'Iron Man 2,' the power of charm, and the limits of clang

iron-man-2-jackson-downeyImage Credit: Francois DuhamelAmid all the numbers crunched on the opening weekend of Iron Man 2 (the fifth highest opening ever, as calculated by the eighth tallest left-handed man in the accounting department!), one statistical talking point did catch my eye: IndieWire reports that Paramount is marveling “at how strong the film is playing with females.” According to a studio distribution executive, “You would expect such numbers from a film like Sex and the City 2.

Another way to put it is, you wouldn’t  expect such numbers from a comic-book action-movie sequel. And yet the reason for the good distaff showing is evident, at least to this female: Iron Man 2 succeeds on the charm of its characters rather than on the ka-chunk, ka-chunk of its warfare and impersonal CG action sequences. And chicks like charm. Heck, everyone likes charm, real charm. Which is why Robert Downey Jr. is currently the master of his domain. It also helps that in Iron Man 2, Gwyneth Paltrow is spunky-charming, Sam Rockwell is smarmy-charming, Mickey Rourke is psycho-charming, Scarlett Johansson is slinky-charming, and Samuel L. Jackson is eyepatch-charming. The best of the movie is about humans, not machines — people who are well-rounded enough, even as comic-book characters, to be shot in 2-D and still pop from the screen. The worst of the movie is, well, all the noisy, rattling stuff.

In a review on NPR, my charming colleague Kenneth Turan noted that the rattling stuff is for the “fanboys.” By which I assume he means hopped-up comic-book purists and action-pic aficionados with intense opinions about what whiplashes of electricity ought to look like in the hands of the bad guy known as…Whiplash. I understand the desire to keep such an ardent segment of the movie-going population in the loop. But honestly, a really smart prognosticator of box office trends ought to be able to calculate that in the future, 3-D will feel like ho-hum and CG effects will look DOA unless a movie’s got verve, wit, moxie, and plays well with females.

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  • KicknKnit

    I am perpetually annoyed by the idea that only “boys” like action films.. especially action films with a comic book as a foundation.

    • Neenie

      No kidding, one of my biggest peeves is people assuming I don’t like action or read comics because I am a girl, especially one who wears dresses and knits.
      Newsflash: The library editions of Hellboy and Kingdom Come do not belong to my husband, nor does the two shelves of comic related TV and movies in our basement.
      The rom-coms, however are his.

      (The other is SyFy thinking women don’t watch their channel. Have they actually seen their fanbases for BSG, SG, or Farscape?)

      • Cara

        I agree, Neenie! And I bet exit polls showed that women liked the first two Spider-Man and X-Men movies as well as men…

      • KicknKnit

        Ditto the Crow and Watchmen in my house.

        and Scifi (I refuse the syfy nonsense) don’t even get me started

      • Pam

        Ditto! I am a sci-fi nerd and paid to see Watchmen on opening weekend. I also own all three X-men, the entire Farscape series, and slowly growing my Star Trek: TNG series.

      • Barb

        Your comments warm the coddles of my heart. In the 1960s and early 1970s I was the sole female who was a regular published letter-writer to DC comics on the letters page. I was treated by male and female alike as if it were I who was a strange visitor from another planet. (In fact, my nickname was “Spock”.) I feel so happy when I read comments like these.

        And yes, while I had no interest in metal-only or violence-only stories, I like action adventure flicks as much as anyone. I have had men complain I don’t give them the excuse they expect to watch ‘chick flicks’… I tell them Spiderman, Iron Man, The Dark Knight… as far as I’m concerned, they are chick flicks. I don’t care for light porn (e.g. sex and the city).

      • ks

        I love actions flicks! I have a huge collection of Sci-Fi.

      • fangirlshandbag

        I’m right there with you. Why do people think The Guild is so popular? Because it resonates with women and what fangirls go through. Limiting an audience based on gender is stupid.

    • Elizabeth

      Amen KnK…

      • ElysiumBliss

        100% in agreement ladies. I have a rather large comics collection, I draw comics, and I prefer action movies over romcoms. Does that make me some weird statistic? A rare treasure? Less female than others? Can’t it just be the norm? I mean where exactly are these male/female guidelines

      • levelheaded

        I agree with all of you. And I am in the majority of my group of female friends who like action/scifi/comic book based movies.

        I don’t understand why this would be ‘surprising’ to anyone.

    • Becky

      Damn straight! This female loves Iron Man for the characters AND action.

      • Laura

        And for Robert Downey Jr! I agree on all parts

      • Dawn

        I loved this movie because RD Jr is the sexiest damn actor I can lay my eyes on. It was so funny, last night when I was watching it, I said to my friend, “He is making me crazy, he’s so hot!” and right after that, he took his shirt off. We died laughing. I can stare at that man all day long.

