There’s plenty going on in “Iron Man 2,” but what’s it about? Turns out, not much.
This is a sequel overloaded with ideas and characters and plotlines – not an unusual problem these days, as comic book sequels work overtime to cram in too many villains and story points. But those movies usually try to tie everything in and push it all toward the same finish line. “Iron Man 2” is a movie pushing in no particular direction, except, perhaps, for future Marvel Comics adaptations. Consider this a two-hour, $200,000,000 commercial for “Thor.”
The film awkwardly shoehorns in multiple scenes hinting at future Marvel movies, especially the in-the-works multi-hero flick “The Avengers.” This was always the plan, of course. Last time, the studio shuffled in a cute post-credits cookie featuring Samuel L. Jackson as eye-patched bad-ass Nick Fury. For “The Incredible Hulk,” Robert Downey, Jr., was wiggled into an end-of-film cameo. Clever, but pushing it a bit, slightly intruding into the story proper.
Now “slightly intruding” is promoted to “full-on interfering.” Jackson returns in multiple scenes, repeatedly halting the plot to pester Tony Stark about appearing in a movie two years from now. Clark Gregg, whose Agent Coulson character played a minor role in “Iron Man,” also pops up, also to wink at us and remind us that we think the next few Marvel movies are going to be, like, so totally awesome. Scarlett Johansson, playing a character we’ve already determined to be woefully superfluous, is eventually revealed to be another Avenger. A much-publicized post-credits scene is nothing but a teaser trailer for “Thor,” in theaters next summer.
A solid twenty, maybe twenty-five minutes of movie could’ve easily been trimmed, Jackson and Gregg edited out completely with no effect on the rest of the movie – minus one lazily written scene where Nick Fury shows up, tells Tony Stark “hey, here’s what you need to jumpstart the third act of the story,” then leaves. (Literally. By this point in the film, Stark can’t figure out how to proceed; Fury shows up with a box of Papa Stark’s stuff, says “you’ll find the answers in here,” then jets. It’s that sloppy.) Perhaps screenwriter Justin Theroux felt that giving Fury such an “important” role justified the character’s existence, but let’s face it: there is nothing Nick Fury does in “Iron Man 2” that has any real bearing on “Iron Man 2.”
The clumsy, irritating in-movie advertisements for Marvel’s next round of summer flicks are far from the only problem. The remaining story ideas are so jumbled here that one must assume work on the screenplay began and ended on the same day; I imagine the producers got together the Monday after the first “Iron Man” opened, brainstormed a heap of sequel ideas, then decided to just toss every single idea into the damn thing and call it a night.
Here’s what you get:
1. Tony Stark is slowly dying, his body poisoned by an element needed to fuel his artificial heart. Both an antidote and a suitable replacement element must be found.
2. Stark is getting heat from the U.S. government, who wants the Iron Man technology for themselves. In Washington, Stark publicly insults the Senator (Garry Shandling) who’s on his case and humiliates rival billionaire mogul Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), who’s been trying (and failing) to build his own Iron Man suit.
3. Russian physicist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) is seeking revenge on the Stark family. Papa Stark (John Slattery) either stole from or didn’t proper give to Ivan’s father, who co-invented “arc” technology. Using his dad’s plans, he’s built an Iron Man-ish suit thing that has electric whip, um, things.
4. Hammer also wants revenge. He orchestrates Vanko’s prison break and sets the Russkie to work, asking him to build him an army of Iron Man suits. Ivan instead builds an army of robots. (Side note: These robots can be shot down en masse with no moral repercussions, making the entire third act of the film look like a 1980s “G.I. Joe” episode.)
5. Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes will now be played by Don Cheadle, instead of Terrence Howard. You would not think this would be an actual plot point, but the film wastes a small chunk of time joking about it anyway.
6. Stark’s popularity as Iron Man leads to the revival of the “Stark Expo,” a year-long World’s Fair (what is this, 1893?) based on a tradition his father followed into the 1970s. (Tony’s dad is modeled after Walt Disney, complete with dreams of futuristic utopian cities and quaint films where he talks about the wonders of technology. No word if he made cartoons and/or is now cryogenically preserved.) Despite it being nothing more than a high-tech EPCOT, the place is the hottest ticket in the country.
7. Stark realizes he must come to grips with his father’s legacy and all the usual stuff we already dealt with in “Batman Begins.”
8. Stark, dying and all (remember that?), decides to hand control of his company to Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). This helps give Stark Industries a reliable leader, but it does not dampen the constant, screeching bickering the two characters trade in what I can only assume was supposed to play as “banter.”
9. Scarlett Johansson shows up as someone “from legal,” or something. Depending on the scene, she’s either Tony’s new handler, a clerk who just needs him to sign some papers, or someone who just stands around in tight skirts. We later learn she is a superhero working undercover, although that new fact fails to add to her usefulness.
10. Tony has a birthday party and gets drunk. Again, this should not be an actual plot point, but here it is, filling up countless frames of film.
11. Rhodey gets mad about Tony’s birthday party and steals one of the other Iron Man suits, giving it to the Air Force. He feels really bad about it.
12. Nick Fury shows up, repeatedly. For no reason.
OK, so now you take all twelve plot points, set your iPod on shuffle, and watch as the franchise deteriorates into a shallow pool of half-baked ideas and detached snark. Sure, the movie is fun in small doses, little bits where the plot doesn’t matter and we can just watch Downey and company take it easy. But the lighthearted, detached tone of the original has now worn thin as Theroux and director Jon Favreau try to figure out what else Tony Stark should do besides just standing there and looking cool.
Worse, while Rourke and Rockwell are both terrific here (as is everyone whose name is not Scarlett Johansson, who apparently stopped bothering somewhere around 2004), their talents are squandered on middling plotlines and bland villainy. Trim away the excess, fill the gap by expanding the role of both characters, and you’d have a pretty fun sequel somewhat worthy of the original. Alas, they get shoved to the sidelines far too often while we impatiently sit through Tony’s daddy issues and Scarlett’s catsuit.
But hey, at least “Thor” is going to be, like, so totally awesome.