I only listen to two podcasts about film: Filmspotting and Creative Screenwriting. I love them both for completely different reasons, but I highly recommend them. In FS episode #301, they talk about Iron Man 2. I won't bother to rehash everything they said (besides, it's far too entertaining to listen to it straight from the source), but in the end they were disappointed as well. They mentioned things like not caring about the characters and the dialog being too flippant.
Just this past week I was catching up with old CS podcasts, and I came across this quote from Jon Favreau (the director) at an Iron Man 2 round table discussion:
We looked at the successful film sequels that we liked ... The two that we liked the most... were Wrath of Khan and Empire Strikes Back. Those are the two that we said, "They did it right. Now let's look at what they did right."Although he didn't say so, I have no doubt that Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight were also on their radar.
What do those films have in common? Aside from generally being the fan favorites of the series, they're also considered the most dark. That admission from Mr. Favreau is what made it all click for me in my head.
When the reviews for Iron Man came out, a lot of the positive buzz mentioned that it was "light" and "fun" (especially when compared to Dark Knight). It was a great way to start off the summer blockbuster season. But the interesting thing to me is that it actually contains several dark elements:
- Tony Stark kidnapped and tortured
- Multiple deaths and violence due to war
- An over-the-top evil father-figure who not only uses a neural paralysis device, but also attempts to kill Tony by ripping his heart out.
Now let's look at some of the dark themes in IM2:
- Government trying to confiscate the suit
- Dangerous alcoholism by Tony
- Tony's best friend Roady betrays him and steals an earlier suit in order to weaponize it.
- A mad Russian has not only duplicated the technology, but is also trying to kill Tony...
- ...because it turns out that Tony's dad (in addition to being John Slattery/Walt Disney) was a crook who cut out the Russian's father's participation in creating the device.
So, why doesn't it work? Because the serious elements of the story are brushed away, discussed flippantly, or just plain ignored. It is okay to have both dramatic and comedic elements in the same film. In fact, I would argue that the best films (of both types) almost always have a degree of both. The first Iron Man was able to pull it off. The problem here is that the director seemed to be addressing the dramatic themes with a light-hearted, comedic style. And that just doesn't work.
I'm not a big Favreau fan, but I believe he is a competent director. His decisions here really confuse me. When Whiplash is terrorizing the Monaco Gran Prix, literally slicing cars in half in his attempt to exact revenge on Tony, why did he interject the chauffeur (played by Favreau) speeding on the track with Pepper? Is it comic relief to see them dodging head on traffic? Are we supposed to be laughing when Tony gets smashed at his party and abuses the suit to entertain his guests? He contemplates the betrayal of his friend by hanging out in a giant donut? What is going on here?
I blame the director here because he sets the tone on the set. He tells the actors what sort of mood he is looking for. It is great for a movie to have ups and downs, an emotional roller coaster. But it is not good for it to do both at the same time, in which case you get a merry-go-round-- flat, uneventful, going nowhere with no surprises.