Iron Man 2

Just got back from seeing Iron Man 2. It was very different in a lot of ways from the typical superhero sequel, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. Something tells me my views on this movie are going to be shaped by what it actually ends up being; it’s either the next step in the evolution of the superhero movie, or it’s just filler while we all wait for the Avengers movie.

The defining feature of the superhero movie is, of course, the special effects. In this department, Iron Man 2 fails spectacularly. Or, uh, succeeds. Depending on your point of view, I mean. I’m doing a bad job explaining what I mean. Let me start over.

All of the spectacle you could expect from a film about a man in a kickass robot suit was already covered in the original Iron Man. Surely this is true of most other superhero movies as well, and the natural inclination for the inevitable sequels is to go for more spectacle. Usually this means bigger, badder special effects. The heroic arsenal, v2.0. Crazier fights against the Increasingly Less Relevant supervillain.

But that’s not a sustainable cycle, is it? This is why nobody likes Batman Forever or Spider-Man 3. You can only stack more and more spectacle onto a franchise before it collapses under its own weight. It doesn’t matter that the hero is fighting TWO!! villains now, if they’re both B-list villains. Nobody outside of post-production really cares that Batman has a new sweet ride with blue glowing rims.

Make no mistake — Iron Man 2 is a spectacle. But it’s no moreso than the first movie. When you watch this movie you’re not just seeing Iron Man ramped up to the X-TREEEME.

What are you seeing then?

Two things, really. The first is a slice of Tony Stark’s life: a man spiraling into self-destruction and the manner in which the things and people around him deal with it. The scenes with Iron Man are almost… incidental, really. The whole thing with Evil Rival CEO Guy and Generic Foreign Villain With A Grudge is basically a sub-plot. The story of the rise and fall and rise of Tony Stark, that’s what’s on center stage. Yes, Iron Man fights monster robots with death rays etc. But he also makes a drunken fool of himself at a birthday party. It’s the latter scene that is the real movie here. That’s the one you’re supposed to pay real attention to.

Is this the start of a new trend in superhero movies? They’ve traditionally gone up and up and up, reaching higher and higher until they have nowhere left to go but down. Iron Man 2 doesn’t go upwards, but rather sideways. It tells a different kind of superhero story. It paints us the picture of a superman with no rules, no limits, no secret identity. A man in a metal suit destroying all of his vast holdings with the misapplication of his own hubris.

If this, indeed, is what superhero sequels can start to be… then I’m excited. Special effects are no longer special — they’ve become mundane. I spent three hours with Avatar and the most amazing special effects my eyes have ever beheld in a motion picture — and I was bored to tears. I’m over that stuff. I need my movies to be filling as well as flavorful.

But–! Of course there’s a “but”.

Iron Man 2 isn’t really the sequel to Iron Man, but a stepping stone to this big amazing planet-destroying supremo Avengers film we’ve got coming down the pipeline. Looked at in this light, the film isn’t meant to stand on its own merits at all — it’s but a single brick in what is supposed to be the foundation for something huge. See above: spectacle upon spectacle.

It’s the beat. It’s the middle panel of the three-panel strip; neither the set-up nor the punchline. It doesn’t have to do anything, it just has to be.

And if that’s the case, then the movie is a success. Whatever I or anyone else may say about the movie, it definitely is.

I enjoyed the film, for what it’s worth. I recommend you see it. It’s not the vapid expanse of nothing that Avatar was, nor is it a jam-packed overstuffed summer blockbuster like [insert title here] 3. It’s a fine tale about a man who has everything and nothing. I warn you, though, I left the theater feeling like I’d just watched a two-hour-long commercial for some movie we don’t have a trailer for yet.

And yes, I stayed after the credits. Perhaps that’s all the evidence I need to tell me which of my two theories is correct.

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