Here’s what I’m going to do: In honor of this being an Iron Man II review, I’m going to break it down into two parts: My general opinions of the film and my thoughts on the incredibly frustrating Terrence Howard/Don Cheadle fiasco. The first is important to you, while the second is mostly important to me. You’ll read it anyway.
The film is good. It hits all the right notes and picks up appropriately where the first left off. Such a strong first outing would be hard to match, and while this film doesn’t reach the bar set by the first film, it certainly maintains the integrity of the character and the story, and it absolutely keeps the audience enjoying themselves. Still, there is something indefinable about seeing the character onscreen for the first time, and witnessing a superhero take those first baby steps into legend. It’s not something you can recreate, and keeping the subsequent story strong is an absolute necessity if you want the sequel to be anything approaching the origin story (just ask the Wachowski brothers).
That said, Iron Man II does a fine job of holding on to the working elements while allowing itself to be (more or less) a self-contained movie. In fact, the story has a bit too much going on. To be fair, if you had told me prior to seeing the film that the story would be overly elaborate, I’d have been elated. Comic book movies often fall victim to simplicity, and that can be tied directly to their critical success. But with everything going on here, you occasionally have to stop and take a breath. So many characters are worked into the sequel, with so much time devoted to the Marvel mythos and an Avengers setup, and the Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) saga and development is a story unto itself even without all that, that things begin to grow a bit hazy. So hazy in fact that I’ll try and limit my synopsis to two sentences: As Tony Stark balances his public persona with his own private troubles as well as handling the tension from his once assistant/now-CEO/forever flirting buddy Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and his old friend Jim Rhodes’ (Don Cheadle) allegiance to their catty government, Tony’s Russian equivalent Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) takes Stark’s superhero outing as an opportunity to avenge his father, a man supposedly gilted by Tony’s father Howard (John Slattery). Vanko finds a backer in the form of a desperate Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell, who steals every scene except maybe those he shares with RDJ; watching these guys split time is an absolute joy), a man doing everything he can to match Tony Stark and failing in every regard, and builds himself an army of Kill Drones with the intention of destroying both Stark’s legacy and his person. Shoot, I forgot about the whole S.H.I.E.L.D. situation with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and the alluring and ambiguously intentioned Nathasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). Anyway, close enough.
The story is bursting and while Jon Favreau mostly pulls it off, things occasionally get away from him. For instance, Stark’s ability to run roughshod in the world’s most powerful weapon without any real consequences starts to feel a little convenient. A certain scene in particular finds an absolutely smashed Stark complete with suit at his birthday party, drunkenly shooting watermelons out of the air. A fight follows, between Tony and the newly-minted Rhodes/War Machine, but the reality of this situation would be immensely more dramatic, with (I have to assume) the armed forces being called in to handle him and some assured jail time to follow. Nonetheless, Robert Downey Jr.’s complete understanding of Tony Stark’s character helps you get past these smallish dilemmas. He wields the Stark hubris magnificently, while giving ample time to the two-facedness of the man. Though his technical genius is unmatched, Stark seems less competent when it comes to his public persona. Or maybe he just doesn’t care. Whatever the case, his image takes a beating; a common trend in any Iron Man book. And it’s not only Downey Jr. who wins you over with performance, but nearly the entire cast. Gwyneth Paltrow is adorably frazzled while maintaining the exceptional competence of Pepper Potts. Mickey Rourke is quietly evil and does more than enough to bring some grime to the metallic gleam of the film. And, again, Sam Rockwell is just hilariously fun. His Justin Hammer is insecure and overcompensating, desperate and confidently veneered. Apparently Rockwell was a consideration for the character of Tony Stark in the beginning, and who’s to say what might have come of that? All I know for sure is that it would not have been bad. And then, there is Don Cheadle, reprising Terrence Howard‘s role as Jim Rhodes…
In October of 2008, a few articles were released on Slashfilm dealing with the recasting of Iron Man’s number two guy, Jim Rhodes. One of them included a quote from Terrence Howard regarding the recast: “There was no explanation. Just…up and vanished.” There was ample speculation that money was involved, and Howard, having been the first cast and the highest paid in the first film wanted more than the studio was willing to provide. The role was cut down, Terrence Howard was dismissed, Don Cheadle was nabbed, the role was beefed back up. It’s all very strange and very confusing and very Hollywood. And you know what? I don’t care about any of that. I don’t care about the money, I don’t care if Howard was difficult on set, I don’t care if Don Cheadle is a profoundly great actor. This is something you simply don’t do. The chemistry between Downey Jr. and Howard in the first film is great, and Cheadle’s Rhodes lies kind of flat on the screen, which certainly provokes this whole diatribe, but even this is beside the point. You don’t change horses midstream. You have established a character, with a face and a personality and a relationship among your other characters. What could possibly be gained by testing this structure? Let’s pretend for a second that Don Cheadle steals the show (which, honestly, he simply doesn’t do). You’re still asking your audience to commit themselves to a character with a completely new face and personality! Basically these two guys are black, and that’s more or less where the similarities end. It is an unforgettable patronization and though I’m mostly happy for Favreau, and generally pleased with the direction Marvel Productions are going, this glaring offense has clouded my final judgment of the film. Though to many it may seem a minor alteration, for me this is the type of Hollywood decision-making that reminds us how much the money remains on a par with the product; an attitude that keeps our country’s chief film exporter from ever being taken seriously as a conscious, considerate, or particularly thoughtful industry.
Go see Iron Man II. It’s worth your money and you’ll have a blast. But consider the ego that comes with up and dismissing an actor who played a pivotal role in your first movie, and will play at minimum a secondary role in your sequel. Consider what it took to justify that decision, and the fact that they did it all the same. I may be able to appreciate this film, but I’m seriously reconsidering the caliber of the people behind it.