Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person review Iron Man 2

Both: Howard thought this was better than the original Iron Man, while Lawrence merely thought it as good. Either way, if you liked the first one, you’ll like this one.

Lawrence Person: The good thing about Iron Man 2 is that it isn’t any dumber than the original, which was, let’s face it, pretty dumb if you stopped to think about it. But if you’re watching a film about a man who can build a miniature fusion reactor the size of a smoke detector out of scrap metal, at what point can you really step off Mr. Toad’s Deeply Unlikely Ride?

Fortunately, Iron Man 2 moves along at a fast enough pace that you only realize the dumbeth (mostly) after it’s over…

Howard Waldrop: As I said in the review of Iron Man, I always thought of him as a third banana of the Marvel Universe, along with Ant/Giant Man and the Wasp. The people behind this franchise have pushed him to the front, and he’s the better for it.

LP: This movie starts out with Ivan Vanko at the side of his dying father (who Tony Stark’s dad probably stole the idea of the core-reactor from) when he sees Stark on TV proclaiming he’s Iron Man. Extensive hardware hacking ensues, resulting in Ivan creating his own circular chest reactor. A few months later, Stark is fending off congressional hearings from a government (and unctuous rival arms developer Justin Hammer) eager to seize his suit, opening the Stark Expo in Flushing, NY, making all-everything assistant Pepper Potts his replacement as CEO, and flying off to Monaco to drive his own race car. Oh, he’s also dying of palladium poisoning, a side effect of that palladium-fueled reactor in his chest. And the race track, of course, is where Vanko shows up to give Stark a taste of his electrowhip. (And I’d just like to point out that “ElcroWhip” is a good name for a rock band.)

And after that, enough plot machinations unfold to grease the tracks (including Stark building a particle accelerator in his basement in about a day; still on the ride?) to ensure that a lot of stuff blows up real good at the end.

HW: This is a more personal movie than Iron Man, and actually shows character growth, something you don’t expect in a franchise sequel.

LP: I like mecha-a-mecha combat just as much as the next guy, but to me far and away the biggest delight in this film is Downey’s Tony Stark and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts playing off each other. Their chemistry is so good (we’re talking William Powell/Myrna Loy good) you can’t help but smiling at every one of their scenes. They bicker and talk over each other like an old married couple that’s had the same argument 99 times before, but because they still love each other so much, they just can’t resist having one more go at it. This is the one element in the second film that’s decisively better than the first. Downey is always good, but this may be Paltrow’s best work since Shakespeare in Love.

HW: The acting of Mickey Rourke as Vanko is both understated and forceful, if you can imagine such a thing. There haven’t been many acting jobs like it, ever. (I didn’t see Rourke’s wrestler movie.)

LP: Rourke is fine in a criminally underwritten role. He’s essentially Stark’s intellectual doppelganger with Russian mafia tats and a hairstyle stolen from George Clinton. He can crack a firewall in ten seconds flat and control 25 separate flying combat drones at the same time from a keyboard interface. (Still on the ride?)

HW: Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury is a fresh take on the (white, older) comic book character. He plays him like a street-wise con man who really might have all the answers after all. Don Cheadle gives his usual (great) support. Gwyneth Paltrow and Scarlett Johansson are contrasts in acting styles, both playing competent but other-directed women.

LP: Johansson was fine in a deeply unlikely role, and tolerable competence is pretty much all you ask of her in a film not directed by Sofia Coppola. That, and looking incredibly hot, which she seems to have down pat.

Sam Rockwell gets the short end of the script this time, as his Justin Hammer is essentially Smarm on a Stick. He does a fine job in an idiot villain role, and while watching him, not once did it occur to me that he was also Guy Fleegman.

Garry Shandling rounds out the cast playing (for all intents and purposes) Arlen Specter.

HW: The film is slightly too long but has enough neat character bits (split among several characters) so you’re never bored. And the action scenes are varied; it’s not just two guys whaling away on each other’s exoskeletons endlessly (though there’s some of that).

