Monday, 10 May 2010

Stuff will return...

World of Stuff will be on pause for a few days as your trusty blogger takes a well-earned break down South. You may have thought, due to the lack of regular postings recently, that I was already on holiday but that's a matter for you entirely! Needless to say (is it?) I will return in the next seven days or so with more regular updated postings. Have fun!

Coming soon: Reviews of the latest two Dr Who episodes, Department S on DVD, Whoops Apocalypse, Avatar, Sherlock Holmes, Four Lions....and, as they say, much much more. Honest. Ciao.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Film Review: Iron Man 2

The surprise mega-success of 2008's 'Iron Man', directed by John Favreau and with a bravura starring turn by Robert Downey Jnr, effortlessly lifted the character out of the second or third tier of Marvel superheroes and into the premier division. The first film - that tricky 'origin' movie - was something new and refreshing in the superhero pantheon, by turns spectacular, fast, furious and genuinely funny. It managed to tread the fine line between the deathly dour Batman franchise and the slightly too-silly Fantastic Four movies. It was, in short, a triumph. No surprise, then, that expectations were high for this sophomore release. Such a shame then that the film's a bit of a disappointment; not, by any means, 'Spider-Man 3' sized disappointing, but it's a bit underwhelming and ultimately rather less than the sum of its considerable number of parts.

For this is where the film stumbles - it's just too many 'parts', there's too much stuff (ahem) going on all the time; much of it's a bit boring, some of it's quite entertaining but far,far too much of it has nothing at all to do with Iron Man himself. Considering the film's called 'Iron Man 2', appearances by the man in metal are few and far between, rationed pretty much to two or three action set pieces, the third of which, the final battle against a squad or war robots, is just too much too late as we've waited so long for Iron Man to kick some ass we're just about exhausted by the time it finally happens.

The film picks up more or less exactly where the first film left off - with Tony Stark Jnr revealing to the world that he is Iron Man. Almost immediately the action shifts to Russia where Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) the embittered son of a dying Russian scientist watches as Stark bathes in the glory of a technology created by his father in Russia. Not unexpectedly, he sets about fashioning his own armoured costume (complete with energy-crackling lariats) to become Whiplash (a name never used in the movie) with which he plots to wreak revenge on Stark for the terrible injustice wrought upon his family. Back in the US of A it’s not all plain sailing for Stark either; the palladium core of the chest device keeping him alive is leaking poison into his bloodstream – he’s dying. Other enemies are circling too; rival industrialist Justin Hammer (a charismatic performance by Sam Rockwell) is trying to elbow Stark out of the limelight, Senator Stern (a bloated Garry Shandling) is trying to force Stark to surrender his Iron Man technology to the Government for sinister military purposes. Back at Stark Industries Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is promoted to CEO of Stark Industries and as if all this stuff wasn’t enough there’s the arrival of the mysterious Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson), Stark’s latest ice=cold employee. With all these characters vying for the limelight and so much plot to progress, it’s hardly surprising that Iron Man himself is almost a bit of an afterthought, slung into the mix at odd moments to give the film an often much-needed shot of spectacle amidst the wise-cracking. This, too, is part of the film’s problem. Screen writer Justin Theroux is clearly more interested in Tony Stark than Iron Man (and it’s another fault of the movie’s narrative dynamic that it allows this to happen) because Stark gets all the best lines, all the smart ass comebacks, all the snidey putdowns. They’re all well and good but they get a bit wearing after a while and they hardly help the film’s cause in making Stark a sympathetic character. Most of the time you just want someone to give him a bit of a slap and tell him not to be so smug. Or maybe that was just me…

After this crowd of characters and plot has been crowbarred into the first third of the film we finally get to see Iron Man in action when he confronts Venko on the Monaco racetrack. It’s a great sequence, Venko slicing and dicing passing race cars and hurling an underpowered Iron Man around the track. It’s a slick and powerful sequence and it kicks the movie out of first gear – only for it to slip back again moments later as the film’s sea of wlaking talking heads swims into view again.

And the frustrating truth is that Iron Man 2 never really gets out of first gear – or rather when it does it doesn’t have the energy to stay there. The middle of the film sags alarmingly with only a brief cameo from Samuel Jackson as Nick Fury) foreshadowing the much-rumoured Avenger) raising the interest for a moment or two. By the time we get to the final reel and the action starts – at last – it’s very nearly too late. I still have no idea what Johanssen’s Black Widow alter ego (again, an alter ego never specifically named in the film) has to do with anything else that’s going on, director Jon Favreau indulges himself with a bigger role for his bodyguard character Happy Hogan who enjoys a laboured fistfight as Black Widow demolishes a troop of guards in double quick time. Meanwhile Iron Man himself finally has his mettle tested as Justin Hammer’s new army of armoured robots sets about demolishing the massive Star Expo.

There seems to be a tacit understanding that big bold superhero movies must appeal to kids as much as – sometimes even moreso – adults. After all, we’re talking about people who dress up in coloured costumes and beat seven bells out of other people in coloured costumes. Walk into any supermarket or toy store in the UK right now and you’ll find the shelves groaning under the weight of Iron Man masks, Iron Man toy weapons, Iron Man action figures. But I can’t imagine that many kids will set through Iron Man 2 without getting bored and restless. Adults may enjoy the wordplay, the sexual tension between Stark and Potts, the electric resentment between Stark and Senator Stenton, all the rest of the intricate character stuff. But the kids – and, I suspect, quite a few of us adults – would rather see Iron man flying and fighting. And the truth is we just don’t get enough of either.

Don’t go thinking Iron Man 2 is a bad movie; it’s far too technically proficient for that.But it’s a film that’s got its focus all wrong and is too in love with its own character and its own mythology to entertain on the most visceral, primal level of all. Maybe it’s familiarity breeding contempt, maybe it’s the fact that the first film surpassed so many expectation, maybe in the wake of the sublimely iconoclastic ‘Kick Ass’ the more traditional superheroes just look increasingly passé. But really I think it’s just that Favreau has allowed his film to lose the fine balance of character and spectacle the first film had and, bloated by the success of the first film and the fan acclaim heaped upon him, he’s allowed himself to become self-indulgent and turned out a film which could have been so much better and so much more satisfying if it hadn’t been allowed to become so full of its own self-importance. A missed opportunity, and a disappointing movie to kick off the summer season of cinema blockbusters. Better luck third time??