      • Dawn

        RD Jr. is so damn sexy and I love watching him as Tony Stark. The movie, however mediocre/average, was fine, simply because he was in it. More, please, and yum.

    • Bren

      Loved the movie. It was fun. I love comic book movies, SciFi and action films. I was actually looking forward to this sequel more than I am the Sex and the City one.

      • lunchboxx

        Me too!! I couldn’t wait for this movie. I loved this first one and I loved this one just as much. Although I’m kind of upset this article didn’t mention Don Cheadle. I’m a big fan of his. He’s War Machine-charming!

    • Vilya

      Preach it, ladies! I am sick to death of the stereotype that girls don’t like action movies. I’m here to tell you, this girl has been to see every sci-fi, fantasty, and comic book adapatation out there. Why is Hollywood always so surprised that women like this stuff just as much as men? Do the studio heads actually KNOW any women? LOL

      • amj

        Agreed! I too have been to almost all comic book adaptation and I never collected comics. Keep in mind that the generation of 30+ grew up watching SuperFriends on Saturdays. We also love Robert Downey Jr.

      • Angela

        So true. But I also want to point out that there’s an even greater stereotype against guys and rom-coms, or just romance movies in general.

    • Kristina

      Strongly agree with this statement. I’m a pure action junkie. “Over the Top” is one of my favorite action flicks, and Stallone is one of my favorite action actors (and I’m sure I’m not the only one – well except for the liking of “Over the Top.”)

      I dug “Iron Man 2″ and thought it was well done. And off course, RDJ and Sam Rockwell are great eye candy for the ladies, but I was mostly interested in it for the action and storyline.

      • Kristina

        Er, I meant of course. What a nerdy typo.

    • KelJo

      Thank you, KickNKnit…”perpetually annoyed” perfectly describes my feelings on this subject as well. I’ve always preferred action, sci-fi, and fantasy over “chick flicks.” You couldn’t pay me enough to sit through S&tC, it never held any appeal for me. I was super-excited to see The Last Airbender and Super 8 trailers before IM2 (Eclipse, not so much!). I’m also ticked that we didn’t get a preview for Inception, as some did. Lucky dogs!

      • Angela

        Oh, that sucks. During my screening, I didn’t get a trailer for Eclipse (thank God!), but I did get the one for Inception as well as Last Airbender and Super 8. Sorry you missed it, because the Inception trailer looked fantastic on the big screen.

    • Muffy

      I’m annoyed by the fact that people think every woman gives a damn about romance! My mother cannot stand Rom Coms, she loves Action flicks. I like Rom Coms, but only the old ones, and it’s not my favorite genre — Animation is. Horror use to be my fave until went down the drain.

    • Terry

      On the same token, I am always annoyed at the notion that only women and gay men enjoy chick flicks and romantic dramas. Guess what, heterosexual men also fall in love, get lovey dovey and dream of finding a soul-mate. Sure, maybe most of us will not admit to crying during Terms of Endearment or Stepmom, but we do exist. Emotions are universal and genderless.

      • Angela

        Amen to that!

    • Wickeddoll

      Kick, I’m more annoyed with how much the entertainment industry dismisses anything we like. Somehow, if it appeals to *adult* women (not the Twi-hards), it’s not the right demographic. Those young people they worship so much usually get their money from *our* generation. :-P

    • Celia

      Agreed. I’m a female and I love action/comic book movies as much as any guy. I even own quite a few of them. I also love romance films, but I usually don’t pay 10 dollars to see them in theaters. 9 times out 10 if I’m going to the theaters, it’s to see a big, action, special effects movie.

    • Ellie

      Amen! I hate how the industry believes the only movies women like are Sex and The City, The Notebook, and the like. And this is coming from a girl in the Twilight demographic who read (and saw) Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns!

    • Isabella

      I completely agree. I am female, and my all-time favorite genre is sci-fi, yet most people think I don’t like it because I’m a girl. I also love action films. I can’t stand romantic comedies. I also hate Twilight. People assume that since I’m female I’ll like stuff like that. It’s kind of annoying, really.

  • Ed

    I agree that Downey is completely charming, but gotta disagree with “Gwyneth Paltrow is spunky-charming, Sam Rockwell is smarmy-charming.” Paltrow’s role was so small that I found her neither charming nor annoying. She was hardly there. But Rockwell was highly annoying, not charming. I like Rockwell, but I thought his character was horrible–and not in a good way.

    • Ramo

      Pepper’s role was small? Did we see the same movie? She was one of the most prominent charcaters throughout the whole flick. And I though Sam Rockwell was the best part of the movie.

