Iron Man 2

The willing suspension of disbelief: a term coined by the influential Romantic poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge to denote that if a writer could achieve human interest and a semblance of truth that an audience would accept the fantastical implausibilities within a tale. The terms has become somewhat of a cornerstone for fantasy and science-fiction writers, but I’ve always been fascinated in observing the point at which such willingness is broken. Is it possible to push a tale so far into the realm of the unbelievable that people can no longer sustain that suspension? Or is it more about their attachment to the “human interest and the semblance of truth”? If it’s the latter, how is such a bond forged, and, once it’s forged, can it be broken? Perhaps such a question is more suited towards an essay-length study, but I definitely found my belief unsuspended while watching Iron Man 2.

Of course, the film is sequel to the tremendously successful first installment, and Robert Downey Jr. reprises his role as the urbane, witty, gold-and-red metallic hero for the technological 21st Century. Here, though, his Tony Stark isn’t doing so well. The Palladium used to power him (and the suit) is also poisoning him, and the responsibilities of managing Stark Enterprises while maintaining world peace as Iron Man are starting to weigh on him. Not to mention he’s facing opposition from the competitive arms manufacturer Justin hammer (Sam Rockwell), as well as being bugged by S.H.I.E.L.D. member Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Gwyneth Paltrow also reprises her role as Tony’s love interest and business partner, Pepper Potts, and Scarlett Johansson joins the cast as Tony’s assistant, Natalie Rushman, aka, Natasha Romanoff. But Tony has even bigger problems in the face of Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), who wants revenge on Tony since his father was exiled by Tony’s father. Don Cheadle also joins the cast as Lt. Col. James Rhodes who becomes Tony’s sidekick, War Machine.

The plot probably sounds more convoluted than it is, as it’s certainly not difficult to follow, but it’s probably not difficult to follow because screenwriter Justin Theroux and director Jon Favreau drown the film in narrative exposition. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the majority of the runtime is spent with the characters endlessly talking about what’s going on. It’s not just that the film is talkative, it’s that it’s so light on drama, character, and genuine plot events. The first forty minutes go by with nothing having happened, except our awareness that Tony’s sick, he’s running a world’s fair, he’s been indicted to appear before Congress (where he brashly and obdurately refuses to turn over the Iron Man technology to the US government, much to the chagrin of Senator Stern, played by Garry Shandling in a pleasantly surprising cameo), he hands over the company to Pepper, and lusts after Natalie.

In essence, the film is badly edited. But I return to the point that if you have good characters and actors they can manage to overcome even the worst of technical problems, and it’s difficult to dislike a film with such talent in it. Robert Downey Jr. is just as fun and dynamic in the first film, but here he takes on a slightly darker tone (though it seems there’s a trend of superhero franchises getting all existential and dark in the second installment). Mickey Rourke is compelling watchable as the villain, Ivan. Rourke is certainly one of those actors with a unique ability to melt into any role, and here he’s playing a Russian physicist/supervillain and he pulls off all of these elements convincingly. Though, sadly, his character is plagued with a general shallowness and lack of focus in the screenplay.

The supporting cast is less spectacular but thoroughly solid. Paltrow is good if only because she gets to engage in the verbal tennis matches with Robert the most (and the dialogue is almost Howard Hawks-esque in its overlapping swiftness). Don Cheadle is somewhat disappointing as James Rhodes, at least to the extent that he’s not very convincing as a soldier. Sam Jackson always brings an incredible coolness to any role, though I still feels he’s an awkward fit for the rough Nick Fury. It’s been argued that Scarlett Johansson gets by more on her glamorous movie star looks rather than her acting abilities, and it’s probably good she isn’t given much to do here except play the icy hawt, badass S.H.I.E.L.D agent, Black Widow. Sam Rockwell strangely steals the show as the charismatic, arrogant, but slimy Justin Hammer, and even director Favreau is respectable as Tony’s assistant, Happy Hogan.

But the problem with the cast isn’t in the acting, it’s in the interacting. While everyone is capable and, at their best, even excellent, they all feel like they’re in different movies. With the exception of Downey Jr. and Paltrow, nobody else seems on the same page. I think the problem goes back to the general confusion and lack of focus in both the screenplay and direction. Favreau even says in the commentary that he doesn’t like superhero sequels that introduce too many villains and plotlines and then fail to juggle them in the film, but, ironically, Favreau does the same thing here. He’s essentially set up 5-acts worth of plot and attempted to condense it to three, forty-minute acts and, somewhere along the line, he miserably drops the balls while in the air.

Maybe it comes down to the fact that Iron Man 2 is surprisingly dull for a superhero film. Favreau and co. essentially saves the majority of the action for the twenty-five-minute finale, but by this point I had rather stopped caring about what was happening. And part of this does relate back to the suspension fo disbelief. In the film’s most ridiculous sequence, Tony finds out that an alternative to the arc reactor has been buried in his dad’s miniature model of his “future world”. As Tony takes the model back and digitalizes it into a hologram, he (somehow, mysteriously—it’s never explained) discovers a new element, and then uses a laser to shoot a piece of metal which forms the element. Favreau, somewhat embarrassingly, talks about liberally using comic-book, superhero pseudo-science here, but I think this sequence should offend the sensibilities of even the most gullible fan.

It’s not that the sequence is so impossible, it’s that it so flippantly resolves one of the central conflicts of the film, that being Tony’s declining health because of the Palladium poison. It’s basically a cop-out which says “our hero is sick, and the answer was for him to mystically invent a new element without us offering any kind of explanation!” While this isn’t the film’s only example of such violations of the audience’s will to suspend disbelief, it’s definitely the most egregious. But it also highlights another problem with the film and that’s the general lack of conflict. Once Tony is out of harm’s way, all that’s left is for him to take down the robot drones built by Ivan, as well as battling Ivan in his own suit. But even these battles are quite predictable, and it doesn’t help that the film has does nothing to humanize Ivan (like, say, Doctor Octopus in Spiderman 2).

With all its problems, Iron Man 2 still isn’t a bad film, and it’s certainly decent by superhero movie standards. Robert Downey Jr. is still charmingly charismatic, and the strong supporting cast adds to the fun. But if you’re coming to this film for the action or the engaging plot then you’ve come to the wrong place. It’s perhaps telling that the most exciting action scene in the film is when ScarJo goes all female Jason Bourne on a group of guards. And if I know anything about Hollywood’s love of formula (and I think I do), I suspect that ScarJo’s Black Widow will, at some point, get her own spinoff. Let’s just hope and pray it’s not as bad as the other female superhero spinoff, Elektra.


About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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