The first time around, it was Robert Downey Jr. I was watching. And even with this second installment of the Marvel Comic hero, Downey is an endlessly adroit chameleon, able to pivot moods in micro-seconds. Yet, somehowâ€”especially since most of the film reduces to a series of high-tech explosionsâ€”it’s Mickey Rourke I’m watching this time around.
No man sports tattoos better than Rourke, who’s made a performance piece out of his scars, unfathomable hair and more-macho-than-thou dress code. He could make tattoed feet a global fashion statement. But obviously the key to his seductive loser’s swagger lies elsewhere.
Seemingly free of pretense, he appears grittier, more real than the very screen he explodes upon. When he unleashes whips of fire and electricity, he’s believable. The metal teeth, the gutteral Russian accent, the unnaturally swollen fingernails that attack keyboards in order to reprogram satellite softwareâ€”I submit, utterly, to whatever it is this guy’s selling.
All my Iron Man cards are now on the table. I need to catch my breath before I continue. . . .
The perfect antidote to a Ralph Lauren ad, Rourke as psychopath physicist Vanko, exists on-screen like a blunt object. With attitude. No girly-man tasselled loafers, no Hugo Boss lapels. He is a focussed mass of revenge whose mission (to destroy Tony Stark, aka Iron Man) involves a Freudian trope based on a past partnership between Vanko’s father and Stark’s father.
Pay-back is as old as Orestes and Moses (two guys whose names end in “es” if you like to hunt for hidden meanings). And Rourke is up to the task.
All of this, plus the mercurial Mr. Downey, tends to lay waste the efforts of both Sam Rockwell as the media slimeball (Sam, you’re no Gary Oldman!) and Scarlett Johanssen as the sex interest. How Johanssen allowed herself to be exploited back to 1968 and painted into her latex outfits so that her co-stars could feign mega-oogling, is beyond me.
Even Gwyneth Paltrow (somehow I always think her name is Gwyneth Paltry…) is pathetic as the corporate lapdog trotting around on 6-inch heels. Now that’s true feminist CEO behaviorâ€”tight sheaths and spikey Christian Louboutins.
Finally, yes, Robert Downey Jr. is a physically articulate genius. But he belongs in far better vehicles than a well-photoshopped comic book. I long to see him in some Anthony Hopkins roles, or even a serious psychological thriller, rather than this screwball comedy video game.
Downey may be off hard drugs, but the substance he’s currently abusing is his talent.