Sequels are rarely as good as the original, but Iron Man 2 is one of the few exceptions. It’s not a perfect movie by any means, but it’s sure darn fun and engaging, and the new story twists, the health issue that Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) faces and the half-baked but disturbing archenemy Whiplash (Mickey Rourke), all add up to create a film that’s sure to be the first summer blockbuster.
The original Iron Man ends with wealthy industrialist Tony Stark, head of Stark Industries, closing a press conference with the startling announcement that he is Iron Man. The second film starts with Russian bad guy Ivan Vanko watching the press conference on a crummy TV in a Soviet tenement, even as he also watches his father Anton (Yevgeni Lazarev) die. Vanko has a vendetta against Stark, but it’s not until later in the film that we figure out the basis of that grudge. Meanwhile, he may live in a tenement, but that doesn’t stop him from having an advanced physics lab in the basement and inventing the Whiplash weaponry.
Meanwhile, Stark is relishing his fame along with the wealth that being a captain of industry offers, acting like a rich frat boy. He’s appealing, however, and engages in much flirting and witty banter with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his secretary and confidante, as the film gets going with the opening of Stark Expo (which has a cool online site associated with it: starkexpo2010.com).
There are flaws, no question, and the Tony’s health problems are glossed over when it could have been an interesting additional facet to the protagonist’s dilemma, but still, I really enjoyed Iron Man 2 and look forward to seeing it again.
Every good hero needs a nemesis, and while Ivan (Rourke) is interesting, it’s fellow industrialist Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) who ends up being more threatening with his smug political attacks. Hammer, it turns out, is pushing for the public to distrust Iron Man, portraying him as being too unstable and dangerous. Hammer comes across as a bit of a dweeb in the film, so much so that when he is tough and angry late in the story, it’s hard to believe. He’s more of a Revenge of the Nerds reject, and it works best when he’s a humorous antithesis of the cool, devilishly handsome Stark.
There are some very interesting lines in Iron Man 2 that director Jon Favreau clearly aims at us, the audience, too, particularly when Stark swears “I’m sick of the liberal agenda! It’s boring!” to Potts. That scene, like many in the film, has quick, lively dialog that I found quite enjoyable. Not the stilted staccato dialog of a Mamet film, but a more believable type of back-and-forth that we hear daily.
The story line that I wanted to see explored further was the palladium poisoning that Stark is suffering from, due to the arc reactor artificial heart. Each time he powers up with the suit, he gets a bit weaker and his blood gets a bit more toxic. He uses a blood test gadget that lets us see the increasingly toxic level of his blood, but while he is concerned about it, he’s too busy being a rich playboy and experimenting with new military gizmos to really introspect at all. Maybe that’s asking too much in a big-budget action film, but a smart, thoughtful, self-aware hero would be a nice addition to the cinematic canon.
While sparring in a boxing ring, Stark is introduced to legal aide Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson), who has a secret identity as Natasha Romanoff, part of the SHIELD agency, a superhero organization that was introduced at the very end of the first movie. When he invites her into the ring to get a lesson in self-defense from his trainer, she quickly drops him onto the mat in a very entertaining scene.
The film moves to Monaco for the Grand Prix de Monaco Historique, in which Formula-1 cars drive through the streets of the idyllic seaside resort at incredible speeds. Stark opts to drive one of the cars and that’s when Whiplash reappears, a tattooed Rourke who frankly looks too tired and scroungy to be a believable arch-enemy.
In a scene that might have been part Downey addressing his own personal demons, Stark, in his Iron Man armor, gets drunk and does a series of increasingly goofy things in front of a crowd of well-wishers. Highly decorated Army Lt. Col James Rhodes (Don Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard from the first film) shows up and stops Iron Man by getting into one of the other augmentation suits and becoming “War Machine”. They grapple in a scene reminiscent of the opening scene of Watchmen, and Rhodie is established as Stark’s sidekick.
The film gets more mundane once we have the main characters on the stage, with Stark and Rhodie as good guys in a sort of Transformers buddy movie sensibility, and Whiplash and Hammer as bad guys. Somewhere in the middle is the lithe and sexy Rushman and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), a part of the shadowy SHIELD organization.
Maybe a film like this isn’t intended to be looked at closely, character motivations to be questioned and reviewers to wish there was a bit less action and a bit more development, in which case I’ll say mea culpa. There’s no question, Iron Man 2 is a terrifically entertaining film and with very good opening box office numbers and a strong first week in its European opening, it’s going to open big and play big for months before it leaves the theater. Could it have been better, been more than just a loud action film? No question. But even as it, it’s a satisfying cinematic experience.
And a tip: sit through the credits: there’s a post-credits scene that you won’t want to miss.