Thursday, May 13, 2010


Pepper Potts & Tony Stark in the original Iron Man

Because one of my kids owns the DVD, we prepped for Iron Man 2 by rewatching the original Iron Man last week. Big mistake. Numero 2 of the projected trilogy is but a shadow of the first film, which wasn’t any Macbeth or Godfather to start with. This is the case for two reasons. The first is narrative. The most interesting part of Iron Man lay not in the CGI or battle scenes, which were by-the-book fare at best, but in the development of the characters, particularly in the sexual tension between playboy-billionaire-turned-superhero Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) & his personal assistant Pepper Potts, played by & Gwyneth Paltrow, and also in Stark’s relationship with his best bud, James Rhodes¹, & even the primary bad guy, Obadiah Stane, played by Jeff Bridges. There is a presumption in the first film that we need to draw these characters out, and that’s at least half of its charm, given the quality of the character actors filling key roles. With the franchise established, director Jon Favreau (whose previous motion pictures were Elf & Zarutha: A Space Adventure) seems to feel that we already “get” the characters & can just cut to the chase, which is mostly what this film does, save for two subplots, one about Stark’s father, the other about his blood toxicity. The result is far thinner fare. The two other subplots, one about Pepper’s ascendancy to the CEO spot at Stark industries, the other about the presence of Natalie Rushman / Natasha Romanov (played by Scarlett Johansson) in the Stark inner circle are handled badly to the degree that they are handled at all. Paltrow, central as she is to the plot, has very little to do in Iron Man 2 except look great & scream a lot.

The second reason is a consequence of the first – not having to reintroduce or further develop the characters means not addressing the 800-pound gorilla in this film, the replacement of Terrence Howard as James Rhodes with Don Cheadle. Cheadle is a fine actor, but you never see – not once, not for a second – the softness & caring that is the essence of Rhodey’s intimacy with Tony Stark, something that was evident throughout the original Iron Man. There are conflicting stories as to why the switch – Howard was a difficult actor & got paid more than anyone else in the original film², more than Downey even – but the investment is evident onscreen. Howard’s a bargain at any price. This film is fundamentally unfair to Cheadle, simply because it makes a good actor look mediocre.

Not that this will impact worldwide sales any. There is a cynicism to this project that suggests that the producers did not feel much need to do it very well just because they have some terrific character actors in all the leading roles (save maybe for Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer), and even in some minor ones (Samuel L. Jackson, Jr., mails in his one scene as Nick Fury, making me wish they’d gotten Laurence Fishburne). Just fill it out with special effects & heavy metal music & take it to the bank. Getting the director of Elf to helm the project is just one index of how Marvel cut costs wherever it was felt they weren’t necessary. Like direction.

On the plus side, the roller coaster ride is mostly effective & these are some marvelous actors who have no reason not to chew on the drapery here, and for the most part do so with gusto. Johansson is surprisingly good in this respect. Mickey Rourke’s rogue Russian physicist is terrifyingly made up to look like Mickey Rourke. And I loved one tiny touch, likely missed by anybody not in the computer industry: when Stark arrives to open Stark Expo (a world’s fair of high tech weaponry, complete with Ferris wheel), one of the wannabes who rush forward to try & touch him is Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle & an industry exec known for his Tony Stark-like lifestyle, “as himself.” It’s a more knowing cameo than Larry King’s cadaverous presence or Christiane Amanpour’s one badly directed scene.

There is a trend these days to go with counter-intuitive casting in action-thriller flicks. Downey, Toby Maguire, Johnny Depp & Matt Damon all make unlikely action figures, Daniel Craig only a little less so. Robert Downey, Jr. as Sherlock Holmes is another case in point – who would ever have thought that this slightly built poster child for never giving up on drug rehab no matter how many times you have to try would become the Errol Flynn / Johnny Weissmuller of our time? On the other hand, imagine just how bad the Iron Man films would be, say, with Nicholas Cage. Downey is one of the great acting talents of our time and cartoon projects are ultimately a waste of his considerable skills, save for the quiet moments, which in this film involve Stark dealing with his father issues & the nasty problem that his artificial heart (no accident that his sidekick A.I. system is named Jarvis) is not so slowly poisoning his system. Stark carries a blood toxicity monitor that will come as a sudden rush of reality to any diabetic who wears a monitor for tracking glucose. It’s an odd touch, but Downey’s interactions with the monitor are among the very best parts of this motion picture. As one of my kids phrased it, Tony Stark is a lot more interesting than Iron Man.

¹ James Rhodes, nicknamed Dusty, was a major league baseball player with the New York Giants in the years just before Marvel came up with Iron Man. Primarily used as a pinch-hitter for Monte Irvin, he was a cult figure and, with Willie Mays, a superhero & household name because of his role in defeating the Cleveland Indians in the 1954 World Series.

² Apparently because he was the first one to sign on, before the producers redid the budget to bring the project in at a lower cost, partly by focusing on actors like Downey & Paltrow rebuilding their careers & willing to work for less. That Paltrow, who took time off to have children, is having to “rebuild” her career tells you way too much about what’s wrong with the film industry.


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