      • Kristina

        It wasn’t small, but I wish it were. I found Pepper (this time around anyway) to be very annoying.

      • Celia

        @Kristina: I agree. I also found Pepper annoying. For a split second, I actually hoped she would die at the end. Need I say it, but I liked Scarlett Johansson’s character more.

      • Nancy

        I kept waiting for Rockwell’s character to get killed. Not charming. Couldn’t stand watching most of his scenes.

    • Ramo

      Pepper’s role was small? Did we see the same movie? She was one of the most prominent charcaters throughout the whole flick. And I thought Sam Rockwell was the best thing about the entire movie.

      • LOL

        The Pepper part was anything but small this time around. Lisa is right on about this movie. The characters are the best part. Downey is always better out of the suit.

    • Rob

      While I don’t think Paltrow’s role was small, it was kinda insignificant. She was in a lot of scenes, but she didn’t really have a lot to do. She was promoted to CEO, then didn’t want it. A bit boring. And I also thought that Rockwell was highly annoying. I wanted a lot more Mickey Rourke and a lot less Rockwell.

      • thin

        Exactly. She was around a lot, but the story was not about her in anywhere near the same way that the first movie was. She was just there. And I agree about Sam Rockwell also, who I have loved in just about everything else he’s done.

      • Cara

        I politely disagree about Paltrow’s role being insignificant. She’s the one really fighting with Tony through most of the movie — and she’s also the “voice of reason” against which we’re to measure his behavior. And I didn’t think she didn’t want to be CEO — from what I saw, she just thought that it was ridiculous for Tony to make her CEO and then make it impossible for her to do her job…

      • cnj

        That is how I see it as well, Pepper’s role was to ground Tony as much as he could be grounded. He showed that he truely did love her, and she is one of the only people that stands toe to toe with Tony. She never throws a punch but she rips him a new one a few times. What about Rhodes, was he “soldier-charming?”. What the heck is smarmy?

      • thin

        I think you guys are projecting what she did in the first movie onto what she did in the second. Go back and watch the first again, and you will see her actually challenging what he’s doing and actively participating. What she does this time around just doesn’t even compare. It’s not “insignificant,” but it’s much less than it was before.

      • jay

        Regardless of screen time or significance, I thought Gwyneth Paltrow was really fantastic in this. I think of her as a bit haughty in real life (GOOP doesn’t help things much), and then she comes on screen and I’m completely in love. Just trying to give credit where credit is due.

    • Kevcogator

      Ed – You are nails! Exactly…I don’t know what Ramo is thinking – while Pepper was in a number of scenes, her contribution to the movie was small and unimportant. Sam Rockwell was swarmy, but far from charming – actually a lot closer to annoying than charming. The only character I thought had any POP whatsoever was Scar-Jo as Black Widow. I thought she ate up the screen every time she was on camera. I love RDJ, but it felt more like a paycheck performance to me. I saw this movie with my son and two of his buddies (all 16 year olds) and they thought it was ok, but each one said there were no plot twists to really engage the audience.

      • Ramo

        Well then what you guys meant was you thought her role was underwritten or underdeveloped. I was just pointing out that in terms of screen time, it was by no means a small role.

      • will

        Pepper’s role was very much important, as she was Tony’s Jimmeny the Cricket, so to speak. Sam Rockwell/Justin Hammer was charming to Ivan and vise versa, as he played to Ivan’s demands, for awhile until Justin forced Ivan to work for Justin’s demands. However, as what was missed by you and the three other 16 yr olds, is the plot twist of whom was playing whom, which Ivan double crossed Justin, when Justin thought he had everything under control. If you thought that IM 2 was ok,… good action movies, don’t always have to have many exploding, fighting, or killing scenes, just fulfill the mind of entertainment, by which this movie indeed do it’s deed.

      • Bob

        “…but each one said there were no plot twists to really engage the audience.”

        Huh?

    • Angela

      I agree about Gwyneth Paltrow and that Sam Rockwell’s character was horrible, but I thought Rockwell gave a really good, magnetic performance.

  • wierdalexj

    What about the protector charm of Happy Hogan? Jon Favreau is one sexy LOYAL driver! I loved the scene when his character is driving Pepper on the race track so that they save Tony.

    • Britt

      I loved that Favreau gave himself a fight scene..but still ended it with humor.

      • J’

        Totally agree, Britt! Also agree with KnK the idea that only fanboys see comic/action movies is annoying. I love them. The characters AND the “noisy, rattling stuff.”

