Directed by Jon Favreau
Have you ever wondered why sequels, especially blockbuster superhero sequels, are rarely on the same level as their predecessor? How does a stirring and enjoyable event movie get turned into a forgettable mess of discombobulated scenes and seemingly unconnected storylines. Well, sequels, as a rule, are inevitably weaker than the original that spawned them for one reason, with the exception being The Godfather and Superman: The Movie. For the purpose of this review however, let's stick to a film made more recently, and the best superhero sequel (outside the Dark Knight*) since Superman II was released in 1980.
When Spiderman hit the theatres in May of 2002, it was undisputed smash, eventually grossing over $800 million worldwide. After 25 years of being stuck in development, Sam Raimi's "origin" story was finally birthed on the big screen. Raimi immediately set out to direct the sequel, and after combing through scripts from various writers, including Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Chabon, decided on a criminal, Doctor Octopus, a visually intriguing antagonist with a compelling backstory, and a protagonist, in this case Peter Parker, wrestling with the same demons of responsibility that Superman II had so successfully explored 25 years earlier. In doing so, Raimi was able to avoid the predominant pitfall of superhero sequels, and Spiderman II was both a commercial and critical success. Spiderman III, of course, forgot its own franchise lesson, and was not able to sustain the momentum. It was a commercial success, but not nearly as successful as its predecessors and was largely a forgettable film.
When Marvel Studios released Iron Man as its first, self-financed film in 2008, it was an unqualified (and surprise) smash with both critics and audiences everywhere. Jon Favreau directed the movie as "a spy film", and the result was another well told "origin" story, with Robert Downey Jr. cast perfectly as the inventor and gunmaker playboy Tony Stark, who builds a suit and turns himself into a superhero. Downey's Stark was crass and bold, unlike so many of the superheroes we see onscreen, and his chopped, biting dialogue a distinct turn from the bland, clichéd mouthings we were so used to hearing from the ones in tights. The story was concise and well told, the villain identifiable, and the transformation arc of the title character unforced and viable. Still, sequels were never as good as the original, and so I wasn't sure what to expect from Iron Man 2.
Unfortunately, the film falls into the most common of superhero progressions, and fails to humanize its protagonist. The result is predictable. Weak, disjointed storylines. No common theme. Inhuman and unrelatable villains. A lot of bang, but not a lot of buck. And the character arcs, specifically for the minor characters, are either unbelievable or unexplained. Yes, this was a disappointing movie. That said, it's watchable enough, certainly the presence of Downey Jr. alone is enough to guarantee that. It isn't the worst superhero movie ever made (thank you Superman IV), but it's a massive letdown from the original.
At some point, the studios are going to learn that great special effects and fight scenes simply aren't enough. Stories need characters people can relate to, and superhero movies need special attention on that front because the protagonist is, well, a superhero. *The only superhero who seems to escape this is Batman, who is the most relatable of all superheroes (when he's portrayed correctly) since he has no inborn superpowers and an inherent darkness to his character that makes him easy to humanize, especially in the gifted hands of someone like Christopher Nolan. And yet, in the hands of Tim Burton, Batman Returns (starring Danny Devito as the Penguin) was still terrible.
In terms of sequels, Iron Man 2 is an average movie because it falls into the trap of so many blockbuster films. With the technological advances and rendering of believable special effects the past decade, the "superhero" part of the movie is relatively easy now, if the budget is big enough. What's missing is the human part, the character and storytelling basics that make a film either unforgettable or easily forgotten.
Chalk Iron Man 2 into the category of easily forgotten.
** (out of five)