(In theatres, May 2010) As one of, apparently, only half-a-dozen people who didn’t go completely crazy about the first Iron Man film, my expectations for the sequel were kept in check. So I was pleasantly surprised to find myself nodding in agreement at this follow-up’s overlapping snarky dialogues, well-choreographed action sequences and pleasant character beats. The force of the film remains the character of Tony Stark as played by Robert Downey Jr, one of the few superheroes around to actually enjoy the superpowers at his disposal. Contrary to many of his brethren, this sequel tackles the responsibilities of power from another direction: while the parallels with alcoholism get heavy at times (in-keeping with the source material), it’s a neat bit of character affliction that keeps things interesting even when stuff is not exploding on-screen. Add a little bit of honestly science-fictional content in how Stark manages to synthesize a solution to his problem (“That was easier than I thought”, the movie self-knowingly wisecracks) and there’s enough fun here to pave over the film’s less convincing moments. Never mind how a single suit-equipped billionaire can apparently create world peace, or Sam Rockwell’s unconvincing grandstanding as another, dumber billionaire, or the shoe-horned intrusions by the rest of the Marvel universe, or the lengthier stretches in which Iron Man 2 occasionally bogs down. At least the film has a good understanding of the character’s strengths, and works hard at maintaining them. I can’t say enough nice things about the replacement of Terrence Howard by the ever-dependable Don Cheadle, nor of Gwyneth Paltrow’s adorable reddish bangs: director Jon Favreau is fine on-screen and even better directing the whole thing. Iron Man 2 is, unlike other superhero movies often dominated by angst, about joy –and the feeling is infectious. It may not be a classic, but it’s a decent follow-up.
(In theaters, June 2008) The good news are that this “reboot” is much better than the dull yet repellent Ang Lee 2003 film. Of course, that’s a low bar, and the best that this one can do is to score near “better-than-average”. Edward Norton may or may not be better than Eric Bana, but his Bruce Banner is compelling, and in fact more interesting than The Hulk itself. Much like Iron Man (also produced directly by Marvel rather than licensed to others), The Incredible Hulk‘s main strength is its thorough knowledge of the character and its familiarity with the basics. As a result, we skip past the whole origin story in an efficient credit sequence, then pick up later on with a more interesting plot about keeping things under control (or not). The Brazilian favelas make for fantastic scenery that set the tone for a well-controlled, well-delivered experience despite occasional blips of confusion caused by enthusiastic over-editing. (The tie-in novel reportedly covers the missing bits.) The action scenes, ironically, are where the film breaks down most visibly: They go on for a while, but always seem to end too-quickly, without much by way of resolution or built-up climax. But having mastered the art of delivering a satisfying Hulk film, Marvel may want to look at making up something that goes beyond that: Since “the cure” would destroy the character, it’s obvious that this is a goal that will always be frustrated. This particular instance of The Incredible Hulk may be okay, but it doesn’t go beyond that. At least it blurs memories of the previous attempt at the character, and sets up a next one.
(In theaters, May 2008) After so many disappointing superhero films leadened by dull origin stories and barely saved (if at all) by their action scenes, it’s refreshing to find that Iron Man is a superb first entry in a franchise that succeeds through sheer attention to character more than impressive pyrotechnics. Robert Downey Jr is absolutely perfect as arrogant super-genius Tony Stark: his bad-boy manners are compelling in simple dialog scenes, lending credence to the theory that superheroes are only as interesting as their secret identities. He makes the film click long before he suits up and punches through tanks. As for the action scenes, they’re not as numerous as you may think (four, maybe five of them) and they definitely take a back step compared to more unconventional scenes in which Stark thinks, designs, refines and tests his Iron Man suit. A decent sense of humor underscores the entire film, and if there are a number of plot issues (not all of them relating to Stark’s medical condition and the steps he takes in order to solve it), the entire film flows far more quickly than one would expect. While there’s still plenty of room for the series to improve (there isn’t much of an antagonist this time around, for instance), this a solid and confident first entry, well worth a look.