Iron Man 2 is the anti-superhero superhero movie with a genuine antihero (not the Dirty Harry-like ruffian typically associated with the term but the Camusian definition of such), a quarter-lazy, quarter-crazy, quarter-bored and quarter-decent guy in Tony Stark played by a nearly sheepish Robert Downey, Jr. The Iron Man movies have taken a curious, if not entirely surprising course due to their protagonist's singular station (he is naturally the one man who could privatize world peace, as he declares to an overbearing Senator at a committee hearing)—they tend to play out like in-the-moment snapshots at the dull underpinnings of being at the top of the world. Stark's world is that of fast-moving sojourns to the latest cocktail party, decorated by wandering champaign glasses and fetching women who appear to adore him. When confronted by a rival arms manufacturer with the crushingly obvious name of Hammer (a slumming Sam Rockwell who endeavors to craft a personification of obnoxiousness and just about succeeds in his single-minded quest), Downey's Stark verbally slaps him away like a feckless gnat. He undermines Hammer's interview with a pretty young female reporter. He upstages him whenever given the opportunity. Before long the battle of pettiness and no-bid contracts seems to approximate a schoolyard rivalry between a couple of bratty children. The 2008 Iron Man at least attempted to embroider a slightly credulous human relationship between Downey's Stark and the evil father figure honcho played by a cagey Jeff Bridges in lieu of Stark's own long-gone distant father. The sequel, however, lacks the delicate subtlety of narrative that made the first Iron Man accessibly fugacious junk food that tasted well enough in the moment only to be forgotten about momentarily afterwards.
The Iron Man movies represent a franchise-specific coloration that recall the “white telephone” movies of the 1930s. In the mire of financial crisis and an unending recession wedded to a “jobless recovery,” Americans can approach Stark and his band of over-the-top friends, associates and enemies as a quick-fix dose of escapism. And like the “white telephone” pictures that today play in remastered clarity on Turner Classic Movies, the Iron Man movies present the rich and famous (in this franchise largely made up of arms manufacturers and variegated “masters of the universe”) in a way that undercuts the glamor with the creeping sensations of banality and tedium. The way Stark orders up one computerized hologram after another in his spacious, empty workshop only to toss them aside paints a portrait of a man battling the one feature of his life that outlasts the otherwise impermanent day-to-day meet-and-greet deluge of nothingness, sheer listlessness and boredom dragging down a man characterized by almost extreme pococurantism. Like the “white telephone” films of yesteryear that simultaneously glorified and scrupulously scrutinized the rich elite, Iron Man 2 at its most ambitious strives to be some kind of engaging balancing act between offering hagiography and harsh critique of its protagonist.
While it is refreshing to see at least one superhero who is not crippled by angst, nor woefully embarrassed by his superpowers or capabilities, the commendable yields to the wrongheaded as the exasperatingly tired narrative overtakes anything else. To make amends for the lack of moral considerations on the part of the franchise's hero, the film is bogged down in the quicksand that is Tony's great malady that is quickly killing him. He's dying because of his own powers. The core of his chest—symbolically representing the coolly unrevealing Stark's open heart—is poisoning him. And thus the picture spends an interminable period during which Stark conducts one of the most monotonous and boring science projects ever recorded by the cinema. Watching the picture unfurl, it becomes apparent that the average child would rightly be driven to madness by the film's lack of drive and dynamism. What is left is Stark toying around with his gadgets and formulations, his narcissism redeemed by his unerring ability to become better and more fulfilled by his father leaving a reel of film for him telling him that he really did love him after all. And so the symbolic cuteness of the circular “heart” finds replacement in a triangle, probably for no greater motive than to create a new line of Iron Man action figures at Toys R Us.
There is a Russian named Ivan Vanko out for revenge against the Stark name in the franchise's umpteenth enactment of “the sins of the father revisiting the son” played by Mickey Rourke, who just so happens to have the four or so lines of dialogue that are actually sharp from Justin Theroux's rambling screenplay. Rourke is an actor who finds a way to persevere through the most pedestrian material and here he speaks in a gloriously heavy Russian accent while mumbling on about the Starks being a “family of thieves and butchers” who “rewrite [their] own history.” What would possibly be insurmountable for others, Rourke finds merely tant mieux and he keeps running with the ball. It turns out that Cold War sins still haunt a couple decades later as Rourke's malevolent Muscovite seeks simple retribution against the exemplar of American grandiosity and eminence, the Stark family, as one son vows to destroy another for the lives their fathers led.
What honestly lingers, however, is the almost smothering hipness of this sequel. Each of the big three cable news networks is shown at separate times and with each visit, Stark grabs that trustiest of domestic weapons, the remote control, and mutes the motor-mouthed talking heads with the assured ruthlessness of a billionaire eccentric. Stark, in his visit to the Senate, informs the panel of imperious wannabe autocrats that the rogue nations and terrorist groups who threaten civilization are “years away” from acquiring the technology of his own Iron Man suit (with or without gorgeous custom paint job, he does not reveal) in a perspicuous nod to current events involving Iran and critics of a heightened posture against the Tehran regime arguing in identical language. The painting of Stark to mimic the “Hope” picture of Obama is the icing on the cake. The movie is, weakly, anemically and yet somehow relentlessly, pointing to its own relevance as some kind of barely-cloaked political satire.
All other characters seem lost in this movie. Iron Man two years ago told a feminist-leaning tale of an under-appreciated executive assistant Pepper Potts played by Gwyneth Paltrow; took some time out for a buddy portion with Rhodey (an enthusiastic Terrence Howard here replaced by an excessively modulated and sober Don Cheadle); scaled a poor man's Oedipal conflict as the central story arc that at least registered as important to Stark; and most essentially wrapped these threads together around the central character to create the Aristotelian and rewarding spectacle of a faux-solitary man directly affected and altered by his orbit of personages. Compared to this sequel, that film was an accomplished tale of the intimate and the epic. Visually, too, there is nothing that lingers about this effort. When Stark, adorned by a poor man's prototype for the Iron Man suit, a sterling-colored, unwieldy body suit, burned the pan-generational work of the Stark name, father and son alike, it represented a pop-cultural appreciation of the ancient, and gave mainstream voice to concerns older than the Homeric relating of Priam and Hector juxtaposed with Odysseus and Telemachus. This is almost ironically where Iron Man 2 bites off far more than it can possibly chew with its sidestepping into prosaic tangents and general lack of narrative potency. What came off as effortless once, appears impossible now. Something is not right when the consumer tries to piece together what the junk food was supposed to taste like.