Judge Patrick Bromley's college nickname was "Happy Hogan." I'll let you figure that one out for yourself.
It's not the armor that makes the hero, but the man inside.
Despite its huge budget and the fact that it was based on a famous, long-running Marvel Comics character, 2008's Iron Man still managed to be a pleasant surprise. Director Jon Favreau made an energetic, accessible movie that managed to please both the comic book fanboys and the uninformed audience who knew next to nothing about Tony Stark, thanks in large part to an eccentric and inspired lead performance by Robert Downey Jr.
Now, with the stakes raised and all eyes on them, Favreau and Downey reteam for the blockbuster follow-up Iron Man 2, making its HD debut in a spectacular Blu-ray package.
Facts of the Case
The secret is out. The world now knows that billionaire playboy Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr, Sherlock Holmes) is the superhero known as Iron Man, and within a few months his very existence is able to "successfully privatize world peace." Unfortunately, the U.S. military—including Stark's friend Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle of Brooklyn's Finest, stepping in for Terrence Howard) isn't too happy about such a powerful weapon working independently of any agency, and is insisting on procuring the designs to the Iron Man technology.
At the same time, Tony has handed over the reigns of Stark Industries to his faithful assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow, Shallow Hal), while under attack both from rival weapons manufacturer Justin Hammer (a perfectly smarmy Sam Rockwell of Moon) and Russian scientist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke, Johnny Handsome), who blames Stark for his father's misfortune and is creating his own weaponized suit to become Whiplash, a supervillain bent on destroying Iron Man. If that weren't enough, S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, Unbreakable) is still actively recruiting Tony for something called the "Avengers Initiative," and a new assistant named Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson, He's Just Not That Into You) may be more than she appears. Oh, and the arc reactor technology that Stark developed to keep himself alive is poisoning his blood, effectively killing him slowly.
What's a billionaire superhero to do?
The common wisdom with comic book superhero movies has typically been that the second film in the franchise is superior to the first. That may be because the first movie has to introduce the character to the uninitiated audience and explain his or her origin, while the second movie can dispense with all the necessary exposition and concentrate on telling a story that explores new dimensions of the characters. Just take a look at the track record: Spider-Man 2, Blade II, The Dark Knight, X2: X-Men United, Hellboy II: The Golden Army—heck, even Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer managed to improve on the first film (that's not saying much, because Silver Surfer is still mostly terrible, but at least it got the series out of the basement). In the majority of cases, the second film is the best in the franchise.
And so it is with that precedent, coupled with the sort-of-surprising excellence of director Jon Favreau's original Iron Man, that we enter into its follow-up, Iron Man 2, with unreasonably high expectations. Unfortunately, it's the rare comic book sequel that fails to surpass its predecessor (to be fair, though, the bar was set pretty high; Iron Man is one of the better superhero films of the decade). The movie works brilliantly in fits and starts, but too often is bogged down by its own weight. A busy, sometimes manic picture that's a blast while you're watching it, but doesn't hold up to much scrutiny afterwards, it's thematically muddled and works overtime to accomplish more than it's able to pull off. Is it a fun movie? Absolutely. Does it work as a whole? Just about. But anyone looking for a truly great Iron Man movie may have to wait until Part Three—or at least make due with the best parts of the first two films.
The problem with Iron Man 2 is the same problem that plagues a lot of comic book sequels—namely, it tries to service too much. We don't just get Tony Stark and Pepper Potts in this go-around; there's also War Machine and Whiplash and Justin Hammer and Black Widow and Nick Fury. The film becomes overstuffed—bloated, even—with too many characters and plot threads, and while I admire the ambition inherent in covering this much ground, no single element is particularly done justice (save, perhaps, for the screwball-inspired banter and relationship between Tony and Pepper, though I suspect that's more a result of the performances than the screenplay). Favreau and screenwriter Justin Theroux can't be entirely blamed, as this is one of the first Marvel productions to be released in the wake of the studio's new plan to build towards an Avengers movie. That means in addition to telling a new Iron Man story and expanding that character's universe, the film needs to fit into a larger puzzle and devote a great deal of time towards setting up characters and events that may not pay off until later. As a comic book geek, I'm excited to see Nick Fury and the Black Widow on screen, but do they really add anything to the story? Would the film be any lesser for their absence? I'm leaning towards "no" to both, and with the amount of screen time devoted to those characters, that's not a very good sign.
But there's more to it than that. At its center, I'm not entirely sure what Iron Man 2 wants to be. On his commentary track, Favreau claims it's about legacy—how the sins of the father are revisited upon the son, and what the characters choose to do with what has been passed down to them. That's a fine idea for a superhero movie, and I can certainly see shades of that in Iron Man 2 (particularly in the contrast between Tony Stark and Whiplash), but to me that's what the first Iron Man movie was about: would Tony Stark be a purveyor of weapons and destruction, as his father was before him (or so we are led to believe), or would he choose to do something more noble with his resources and genius? That's how Iron Man is born. Iron Man 2 seems to be about what happens when a superhero goes public, and when the world has access to the weapons technology that makes Iron Man possible. Those are interesting ideas, and though they're certainly addressed to some extent—both Whiplash and Justin Hammer are direct results of this—the movie consistently raises questions it isn't interested in answering. Likewise for the conceit that Tony's Arc Reactor technology is poisoning his blood—that the thing which is keeping him alive is also killing him. I appreciate it's a problem solved with Tony's intelligence and scientific know-how (rare for a big-budget superhero movie), but it never really matters as much as it should. We know it's not going to actually kill him—he is, after all, the star of the movie—so the plot device needs to work on a metaphorical level…which it never really does.
