Iron Man 2

(Judge Dredd Megazine, 2010)

Iron Man 2 (out now) isn’t just the sequel to the first Iron Man film a couple of years ago. No, it’s also part of Marvel’s masterplan for a super tie-in comic-book franchise, where each film trailers other films about other superheroes, that will launch other franchises, that will doubtless trailer other superheroes in turn… and I’m getting miffed about all that.

It was one thing when it was confined to walk-ons during the curtain calls: the glimpse of Samuel Jackson’s Nick Fury after the first Iron Man‘s credits, or Tony Stark popping up in turn at the end of Incredible Hulk. But now that we’re getting full-on invasions of these guest stars, I’m reminded of the joke trailers that Disney did for its Lilo and Stitch cartoon. In the trailers, Stitch would gatecrash other Disney films; for example, dropping the chandelier on the dancing couple in Beauty and the Beast. The Disney stars would storm off in a huff, muttering, “Get your own movie.” I felt something similar.

Iron Man 2 picks up six months after tycoon Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) broke one of the central laws of superhero-ing and revealed to the world that he was in fact Iron Man, metalbound peacekeeper in a dorky mask. The sequel opens busily but interestingly, with Stark enjoying new levels of superstardom, even as he’s pulled up before the senate on suspicion of being a threat to National Security. Meanwhile, he’s contending with his imminent death – the arc reactor doodah in his chest is killing him – and a threat in the ungainly shape of Mickey Rourke as a Russian scientist, who has all-over tattoos and a slow-revealed grudge. By mid-film, Stark is letting himself go – this is his last birthday, after all, and Downey can do drunk-and-disorderly way better than Christopher Reeve or Tobey Maguire in Superman 3 and Spider-Man 3 respectively. Afterwards, Samuel Jackson crashes into the film, and starts talking about S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers Initiative, and I started tuning out.

It’s a personal thing; I just don’t like comic-book characters muscling in on each other’s titles. Even on the page, I used to feel aggrieved when Superman dropped in during a Batman investigation, though I had less trouble when Nick Fury was incorporated into the formative chapters of Ultimate Spider-Man. But then, there was a reasonable expectation that the comic would develop for hundreds of pages. Is there really much chance of Downey’s Stark coming back for, say, an Iron Man 5? With movies of comics, we’re always dealing with downward curves and sudden cancellations. I’d like to enjoy Downey’s story to the max without being distracted by Marvel’s franchise-building, thank you very much.

And who asked for a Marvel masterplan in the first place? As you’ve probably heard, Jackson has signed a nine-picture deal to play Fury in such films as Captain America, The Avengers and Thor, all of which are duly referenced in Iron Man 2 (Thor post-credits). I’ve nothing against Jackson, barring his unconvincing eyepatch, but will this excite the non-comics reading masses? Maybe I’m wrong, but I see a large swathe of Joe Publics scratching their heads and saying “Who he?” when Jackson appears, and responding “Who they?” to the references to S.H.I.E.L.D and the Avengers.

It’s unlikely all the upcoming Marvel films will be on the same level – heck, just compare the first Iron Man to Incredible Hulk. So many viewers will be inclined to “miss” episodes of Marvel’s would-be super-franchise. And even if they see them all, that doesn’t mean they’ll be inclined to view them as an integrated serial, like Harry Potter. Remember Quantum of Solace, the Bond film? One of the many things that was wrong with it is that it expected you to remember and care about what had happened in Casino Royale, whereas the audience expected a new Bond to be that – new. If Marvel’s going to include substantial plot threads running through the Thor, Captain America and Iron Man films… well, they’re going to confuse a lot of people. And if the inter-film linkages won’t be important, why have them at all?

Two of my own favourite superhero pictures, Ang Lee’s Hulk and Spider-Man 2, have already been retconned out of the Marvel screen universe (or will be when the “high-school Spidey” film comes out). As I see it, it’s another reason to be sceptical this franchise will carry through to anything interesting. In an age where new cinema beginnings – Star Trek, Casino Royale, Batman Begins – are nearly always more popular and attention-grabbing than parts four, five and six of a series, what’s the betting that Marvel will scrap everything mid-course and start (yet) again?

Back to Iron Man 2. Of course, Fury didn’t ruin the film; in fact, scene by scene by scene, it’s admirably smart, witty and entertaining, from the images of a barnstorming Stark wrapping himself in a bevy of scantily-clad cheerleaders and Stars and Stripes flags while claiming to have privatised world peace. Sam Rockwell is as good as you’d expect as Stark’s talentless rival, and Paltrow and Johansson (Downey: “I want one!”) make the most of their limited screentime. (Though, again, I was annoyed when Johansson’s character suddenly got reclassified as a guest star from an unmade movie.) Garry Shandling’s smarmy McCarthy-ish senator almost made up for the lack of Jeff Bridges, while I especially liked the way that Stark’s late dad (John Slattery) is now being paralleled less with Howard Hughes than with Walt Disney, dreaming of utopian urban futures.

But didn’t anyone else feel that Iron Man 2 needed more action? Don’t get me wrong: I hate arbitrarily-inserted set-pieces as much as the next fan. But Iron Man 2 runs two hours long, and in that time there are exactly three tentpoles: the Monaco Prix rumble, the pissed-off punch-up between two angry Iron Men, and the let’s-blitz-Disney World finale. By the second half, I found myself fidgeting, even through Rockwell’s extended weapons presentation and his ex-wife gag, and I love Rockwell. Stark’s reaction to his inevitable death was sketchy, without a great deal of resonance – it would have had more in a third or fourth film – and all that guff about finding a new element felt like clever filler.

And then there was the villain… Sorry, but I didn’t buy it. Mickey Rourke is great, of course – I love the touch when he makes a chatty phone call after committing an offscreen double killing, and we see his blood-covered hands. I just never felt that Stark was intimidated by, or vulnerable to, a heavy whom he believes is dead for much of the picture. And, damn it, the script sells out on its promise to give Ivan (that’s the Rourke character) a legitimate grudge against the Stark family. I was looking forward to Stark’s dad being revealed as a fish-blooded S.O.B; instead, he turns out to be, um, a founder of S.H.I.E.L.D. I’ll say it again: Get your own movie, Fury.

(c) 2018 Rebellion A/S. Reprinted with permission.