Between Reviews: Sequelitis

Posted on May 29, 2010


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The first two mega-sequels of this summer are swollen with the expected spectacle, but the pleasures they offer are few and far between.

MAY 30, 2010 – EARLY ON IN THE SNAPPILY TITLED IRON MAN 2 (as opposed to, say, Iron Man: Heavier Metal), Robert Downey Jr. leaps off the gaping maw of a military aircraft, like a soldier in wartime plunging into enemy territory in the shroud of darkness. And the mind is muddled. Why does a superhero need a launching pad? Couldn’t he just set off from his Malibu home and wind up wherever he wanted? And then the joke falls into place. He lands on a garish soundstage populated by row upon row of chorus girls, each one a leggy celebration of Tony Stark – dressed in red bikinis (the same red that colours Iron Man’s costume) and with an incandescent light in the centre of the breast (like Iron Man’s arc-reactor “heart”). It’s entirely fitting that these proceedings are under the aegis of Stark Expo – what better setting for such a monstrous exhibitionist, the peerless narcissist who puts the “I” in Iron man?

The unapologetically immodest Stark is the rare superhero who knows he’s super and feels no need to hide behind either mask or myth, brooding about his burdensome destiny. Stark is more likely to show up drunk at his birthday party – and in his Iron Man suit, to boot, like an impish rock-star parading in costume. (Needless to say, he trashes the place. Between these impromptu bursts of destruction and the more warranted ones, from testing his latest inventions, the construction workers in Malibu are surely a contented lot.) Few actors can play this mix of hubris and humour as well as Robert Downey Jr. He talks non-stop, and the people surrounding him have to work their words in sideways, which results in the strangely entertaining spectacle of a summer blockbuster with overlapping speech patterns resembling a Robert Altman tableau. The quips he’s given are mostly terrific (though the best one, about getting a roof, is usurped by Don Cheadle) and he’s pretty terrific himself (though the best performance is given by Sam Rockwell, who’s hilarious as what I’m assuming is a sendup of villainous tycoons down the ages).

The huge problem is that there’s nothing else. Iron Man 2 has a magnetic protagonist spinning around in a vacuum, and after a while, it’s hard not to feel that Downey Jr. might well have spent these couple of hours talking to a mirror and we’d have still walked away with the same pluses. The typically overstuffed plot saddles Iron Man with one internal antagonist (he’s being poisoned by the palladium from his arc reactor) and three external enemies (the tycoon who wants to clone Iron Man suits for the military, a Senator who wants Stark to turn in his alter-ego costume in the larger interest of the nation’s security, and a Russian physicist who blames Stark’s family for the misfortunes that befell his own). Why not just unleash the physicist (played by Mickey Rourke, who makes a spectacular appearance attired like a medieval warrior wielding silver-tongued whips) upon Iron Man and watch the battle of the newly resurgent former substance abusers? Why have Rockwell employ Rourke and reduce the latter to a henchman?

Rourke is too easily dispatched. The poisoning problem is too easily untangled. (There’s not a second Stark appears to be in any significant danger.) And the big-name star cast (Scarlett Johannson, Samuel L Jackson, even Gwyneth Paltrow, who, in the first film, was literally handed Stark’s heart, in a moment that hinted at potent romantic possibilities) is downsized to glorified cameos, puny satellites revolving around the sun-sized ego of Tony Stark. The transformation of the long-suffering butler into the long-suffering girlfriend is a masterstroke – but when, by the end, they lock lips, it comes off more like a precondition than predestination. There was always the nagging issue about what she saw in this most self-absorbed of men, and two installments in, we’re no clearer. Sam Raimi, with his Spider-Man movies, set the bar for such couplings so high (and Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst succeeded so wonderfully in suggesting not just teenybopper boy-girl romance but a textured man-woman relationship) that this half-hearted love interest for Stark seems redundant. After all, he’s got himself.

Shrek, on the other hand, is anything but self-absorbed in the fourth (and supposedly final) chapter of his tale, Shrek Forever After. In fact, he has little time for himself, what with the onset of parenthood (with adorably flatulent triplets) and the offing of his reputation as a fearsome ogre. Then, thanks to the wiles of the evil Rumpelstiltskin (who no longer lusts for first-borns but seeks to rule over Far Far Away), Shrek is deposited in an alternate-reality universe where he’s liberated from squalling infants. (The screams, instead, come from terrified peasants.) So far, so fine – this inspired mix of It’s a Wonderful Life and Back to the Future (in other words, not so much “once upon a time” as “once upon a time warp”), with a superb stretch that invokes world wars and resistance fighters. But as with the Iron Man sequel, Shrek’s latest adventures never amount to anything more than “mildly diverting.” Thankfully – and unlike Iron Man 2 – the supporting cast (Donkey, Puss in Boots, Pinocchio, and especially Gingerbread Man, as a gladiator warding off animal crackers) is in top-notch form. If only they’d get a wisecracking movie all to themselves.

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