Original Review: Heart of Iron (three and a half stars)
Robert Downey, Jr. fully realized his big comeback in 2008. Not only was Iron Man a massive hit, with a sequel almost immediately greenlit, but just a few months later he delivered an Academy Award-nominated performance (in blackface) in Tropic Thunder. He followed that up in MCU-less 2009 with another massive win, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes. It seemed like he couldn’t stop winning, especially since in 2010 he would be teaming up with one of the biggest comedy stars of the time, Zach Galifianakis to make a buddy road film called Due Date and bringing in the hotly anticipated Iron Man 2.
And then there was Mickey Rourke. Like Downey, 2008 was a banner year for this troubled actor, who gave probably the best performance of the year in The Wrestler. But Rourke never shook his reputation for being a bit off-putting and couldn’t find a good direction to pivot his redemption in, making super forgettable action flicks like Killshot and 13 as well as whatever the hell The Informers was. 2010 was stretching the limits of his good vibes, but he had to sure-fire hits to keep him going: Iron Man 2 The Expendables. Whoops.
Justin Theroux, yes, The Leftovers‘ Justin Theroux, was the man chosen to write Iron Man 2. It sounds like Downey recommended him after enjoying Theroux’s script for Tropic Thunder, which is guess is also an action comedy like this one is trying to be. On the other hand, Downey and director Jon Favreau were interested in exploring the famous “Demon in a Bottle” Iron Man story by having Stark unable to cope with the aftermath of becoming a super hero and revealing his identity, which isn’t really ha-ha funny. According to Wikipedia, Shane Black even told them to “model Stark on J. Robert Oppenheimer, who became depressed with being ‘the destroyer of worlds’ after working on the Manhattan Project.”
The alcoholism stuff is the worst part of Iron Man 2 and some of the most embarrassing moments of the MCU. What works is how they transfer some of the self-destruction into Tony’s chest arc reactor, which is slowly poisoning him. Being Iron Man is taken a literal physical tole on Tony, and if he doesn’t deal with it, he’ll die. I’m into that. What I’m not into is Tony getting wasted and DJ’ing in his suit. This sort of thing is tough – a character acting embarrassingly probably should make the audience cringe – but it’s too much too fast. I think something like Tony being an alcoholic either needed to be built up over more time or made the main focus of the movie, neither of which were viable options. No matter what, the line “Give me a fat beat to bust my buddy’s ass to” should never have been said out loud.
But don’t let the bad obscure the good completely. Iron Man 2 is a movie that had too many ideas crammed into it, possibly like Spider-Man 3 before it. It has two villains, Rourke’s Ivan Vanko as well as Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer, which is one too many to be satisfying. It has to do a lot of SHIELD exposition, setting up Howard Stark’s connection to the organization and bringing in another agent, Black Widow (Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson)), which is mostly tangential to Tony’s story. It has to be an origin for War Machine, Rhodey’s super hero persona. It has to give Pepper her own story, so she takes over Stark Industries because Tony’s an addict. It even has a subplot with the US government trying to make Tony turn over the suit to an evil senator played by Garry Shandling. This is a lot! Some of it works really well.
Rourke’s performance as Vanko is bad, but the character is bad. A Russian ex-con super genius who wants revenge because Tony’s dad screwed his dad is a lot to swallow; especially since Rourke has that hair, and those tattoos, and that accent, and that bird. But Hammer is a great character, like an evil parody of Tony who’s all about the money and the glory and sweet dance moves. If you don’t appreciate this here, you’re gonna have a bad time with Guy Pearce’s version of it in Iron Man 3. And I do like the Howard Stark/SHIELD stuff, particularly how the movie turns this arms dealer into the MCU’s Walt Disney immediately after Marvel was acquired by The Mouse in 2009.
I found myself still liking the final battle, wherein Tony flys around shooting down Vanko’s American armed forces-themed drones. His and Rhodey’s final showdown with Vanko is whatever though. The best action scene belongs on Black Widow, who massacres a hallway full of Hammer guards while Happy Hogan (Favreau) slowly brawls out with one single dude. It’s funny and cool and paves the way for her to stand alongside the rest of the Avengers a couple years later. Oh, and the fight on the racetrack at Monaco is fine, but mostly because it’s the one and only appearance of the “suitcase.” Already the technology has advanced so much, and getting in and moving around in the suit seems much easier and faster.
That’s the case with these Marvel movies too, they were starting to get sleeker and smarter by this time. The shared universe connectedness from the first two movies is brought into the story instead of being pushed to after the credits. The Stan Winston suits that drove home the realism of the first Iron Man are used much less often, with Stark and Rhodey mostly shown in CG suits. We were entering a bigger, faster-moving world than we could possibly imagine. It’s just a shame this first step was a bit of a stumble.
OK, so cannon stuff. Don Cheadle takes over as Rhodey and John Slattery starts playing the older Howard Stark. They’ll both show up a lot more after this. Like a wrote above, lots of SHIELD history is revealed in this one: Howard Stark was a founder, Fury knew Howard, Black Widow is an agent, Coulson has to go see about a hammer in New Mexico. A prototype of Captain America’s shield shows up and Tony doesn’t care about it but Coulson is all about it, which is paid off with their attitudes towards the man himself in The Avengers. We don’t know if yet, but Shandling’s evil senator is actually super evil, he turns out to be Hyrda in The Winter Soldier and that’s just great. Finally, Olivia Munn and Kate Mara both show up in very small parts, they’ll end up playing Marvel super heroes, just not in the MCU.
MCU Power Rankings: I think the parts of this that are fun make it better than The Incredible Hulk. Just a shitload of charisma from most of the main cast. Bring back Sam Rockwell!