      • Celia

        Favreau’s fight scene was hilarious. I think that was one of my favorite scenes in the movie. Scarjo is busy taking out the whole building and it takes him 10 minutes to take down one guy. :D

  • Britt

    Thank you for this analysis. It’s nice to see a review that doesn’t mention the Dark Knight. I saw this movie last night and I loved it. The charm of the characters, the banter between Stark and..everyone is key to this movie. Like the other high-quality comic book movies (Spider-man 2, specifically), showing the human element of the superhero really enhances the storytelling.

  • Kristen

    I hope that IM2 is a chick flick. Hellboy 2 was a chick flick and AMAZING!!! It is true. After the origin story we really want to know the hero (and villains) as people, not just deeds but thoughts and feelings. And RDJ is the one to do it. He ws charming as a hopeless drug addict 20+ years ago and he has improved with age.

  • Rob

    Translation of Lisa’s analysis:

    The story elements that tend to appeal to women (charming characters) should be praised.

    The story elements that tend to appeal to men, er, sorry “boys” (imagine if women were infantilized as “girls”) should be mocked and dismissed.

    I wonder what Lisa would make of the young women in the audience at the showing I went to who cheered the most loudly when The Black Widow (Scarlett Johanssen) was kicking ass.

    Gosh, I guess that would just mess up her overly scripted and rigid gender ideology.

    • Xavier

      Exactly. What is Lisa saying, that women can’t just like plain old mindless badass fun action flicks AND “charming characters”? wth.

  • Alicia

    “…in the future, 3-D will feel like ho-hum and CG effects will look DOA unless a movie’s got verve, wit, moxie, and plays well with females.”

    Exactly right.

  • Xavier

    A chick flick, are you kidding me?? I was thinking the exact opposite when I saw this movie…um Scarlett Johansson’s acting was awful and it was CLEAR they only picked her for one reason – the same reason why there were wayyy more unnecessary boobs and chicks jumping around in this film than the first.

    • Nancy

      Johansson sucked! Needed way less her and way more Pepper.

  • Derek

    The fact that the action was mindnumbing (for the most part) is a problem with the screenplay and Jon Favreau’s direction – not a byproduct of pleasing fanboys, as Lisa seems to suggest. I enjoyed the movie but felt there was no sense of urgency or jeopardy, essential ingredients in making action scenes exciting. Maybe everything was too light and charming…

  • Daisy Steiner

    Thank you, Lord. Maybe now Hollywood will stop putting us all in little boxes when it comes to movies. I’m a girl, and I love comic book flicks. I love Star Wars. I love movies like 300. I love Kevin Smith movies. I hate rom-coms and Twilight. We (girls) do enjoy entertaining movies, and don’t need Kate Hudson in them to make them so.

    • Xavier

      Well congratulations. Nobody ever told you you couldn’t like those movies you just allowed yourself to be stereotyped. I’m a woman too btw, but I never gave a damn about these “little boxes” we’re put into.

      • Daisy Steiner

        Well, congratulations. You completely missed the point. I don’t need an ‘ok’ from anyone to go see whatever movies I want. My point was that we are all put into our little demographic boxes, and we’re only seen as ‘target audiences’ or ‘focus groups’, and so, if a certain movie does well with women aged 18-40, for example, Hollywood leeches on to that concept and churns out movie after movie in that vein. Girls are considered weird for liking action movies and guys are considered lame for liking ‘chick flicks.’ You can’t possibly deny that this is true.

  • Derek

    The fact that most of the action in Iron Man 2 was mindnumbing is the fault of the screenplay and Jon Favreau, not simply a byproduct of pleasing fanboys, as Lisa seems to suggest. Overall, I enjoyed the film but felt that it lacked any sense of urgency or jeopardy, essential elements in making action scenes exciting. Maybe everything was too charming and light…

  • kaydevo

    My favorite entertainment choices were formed when, as kids, my sister and I read and collected DC and Marvel comics (and others), watched classic Star Trek and other sci-fi shows, and grew up loving superheroes, space adventures, monsters, etc. I have always been annoyed that anyone thought that was weird, and don’t understand why the film industry is so shocked by lady sci-fi fans.

    • Cras

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  • Jess

    It pisses me the hell off when guys or anyone for that matter is shocked when women see comic book movies.

    NEWS FLASH!!!!!!!!
    women do enjoy comics books. I consider myself a “fangirl”. comics to me are amazing stories, great animation and when i see the movies, i’m just as bad as a so called “fanboy”.

  • Cat

    If a flick has a sword or a superhero, this chick is watching it.

  • inaleah

    Lisa is the most stupid movie reviewer in history, bar none.The only stupid one, although I don’t agree with all, it is only Lisa who is so friggin clueless.

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