Iron Man 2

Directed by Jon Favreau

I once read an entire chapter of Gödel, Escher, Bach. I learned how to navigate the intimidating street grids of Washington, D.C., and Brooklyn, New York. I usually know who did it on CSI before the first commercial break. The point I’m trying to make here is that I am reasonably skilled at decoding plots. But it’s been 48 hours since I saw Iron Man 2 and I am still confused; it was harder to follow than Gödel, Escher, Bach.

The first Iron Man, released in 2008, was one of the great surprises of the last few years. It was essentially a 1930s screwball comedy masquerading as a superhero picture, with Robert Downey Jr. as a fun-loving billionaire industrialist with a wisecracking secretary (Gwyneth Paltrow), a wiseguy valet (Jon Favreau, also the director), and an adorable pet in the form of a robotic arm. Infectiously high-spirited and alive as few people have ever been on screen, Downey was electric, and he was the movie.

For reasons that elude me, in Iron Man 2, Downey’s Tony Stark is a drag. He pouts, he broods, he talks about how his father didn’t love him, he gets drunk, he acts irresponsibly, and in general, he’s not very good company. Everything that was fun about him has been transferred to the new movie’s villain, a rival billionaire industrialist played by the extraordinary Sam Rockwell. Now it’s Rockwell who’s having fun being rich, Rockwell who has the good lines, Rockwell who engages in the fast-talking banter. Downey seems determined to change his last name to Downer.

So that’s baffling. But it’s nothing next to the movie’s plot. There’s a Russian guy played by Mickey Rourke. He becomes an evil Iron Man. He is able to do this by assembling the parts for an Iron Man suit in a Moscow tenement. The first movie suggested the only reason Downey was able to make the suit is that he had billions of dollars and access to nuclear materiel, but that goes by the wayside here; evidently all you need is a blueprint and a welding gun and you’re good to go.

Rourke goes to Monte Carlo to disrupt the Grand Prix car race. He uses his suit to destroy cars, and then goes after Downey’s car. But how could Rourke have known this, since we see that Downey only decides to drive the car (instead of a professional race-car driver) a minute before the race begins? Most of what Rourke does makes no sense, and he uses a Russian accent that makes it impossible to understand what he’s saying, so maybe it did make sense but I just couldn’t make out the words.

But all that pales next to the sudden appearance in the movie by Samuel L. Jackson. He shows up wearing an eyepatch. He says his name is Nick Fury. Downey knows who he is and mumbles something about superheroes. Jackson says Downey’s late father was a part of some organization Jackson runs. Also sitting there is Scarlett Johansson, who works for Downey’s company but is, it turns out, actually part of Jackson’s organization. She does lots of good karate. She works for Gwyneth Paltrow, who likes her, then doesn’t like her.

“I know what you’re up to,” Gwyneth says to Scarlett. Then, two scenes later, Scarlett is Gwyneth’s closest aide. Jackson wants Downey to be part of his organization, only he doesn’t. He gives Downey an injection of something that temporarily cures him of the radiation poisoning from his nuclear-powered heart (don’t ask) that’s secretly killing him, and gives him a box with stuff in it. The box helps Downey figure something out that helps him find a more permanent cure. But since Jackson seems to know what’s in the box already, why doesn’t he just tell Downey what it is?

At the end of the movie, which isn’t all that bad but isn’t all that good either, Downey opens a folder that says “The Avengers” on it. I know there used to be a comic book called “The Avengers,” so I guess that’s what Jackson’s organization is, only I think he said it was called Shield. But none of this is ever explained, even for a minute, so unless you come to the movie with a deep grounding in comic-book lore, you won’t have a clue what any of this is about.

I prefer to think that I am just not smart enough to get what’s going on in Iron Man 2 because I read that it cost $200 million to make. Surely even in Hollywood, nobody would spend a quarter of a billion dollars on a movie without establishing elementary principles of fact and logic. Oh, wait: I forgot Spider-Man 3. And Pirates of the Caribbean 3. And Transformers 2.

I can only imagine what Gödel, Escher, Bach 2 would cost to make.

John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.

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