Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Cool Exec With a Heart of Steel

So, after venting my inner Adorno the other day, I finally got the chance to check out Iron Man 2. And, no lie, I loved it. I thought it was a great film - well, maybe not a "great film" in the same way Contempt is a "great film," but you know what I mean.

I've seen a lot of criticism, and in fact have seen a few blurbs to the effect that the film has been critically panned. I don't understand, I freely admit: if you were on board for the first, this is in every sense of the word a direct continuation of that one, with the added bonus of actually having better battle scenes and better villains. I think some of the problems with the critical reception have to do with the fact that these current Marvel films really do represent a real attempt to translate serial storytelling techniques to two-hour motion pictures - as strange and awkward as it seems, they succeed as often as they don't. The key storytelling bywords here are shorthand and accumulation: the filmmakers aren't merely assuming that you have a general familiarity the first film, but are hoping that you actively remember the key points of characterization, plot and theme. They give you enough to pick up as you go, but really no more than you might expect from the recap dialogue in a Shooter-era issue of Avengers. They expect you, the audience, to be able to connect the dots on characterization and theme from the first film without having to spell everything out again: the point is to accumulate meaning across multiple films without having to repeat themselves. Rhodey and Tony's friendship is deep and occasionally fraught - Rhodes is the only person allowed to call Tony on his bullshit. This is never explicitly stated in the film, but if you remember the first movie this one builds and elaborates on the dynamic already introduced without wasting time reestablishing for those who came in late.

One of the strengths of serial storytelling in general is that it can be remarkably economical when done well - and it's interesting to see it attempted on such a large scale. There really aren't many examples - certainly the Lord of the Rings films proved that it was possible to bank on the extended attention span of movie audiences to queue up for each individual part of a three-part film - a film, I should add, that makes almost no concessions for people who don't pay attention throughout the entirety of the 9+ hour running time. Star Wars did it without suffering, basically building on the (justified) assumption that anyone who wanted to see Empire Strikes Back knew what happened in Star Wars. On the contrary, the Indiana Jones films aren't really a series at all - each film is entirely modular, capable of existing independent of the others. Most series are more like Indiana Jones than Star Wars. But Iron Man 2 really isn't Iron Man 2 so much as Iron Man Part Two, if you see the difference.

I've seen more than one blurb that says, in essence, that this film doesn't have the emotional thru-line of the first film - that's it's emptier, basically. But I think that kind of criticism is more-or-less a willful refusal to meet the movie on its own terms: the meat of the exposition for Tony Stark's character happened last film. If you've seen that one, you can understand the shorthand references to all of Stark's personality defects, physical disabilities and self-abusive habits without having to have it spelled out in triplicate. Of course, I don't want to overstate my case here, at the possible risk of convincing you that Iron Man 2 is a far subtler film than it actually is. It's not particularly subtle - well, that's an understatement, it's not subtle in the least. But it's not dumb, and it expects you to have a working knowledge of the first film so as to hit the ground running. Getting all the major expository character development out of the way in the first films so that subsequent movies can get down to the brass tacks of having more action? That's the point.

It's only going to get "worse" from here on out, the more these films begin to bleed into each other. The major problem with the idea of subsequent ensemble films like The Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D. is the possibility that the more major characters you add to the franchise, the higher the risk of storytelling illegibility. It's an old rule but still mostly true: the more major characters you have, the harder you have to work to keep the balls in the air. The Avengers film will be supremely dense, if nothing else - but whether or not it is watchable will depend primarily on how well they lay the foundation in the next few Marvel films. One of the reasons why the later Batman films were such a mess was that in a movie with 4-6 main characters, you have to take the time to elaborately introduce and establish each character, and in the process the structure becomes so intricate and gnarled that the film collapses under its own weight. For all the moving parts in Iron Man 2, it was still a remarkably light touch, covering each narrative base with precisely the amount of emphasis necessary, no more and no less. Don't know who Nick Fury is? Well, that's probably because you missed his establishing scene at the end of the last Iron Man, its no fault of the filmmakers.

But yeah - good film. It's really quite remarkable how well they translated the Iron Man visual to film. it's true that there's something "missing" - I think the rather generic looking armor design misses something of the charm of the best Iron Man designs. I'd love to see an attempt at the more classic, streamlined red & gold, something not quite so busy. War Machine stole the show every moment he was on screen - that is still a great design, even considering it's really only a monochromatic upgrade.

The main problem with the film was that as cool as War Machine and Whiplash 1.0 were, the major battle at the end still boiled down to Iron Man vs. generic robots, and even when Whiplash 2.0 showed up he was, well, another robot, more or less. As many things as both Iron Man films get right, they suffer from a lack of great villains. It isn't hard to figure out why: on the one hand, the films hew close to a thematically consistent military hard sci-fi feel, with - so far! - no room for more fantastic sci-fi or fantasy elements; on the other, they're afraid of pulling the trigger on the Mandarin because, well, they don't want to risk getting picketed by the Asian Anti-Defamation League or publicly denounced by the Chinese government. So, in one fell swoop you've precluded the likes of Ultimo, MODOK and Fin Fang Foom (all integral to Iron Man's rogue's gallery), and without the Mandarin you're left without the character's defining arch-nemesis. I mean, yeah, you can make the case that Tony Stark's "real" arch-nemeses are corporate robber barons like Obadiah Stane and Justin Hammer, but who's kidding who? Batman needs the Joker, Spider-Man needs Doctor Octopus, Iron Man needs the Mandarin. Without the Mandarin, and without the weirder end of the Marvel Universe, you're left with a pile of thugs with gimmicks taking orders from dudes in business suits, or even better, other dudes in inferior metal suits whose origins are usually tied to Communist Russia. If Iron Man 3 is about the Melter and Spymaster, well . . . they'll need more than Mickey Rourke to make the Melter compelling is all I'm gonna say.

Although I would absolutely love to see them attempt the Spymaster on film - the world's greatest superspy, who also wears a bright navy blue and canary yellow jumpsuit with a huge round target on his chest. Nothing screams espionage quite like it.

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