LP: Just for the record, just as I did in our review of the first one, let’s go through all the plot implausibilities that only start to nag at you once the credits start rolling:

  1. So, you’re dying from palladium poisoning due to your fusion heart reactor. Did you ever think that, when you’re not swanning about in your mech suit, that you might want to, you know, replace it? In the first film he had a car battery powering the magnet keeping the metal fragments from his heart; surely ultra-everything genius Tony Stark could have designed something that runs off a few AAA batteries so as not to, you know, die?
  2. Assuming, that is, he didn’t opt for open heart surgery, the way any billionaire without a death wish would have done. (Mentioned this for the first movie, but it applies even more strongly this time around.)
  3. Obviously Nick Fury knows that Stark needs to make the Unobtainium. So making him play DaVinci Code Daddy with his father’s hope chest instead of just telling him makes absolutely no sense except as a cheap plot device.
  4. I’m pretty sure it’s both illegal and unwise to steal the prototype from one arms developer to give it to another. Especially if the guy you’re stealing it from is the world’s most popular billionaire superhero.
  5. “Hey, this crazy Russian guy just hacked my firewall like it wasn’t even there! Think I should improve my security and have someone check to make sure he hasn’t put any secret backdoors into my new mech drones? Naaaaah!”
  6. Look, I know we have bunches of rogue tech geniuses running around this cinematic slice of the Marvelverse, but did it never occur to Justin Theroux that the timelines for revolutionary skunkworks projects are generally measured in years, not days?
  7. So Hammer and Ivan can get their own software running on one of Stark’s mech suits in some 48 hours? Are they all running the same Linux MechWarrior distro? Or perhaps Windows for WarSuits? (Well, that would explain the ease of hacking…)
  8. And building that particle accelerator in the basement? Never mind that it took CERN 15 years to build the Large Hadron Collider (lazy Euroslackers). Never mind that Tony must happen to have a few tons of high-power superconducting magnets just lying around. (Hell, why not? He’s Tony Stark.) Never mind needing enough energy to power a small city. Is Stark really so short-sighted that he put the fusion target so far from the beamline, in the middle of the room (no wimpy vacuum chambers or sissy worries about deadly ionizing radiation for our man Tony!) that he has to manually turn the beam prism with a giant pipe wrench? Because he couldn’t rig up a servo mechanism? Because it just looks cooler to have him slice up his basement workshop? (Don’t answer that. Of course that’s why they did it.)
  9. Ah. The prism. The particle accelerator prism. That bends the beam. Made of particles. Which aren’t bent by prisms. Because they’re not photons. Because they’re matter rather than light. (Here’s a chart. I will not explain it to you. I’m on a horse.) Fire a particle accelerator beam into an optical prism and I’m sure you would get some very impressive results, probably including droplets of superheated quartz melting through your beamline containment walls. (In real life you bend particle beams electromagnetically.) You don’t get new elements. For me this is the biggest reason the film isn’t better than the first one, which didn’t strain plausibility quite so much. Ignoring basic physics is where I have to step off the ride.
  10. Etc.

Still, just like the first one, I enjoyed it. The direction, special effects and acting are much better than the script, and the script just needed one more “Dude, c’mon, seriously” pass than it got. And watching Downey’s Stark, a debauched billionaire arms dealer you can’t help but liking, even when he’s being a total dick, is still tremendous fun.

And yeah, the climactic mech suit battle is pretty cool.

There’s a credit cookie at the very end that points to the next Marvel character to get his own movie debut. Whether you want to stay for it probably depends on how big a Marvel comics geek you are, and the current state of your bladder…

HW: It will be interesting to see where Iron Man goes from here, because this will probably make lots of bucks. If they keep exploring Tony Stark’s background and (hidden from himself) motivations, the movies can’t do anything but keep getting better. I was surprised; other reviewers must have been seeing a different movie.

Howard Waldrop‘s latest books are Other Worlds, Better Lives: Selected Long Fiction, 1989 – 2003 and Things Will Never Be the Same: Selected Short Fiction 1980-2005, from Old Earth Books. Locus Magazine interviewed Waldrop in its November 2003 issue.

Lawrence Person is a science fiction writer living in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in Asimov’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Postscripts, Jim Baen’s Universe, Fear, National Review, Reason, Whole Earth Review, The Freeman, Science Fiction Eye, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and, as well as several anthologies. He also edits the Hugo-nominated SF critical magazine Nova Express and runs Lame Excuse Books.

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