I once flippantly described George Bush's invasion of Iraq as his "difficult second war" following the surprised critical reception for his artistic collaboration with established mass slaughter success story the Northern Alliance. This was at a time when the people i was talking to were cheerily redrawing the maps of West Asia with phrases like "New Texas" inked in over the previous art, so my Vizzini-like scepticism about a land war in Asia was seen as juvenile cynicism. And since a side effect of that attitude was that I'm not really talking to those guys any more, it's been a long hard six years of having no-one to say "I told you so." to.
Ah well. Just as the lack of success in the difficult second war has left us wondering how much reality there was to the apparent success of the surprise hit in the first one, Iron Man 2 left me wondering whether I'd really liked Iron Man that much in the first place, and if so why?
I'm honestly not being difficult when I say that the most fun I had at Iron Man 2 was seeing a credit for "Inflatable Crowd Supervisor" as I waited for the much heralded Easter Egg which was supposed to show up after the credits. For any of you debating whether to do likewise, don't. It's thirty seconds of a dull actor showing up to look at a big hole in the ground which has the handle of a hammer sticking out of it. Meh.
The other useful thing in the credits is that they show you just how many people had to slave over hot computers to make all the special effects, which is sort of sad given that the special effects are definitely the worst thing in the movie. It's not that they're badly done, it's that they don't really add anything worth watching.
Which brings me to why the first movie more or less worked and the second one more or less doesn't. Comic book adaptations in the movies generally take a lead actor you've never heard of before, expose him to some kind of life changing event, and then expose the new and improved nobody to startling hazard. They usually play all of this tiringly straight. This is usually referred to as the origin story, and as a form of story telling it's older than dirt. It's also usually duller than dirt. Iron Man bucked that trend by casting an actor who had tons of experience and was capable of being genuinely funny. So instead of watching a teenager wrestle with a metaphor for puberty, we had a grown up wrestle with a metaphor for death, which at my age is a lot more relatable. Not to mention that once you've been through it, puberty stops being at all impressive as a challenge. The respective survival rates for puberty and death speak for themselves.
So I quite liked Iron Man, though it did fail my standard "is this any good?" test by not being a movie I bothered buying on disc once it got cheap. It was fun, but it wasn't something I particularly wanted to see again. What made it work were the character moments. Robert Downey made a wonderful Tony Stark and continued his recent streak of being the best thing in whatever movie he happens to find himself in. The supporting actors were given enough to do, and above all the special effects were brought in only when you'd seen enough of the actors to care what the special effects might do to them.
In Iron Man 2, they knew they had to deliver a bigger better version of what had already succeeded in the first movie, but for no readily understandable reason they seem to have decided that what succeeded in the first movie was the special effects, not the acting and the writing. So they amped up the set pieces and cut back on the writers. So there's lots of sound and fury and very little reason to care. The grand climax of the film is Iron Man fighting hordes of robot drones studded with weapons and it's just impossible to care what happens - partly because you know what's going to happen and partly because it's all so cluttered and busy and muddled that it rapidly becomes impossible to follow what's going on.
I found myself picking apart stupid things. Tony Stark has to build a linear accelerator in his Malibu beach house so that he can create a new element to power his Iron Man suit. Sweeping past the grand fallacy that a linear accelerator that could fit in anything smaller than Switzerland could make usable quantities of anything, let alone a new transuranic element, I was asking questions like; why is he making holes in the walls with a sledgehammer when he's got an Iron Man suit? Why does he have to steer his particle beam (with the world's largest Stillson wrench jammed into some kind of plumbing supplies) through 180 degrees to get it lined up with the target? Why wasn't it lined up to within a couple of degrees before he even switched it on? If you have time to ask these questions, the movie is doing something wrong.
And there are moments along the way which suggest that it knew enough not to do these things. Mickey Rourke's character is broken out of jail at one point in a wonderfully economical scene which demonstrates the power of huge bribes and wilful indifference to right and wrong; want to take a man out of a maximum security prison? Money no object? Bribe the guards to carry him out for you. It's such an obvious way for rich people to solve problems that all on its own the scene creates a little island of credibility. Sadly that island is not part of an archipelago.
Mickey Rourke reportedly only read his own parts of the script, which was either an inspired piece of method acting to help him create a character who doesn't really interact with the people around him, or Mickey seeing it as just another pay day and putting in the bare minimum of effort - the result's the same either way, as his character mumbles at everyone and makes as little eye contact as he can get away with. A rolling problem in modern movies is the difficulty actors have in reacting to the special effects; they have to imagine things which aren't there and then respond to them as though they were. This can lead to bizarre levels of over and under reaction to amazing scenes slammed in later; Iron Man 2 may be the first movie I've seen in which an Oscar-nominated star reacts to the other actors as though they were orange tennis balls on sticks standing in for something that was going to be added in later.
Other actors brought in for no real impact include Scarlett Johanssen (one great fight scene is NOT enough to justify all the other dull moments she brings to the party) Samuel L Jackson (I know Marvel's required by law to include him in everything they make, but Stan Lee's working harder in his scene) Gwynneth Paltrow (an annoying person in real life and not doing enough acting here to let me overlook it) and Sam Rockwell (I think he was setting out to be annoying, but overdoing it to the point where I had to ask myself how anyone so effortlessly infuriating could have held down a responsible job, let alone somehow risen to be CEO of America's biggest weapons company).
All in all, a bad job done by all. It's made a boatload of money, unfortunately, so everyone involved is going to conclude that they should do it again. Oh dear.