Of course, I'm being hard on Iron Man 2, measuring it up against what could have been with just a few more passes. In the larger context of summer blockbusters and even of superhero movies, it's very entertaining and still has a lot of great stuff in it. Robert Downey Jr. continues to be perhaps the best casting decision ever made with a comic book movie, dragging the film to success (not that it's entirely required) simply on the basis of his charisma, humor, and intelligence. He's surrounded by a great cast, all of whom get their own moments to shine and help populate this universe with smart, interesting people who say smart, interesting things. For every sequence that really doesn't work (I'm looking at you, birthday party fistfight), Favreau stages a setpiece like Whiplash's first attack at the Monte Carlo racetrack that's spectacular, visceral, and thrilling. It's too bad, then, that the scene's best gag—involving Tony's suitcase suit—was spoiled in all of the film's advertising; had it been a surprise, it would have been an absolute showstopper. Favreau is one of more interesting mainstream Hollywood filmmakers working right now. He knows how to balance effective action and wit with a geek's attention to detail and a populist's ability to please wide audiences. He does great work on Iron Man 2, but ultimately the film is just a touch too unwieldy and got away from him.
Despite the film's flaws, Paramount has put together an incredible HD package for Iron Man 2 that makes the movie worth revisiting over and over again. Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, this AVC-encoded, 1080p transfer looks, quite simply, stunning. Fine detail is consistently sharp and abundant, colors are rich and bold throughout, skin tones are warm, and black levels are inky and deep. This is a movie packed with visual detail (including a number of easter egg clues about what's ahead for The Avengers franchise and its players), and Paramount's Blu-ray doesn't miss any of it. The DTS-HD Master Audio track is also a thing of beauty, which is no easy feat given just how many different elements it needs to service. This being a comic book action movie, there are obviously a huge amount of explosions, gunshots, roaring rockets, car races and clanging metal-on-metal fist fights, and they all are powerful and lively as expected. What makes the track so special, though, is that none of these elements overpower the quick and witty banter that populates the screenplay—everything gets its equal due. There is so much depth and detail in the audio track that it will be fun to sit through the film a few times just to hear all of the thoughtful touches that are reproduced here. Iron Man 2 is one of the strongest technical releases of the year, and will most certainly become A/V reference material for every fan looking to show off the capabilities of his or her home theater.
A fantastic collection of extras has been included with the film, too, extending one's enjoyment of and perhaps even increasing appreciation for Iron Man 2. Once you've seen just how much care and detail went into the film and just how much genuine movie magic went into bringing the movie to the screen, it's hard not to admire what Favreau and his team have accomplished. On the first of this three-disc collection is the feature itself, which comes with a few different options that are playable over the course of the film. Director Jon Favreau sits down to record a commentary track, and it's an energetic and engaging talk about the production and many of the movie's themes. Favreau is a likable, accessible speaker whose passion and affection for the character and the comic book come across, and his commentary is equally rewarding for both the devoted and casual fan alike. Also included on the first disc is something called the "S.H.I.E.L.D. Data Vault," which consists of an optional pop-up trivia track (called "Footage Scan Mode") providing information about Iron Man and the larger Marvel universe that the film is building, as well as "The Vault," which contains the same information housed within its own feature. It's mostly text-based, but includes a number of clips and even features profiles on future Avengers Captain America ("Super Soldier Initiative"), Thor ("Project: New Mexico"), The Incredible Hulk ("Missing: Bruce Banner") and more. Rounding out the first disc is a "Previsualization and Animatics" feature, a picture-in-picture option that plays storyboards, concept art and rehearsal footage alongside the finished movie.
The bulk of the second disc, consisting only of supplemental material, is a nearly feature-length production documentary called Ultimate Iron Man: The Making of Iron Man 2. Broken up into four parts—"Rebuilding the Suit," "A Return to Action," "Expanding the Universe" and "Building a Legacy," the feature covers the entire process from pre-production through the film's editing and scoring. It's a really interesting and comprehensive documentary; even if you're not into Iron Man, it can be appreciated as a look at big-budget Hollywood filmmaking and just how intensely collaborative these special effects blockbusters have to be. The documentary is supplemented by a series of six featurettes: "Creating Stark Expo," "Practical Meets Digital," "Illustrated Origin: Nick Fury," "Illustrated Origin: Black Widow," "Illustrated Origin: War Machine" and "Working with DJ A.M." There's a varying level of interest to the featurettes, only some of which overlap with the documentary. The best pieces are the "Illustrated Origin," if only because they provide some extra background for a few characters and tie the film to the comics. Also included on Disc Two is a collection of deleted scenes with optional commentary by Favreau, and it's here that you'll see several beats (like Gwyneth Paltrow kissing the helmet) from the trailer that weren't in the finished film (including an alternate opening that I actually like a lot better than what was ultimately used, though Favreau makes a good case for the change on his commentary). Finally, there is a collection of trailers for the Iron Man films and video games and a music video for "Shoot to Thrill" by AC/DC, who provide all of the songs in Iron Man 2.
The third disc contains both a standard-def DVD copy of the film, as well as a digital copy playable on your computer or portable media devices.
If I've been hard on Iron Man 2, it's only because it had the potential to be great. This should have been the definitive Iron Man movie, and while it's still very entertaining it does not hit that mark. Luckily, the excellence of the Blu-ray package makes up for any shortcomings. While the movie may not be perfect, Iron Man 2 still makes for one of the best Blu-ray releases of the year.
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