I saw Iron Man 2 last night, in case it wasn't already very obvious. I've taken a while to digest it, and now that I have properly marshalled my thoughts, I'm prepared to inflict them on you, the reader.
I loved the first Iron Man movie. It was a shining gem in the sea of rubbish that normally flows out of Hollywood; proof, right then and there, that you could have a comic book action movie that was also well-written and a joy to watch.
Robert Downey Jr. made the role of Tony Stark his own. He had the perfect balance of irreverence, decadence, egotism and wit. According to Jeff Bridges, they didn't have much of a script to work with, and much of the interaction between him and Robert was improvised. But the result was nothing short of perfect; the banter between Tony, Obediah Stane (Jeff) and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) clicked together naturally. The set pieces didn't feel like set pieces at all - everything flowed, just as it should.
I will also give great credit to Iron Man for the character of Pepper Potts. Hollywood is undeniably sexist, and very often apparently allergic to the idea of strong female characters, so the appearance of such a powerful woman in an action film targeted at men was delightfully surprising. Pepper Potts is the one in control of Tony Stark's life; she is his balance, his help, and his shield, and throughout the movie there's never any question that he desperately needs her... but she doesn't necessarily need him. She's willing to walk away to protect herself, willing to call Tony out for his bullshit, and willing to tell him when he hurts her - and he responds to her, like a human being with actual emotions would.
Pepper walks into the dragon's den to get information for Tony and stares down Stane, the bad guy. She leads the SHIELD agents personally to the facility to arrest him. And then, wonder of happy wonders, Tony becomes the damsel in distress as she activates the arc reactor that destroys Stane. That, my friend, is a normal businesswoman taking out a supervillain. It's very satisfying to watch if you are a normal businesswoman.
I did so love the ending as well. We expect the hero and heroine to kiss, because that is the tired old Hollywood trope, but once again Iron Man throws a curveball; Tony brings up the night on the balcony, and Pepper just as quickly shuts him down in a not-so-subtle reminder that she can see right through him. But the brief exchange afterwards: "'Will that be all, Mr. Stark?' 'Yes, that will be all, Ms. Potts.'" They're back to being playful, even affectionate, because they know each other so well, and the moment is so wonderfully intimate that the audience never needs to see them kiss.
Oh, but Iron Man 2. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.
The first movie started off with thumping rock music, witty banter from Tony that nailed the character perfectly, and pace-setting action. The sequel starts with... a montage.
And not just any montage, oh no. A montage of Tony Stark doing kick ass things that are only shown in newspapers, cut with the new villain slooooowwwwwwllly building his electric whips of doom. That leads into Tony landing on a stage in the Iron Man suit, opening the Stark Expo, getting a summons to appear in court over the suit being a weapon... No. My interest is lost. Robert Downey Jr. is just as good as I expect him to be, but his lines are not up to par, not as punchy, and everything is unfocused from the start. There's this villain, see? But also Tony is dying! And there's a senator who wants to take his suit! And his arms-selling rival is in his face! And the company is falling apart, and he makes Pepper the CEO!
The actors make the best of it, but good grief, what little they had to work with. Pepper changes from strong and powerful to stressed and weak. She's been running Stark Industries for months on Tony's behalf, but as soon as she's made CEO, we are shown her facing the strain of the position before finally resigning at the end of the movie. And the snide comments... Hammer, played by Sam Rockwell, tells her "Now you're thinking like a CEO," before he's taken away by the police. The news report questions her qualifications and abilities. And Tony himself goes from eccentric to borderline psychotic. We are meant to believe that this is the same man who said, "I shouldn't be alive... unless it was for a reason. I'm not crazy, Pepper. I just finally know what I have to do. And I know in my heart that it's right"? That conviction that rang so true in the first movie is gone from the second, and it's apparently because Tony knows he's dying - but he's already faced death several times! It's already changed him! And he's spent the last six months fighting around the globe in an armoured suit, for god's sake.
Alright, I get it. Tony Stark is a playboy. He does his own thing, always. But they're beating the audience over the head with that fact, and it all seems a bit fake when you've seen the first movie and you witnessed the man he became.
The shennanigans with him dying, and the stuff with SHIELD returning with Nick Fury to help him find the cure, were nothing but hackneyed plot devices in order to let Tony play around with his hologram build interface and make himself another, better suit. If you remove all that, you get to the guts of what the plot might have been; US government wants to take the suit and give it to Hammer to weaponise. Tony doesn't want to give it up. After embarrassing both the government and Hammer, Whiplash comes on the scene and embarrasses Tony in return - and Hammer grabs a hold of him, and convinces him to make something like the Iron Man suit. A double-cross ensues, and a cat and mouse fight develops between Tony Stark and Whiplash before the final battle.
I think I would have liked that movie. Mickey Rourke did a great job as Whiplash when he was actually on screen, and he deserved to have more time. He deserved to be a bigger, badder character.
Overall, I think when the executives realised they had a successful movie franchise on their hands they sat down with Jon Favreau and dictated to him what had to be in the movie, whether it was a sensible choice or not. Here's what I think they insisted on:
- A certain number of flashy fights, obviously
- Nick Fury - advertise the Avengers movie!
- Huge special effects like the hologram interface; "The fanboys loved it! Make it bigger!"
- Scarlett Johanssen as eye candy - and I feel so bad for her because she can act, but they didn't give her the chance to do much more than look pretty and beat up goons here (oh, and flash her boobs when she was changing in the car. Real classy, guys. Seriously.)
- A reduction in Pepper's role and alteration of her character - no strong women allowed, what if the target male audience feel intimidated? Oh, her part in the first movie, that the male audience totally accepted - just a fluke, can't risk it here
- Cranking up the crazy for Tony Stark, because LOOK AT HIM HE CAN DO WHATEVER HE WANTS AND HE'S RICH AND DYING
- Cranking up the stupid on Iron Man - "He fought one big mech in the last movie, let's make him fight LOTS of big mechs here!"
- The hero gets the kiss at the end - versus the scene at the end of Iron Man 1? Zero impact
It's like Avatar all over again. It could have been great, and it wasn't. It could have been better than the first movie, and it wasn't. It was ruined by bad writing, like a lot of Hollywood films; they could have made a good movie, but they decided to make a movie that they think panders to the target male audience - who, if the movie is any indication, supposedly have the attention span of a goldfish, are easily distracted by shiny objects, and are scared of women with actual personalities.
I'm getting very, very tired of this. Really. It boggles my mind that a studio could see the success of a movie like Iron Man and somehow completely miss the fact that that a huge chunk of that phenomenal earning power comes from stellar writing. Iron Man 2 will probably still be a moderate success, but it will never bring in as much money as the first movie - and Marvel Studios have only themselves to blame.
I now have no reason to go see Iron Man 3, if there is indeed a third one. Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter said it best, I think; "Everything fun and terrific about Iron Man, a mere two years ago, has vanished with its sequel. In its place, Iron Man 2 has substituted noise, confusion, multiple villains, irrelevant stunts and misguided story lines." Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice...