in a combo of Indy and soft-spoken WW2 fighter pilot…with an ulcer. He was slick and smooth but not as rough and ready as most heroes of that ilk are to my liking. He definitely didn’t have a way with the ladies. It’s inferred that the Cap and Polly once had a relationship that fizzled out over something to do with his plane, but that’s about as far as it goes. And Paltrow is a prime example of “I got my Oscar, now let’s have some fun” (like almost every movie Pacino has made in the past twenty years. Zing!). Her Polly Perkins may get aggravating sometimes, and she plays that my girl Friday thing to the hilt. But it works, if you just go with it. It’s a stereotype that fits in with the movie’s motives, so I’ll give it a pass. I particularly liked Ribisi as Cap’s version of Scooter from the Muppets (“Shazam!”) with him tooling around with the retro gadgets he cooks up. If he was the deliberate comic relief, then good, but the film was comic enough without him.

This coulda been a summer movie, but it would have been too…what’s the word?…constipated to compete with Marvel’s next cinematic endeavor (Damage Control: The Movie! Now we’re really scraping the bottom here) or whatever Michael Bay plans to blow up for 100 minutes. There’s this feeling of (in a Monty Python way) “Get on with it!” that sticks with Captain for too much of the film. Still, it remained fun, even for an Indiana Jones knock-off. It had cool aircraft. It had robots. It had rocket ships. It had a ridiculous plot was five degrees off campy. All it needed was a little Red Bull to really leap to life. Did I mention it has robots?

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A very mild rent it. It’s got a lot going for it, but Captain has a hard time getting there. If at all.

Stray Observations…

  • It’s true. The spire atop the Empire State Building was originally designed as a mooring for airships. What designers failed to anticipate were the powerful updrafts caused by the virtual canyon created by the skyscrapers up and down Manhattan. Science!
  • For those keeping track, “Totenkopf” means “dead head” in German. Come hear Uncle John’s band.
  • I saw the Buck Rogers comic book there! Don’t get all meta on me!
  • “You’ve got a gift.”

Next Installment…

We explore The Life Aquatic, With Steve Zissou as our guide.