Ah, sequels. I've written about sequels, recently even, but mostly I've been talking about horror sequels, which are a different beast. In the average sequelized horror movie, the characters are not the focus, because returning players are not a given (usually everyone dies), and usually a gimmick or plot device steps in instead. A blockbuster sequel has a different challenge: take things to the next level. "Bigger and better", as the mantra goes.
Unfortunately, that mantra doesn't quite work. Take The Mummy Returns, which most people seem to hate. To me, it's an anomaly: I find it to be more entertaining than the first, but it's also almost the exact same movie, except larger in scale (with an annoying kid thrown in to boot). In the first Mummy, library bookshelves topple like dominoes; in the sequel, it's Egyptian pillars. That's "bigger and better" in a nutshell. What the audience really wants is "a new batch of the same formula", and the right mixture of the same and new is an elusive concoction, particularly when it comes to developing characters that were already developed in the original.
Iron Man 2 is a pretty good sequel to a very good original, and a lack of further development for its main characters is the movie's major weakness. The first movie really let the audience get to know characters like Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and James "Rhodey" Rhodes (Terrence Howard in the original, Don Cheadle in the sequel), because the character of Iron Man wasn't a household name. Fast forward two years, and Iron Man 2 is one of the biggest movies of the year, and thanks to that level of corporate obligation, we have a film that's unsure or unwilling to develop these characters in as many meaningful ways, hampering the movie's flow for the first hour. Instead of our leads, screenwriter Justin Theroux and returning director Jon Favreau have brought us the evil, black-hearted Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), seeking eye-for-an-eye revenge, and the merely slimy Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), who wants the same in a corporate sense. Theroux and Favreau spend the entire second act basically allowing the movie to become their origin story, apparently hoping that Tony Stark could be temporarily sidelined in his own movie. Nice try, guys, but the only newcomer that really slips in without a hint of trouble is Scarlett Johansson as Natalie Rushman/Natasha Romanoff, who slinks around in a catsuit and beats the tar out of unsuspecting people.
While Rourke and Rockwell dither and argue about the direction Vanko should take with Hammer's prototype knock-off Iron Man suits, I sat and waited for Tony (or Pepper, or Rhodey, or Natasha) to get in on the action. I suppose the idea is that Stark, burdened by the poison seeping through his veins (an unfortunate side effect of the Arc reactor he placed in his chest) and repeated attempts by the doughy, red-faced Senator Stern (Garry Shandling) to take the Iron Man technology on behalf of the government, is slipping into a creative rut on his way to depression. Unfortunately, without enough time or opportunity to see and experience it from Tony's point of view, Stark's insecurities start to seem more like schtick, and it quickly becomes tiresome.
Thankfully, right before the audience's patience is exhausted, Agents Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Coulson (Clark Gregg) appear to roust Stark from his creative slumber, and the movie takes off, ultimately proving to be as light on its feet and breezy as the original. Character development may be an issue, but to say that there isn't any creeping in on the sidelines would be a lie. Before, Tony wrestled with his conscience; this time, he fends off the shadow of his father, which looms over his shoulder no matter how big and glitzy his year-long "Stark Expo" intends to be. Beneath that, there's the developing angles in the friendship between Tony and Rhodey, which is complicated by Rhodey's position within the U.S. military, and at the very bottom of the totem pole (sadly), is the budding romance between Tony and Pepper. There are still hints of the screwball chemistry the couple had in the first film, but it barely feels like Paltrow is present.
All in all, I don't think these problems are inherent to the story being told, but more the nature of Hollywood. There was a time, however brief, when it looked like Favreau and Jackson wouldn't be coming back, and the story about Howard being bumped out is well-known. All of this is less time spent developing the sequel, and I'm sure further passes at the screenplay would have allowed the filmmakers to hone in on the movie they really wanted to make (not to mention giving ILM more time to put the finishing touches on some of their CG; it's not bad, but bears the distinctive marks of a rush-job). Based on the number of people at my screening (three auditoriums were filled, with a line already forming for the 3am IMAX showing), Iron Man 3 is probably inevitable. There's plenty of steel-on-steel action here to fulfill the "Iron" half of the title, and the film's obligation as summer entertainment. Let's just hope that next time, the focus is back on the "Man".
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