Trouble with Comics, It's not the suit, it's the man in the suit: Kevin Pasquino on Iron Man 2

It’s not the suit, it’s the man in the suit: Kevin Pasquino on Iron Man 2

It’s an interesting experience, watching a movie based on a comic book when the only thing you know about the comic book is what you’ve learned from the movie.

It was surprising for me to realize that given all my years of comic book collecting that the only “Iron Man” comic book I had read before seeing the first movie was the classic Demon in a Bottle storyline. And even that storyline I knew more for its historical context rather than actual story itself. It’s not like after reading that story I sought out other comics or collections with the character. As far as I was concerned Tony Stark was just a spoiled Batman with a somewhat cooler suit. But Batman had the much cooler villains, so as far as I was concerned Batman would kick Iron Man’s ass.

But the first Iron Man movie certainly made the character captivating. Here was an egomaniacal narcissistic playboy who re-invented himself as a hero. He assumed the role through necessity and there was the sense that he was just playing a game of dress-up and make believe when he pulled on the armor. It was his heroic voyage of discovery that made for a great movie.

And with great movies comes great responsibilities for great sequels.

Iron Man 2 manages to re-unite the main cast with the original director and also add a handful of new inevitable action figures – sorry, I mean “New Characters”. The story involves Tony Stark’s resistance to the American government’s request for the Iron Man technology, the arrival of a new villain and Tony dealing with the burden of being the world’s first unmasked super-hero.

Iron Man 2 is a very good sequel. It manages to continue some of the subtle themes of the first movie (What is the moral responsibility of the wealthy?  Can a modern industrialist ever be more than just a war monger?  Is it possible for a powerful man to redeem himself and become a better person?  And, is it ever okay for the boss to sleep with his secretary other than in “Mad Men”?). But the movie always remembers to deliver enough slam-bang action to keep most fans cheering.

The movie’s main hero and its secret weapon is actor Robert Downey, Jr. It is simply impossible to imagine another actor doing as good a job as he does with the title role. There is the sense that Downey has lived the character’s life, with all his real-life bad boy shenanigans and the lost years of productivity due to his debauchery, and in the same way that many people hoped that Downey (the actor) would overcome his failings, the audience hopes that Tony Stark (the character) will rise above his as well. We like, we are amused by and we perhaps even envy the swagger, the arrogance and the decadence of the character.  But Downey makes us hope that Tony Stark will mature a wee bit but at the same time still remain a bit of a cad.

For comic book fans the movie has knowing nods and clever winks to other Marvel characters and there is even a scene that was somewhat awkwardly borrows from the Superman movies as Tony experiences a Jor-El type moment. But the movie manages to remain subtle when inducing those moments of comic geekasms. Even the appearance of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his Avengers Project was established in the first film: comic fans will know what’s being foreshadowed; movie fans will just get a sense that there are more heroes to come.

The film’s only flaw, and it’s a problem that many comic book sequels have, is something I like to call The Star Wars Action Figure Expectation: Yeah, sure, it’s a great film, but where are the new toys? 

All too often the sequel to a big budget action movie has to populate itself with too many new characters in order to ensure there are enough new licensing opportunities. Batman and Robin had Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, Batman, Robin and Batgirl. Spider-Man 3 had Venom, The Sandman, Gwen Stacy, Mary Jane, Eddie Brock and Spider-Man. That’s a whole lot of characters for your McDonald’s Happy Meals.

Iron Man 2 only slightly suffers from having too many cooks in the kitchen. But at least most of them manage to add some spice to the final presentation.

To this movie’s credit they never refer to Mickey Rourke’s character as the goofy sounding “Whiplash”, so it’s the muscular and angry (and villainously named) Ivan Vanko who forces Tony to re-examine his continued role as a weapons manufacturer and the legacy that his father has left for him. Rourke is adequately creepy and menacing in the role, but I’m not sure if the Russian scientist turned bad guy will make a very interesting action figure. 

The same thing can be said of Sam Rockwell’s depiction of military industrialist Justin Hammer: while he’s a great character (and almost manages to steal the movie until his character’s rather wimpy exit from the story), I can’t see any child fighting for the special limited edition three-piece suit exclusive ComicCon action figure.

But if those two characters are not perfect for the toy shelf, the next two are almost certainly designed for multiple packages.

James Rhodes returns in the sequel (with Don Cheadle assuming the role) and he manages to grab an Iron Man suit and make an action figure debut as War Machine (although, like “Whiplash”, the character is never referred to by the comic book character’s name). 

The movie has a (somewhat sadly predictable) showdown between Tony and Rhodey as they both armor up and bash the crap out of each other. While the filmmakers try to justify the reason for the two men to duke it out in super-heroic fashion, the battle sequence feels forced and heavy-handed.  It’s as if things were slowing down a bit in the story and someone f elt that it was probably a good time to squeeze in some action.

But at least their battle and Rhodey’s actions make some semblance of sense within the story. Scarlett Johansson’s role in the film serves no purpose at all. Her character is there largely as window dressing until The Big Reveal and quickly after that scene she is once again shuffled into the background. She is given one action scene in the movie, but it makes no sense in the context of the story other than ‘Wow, that looks cool.’ And in a movie that does its best to rise above comic book clichés, her appearance (in black skintight leather and with super-spy miniaturized weaponry) is an intrusion in a story that is surprisingly character driven.

Because in the movie we grow to like Tony Stark and we end up cheering for him. He defies the government and manages to stay patriotic at the same time.  He’s naughty but likeable, egotistical but flawed. The action sequences in the film and the Iron Man suit become secondary to his character.  Because it is a big budget summer action movie there have to be crashes and explosions and repulsor beams, but it’s Robert Downey Jr. who really keeps things moving.

And it’s because of the man in the suit rather than the suit itself that people will come back for another sequel. Because anyone can be Iron Man, but only Robert Downey, Jr. can play Tony Stark.

Oh, that and the fact that no one else can make eating a donut look so cool.

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