Iron Man 2: A Sequel of Fine Mettle
In theory, a superhero sequel should be better than the first. In the first film, you have to cover the origin, and he always has to struggle with fully embracing his new lot in life as a superhero. In the sequel, with the set-up all out of the way, it can get immediately to the story– new villains, new adversity, new ways of persevering, and the freedom for the story to go any direction you choose. That’s in theory. In execution, there’s the weight of having to live up to the first film which everyone loved, and that weight can sink a film. It nearly sinks Iron Man 2, which is quite good if you’ve never seen the first. While it’s great fun and all the elements are in place, it feels busy and cluttered at times– too much is happening, too many characters are being introduced, too many problems to deal with. Still, Jon Favreau deserves a lot of credit for keeping the series (and the Avengers franchise) looking strong, as it still manages to be a very entertaining diversion.
Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), now known to the world as Iron Man, is living the dream. He’s re-instated the Stark Expo, a World’s Fair of sorts created by his father in the heyday of Stark Industries to showcase new technology. He’s laughing at the Senate Committee, which is attempting to insist the Iron Man suit be handed over to the government, because as he puts it, he has “successfully privatized homeland security.” Stocks for his company have never been higher– even though as CEO, he doesn’t really do much. He defers instead to the decision-making of his personal assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), so often that he names her the new CEO. Life is easy. But the chemical running his suit is killing him. And his competitor, Hammer (Sam Rockwell), is being meddlesome. And a Russian man with ties to his father named Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) has successfully recreated the reactor that runs his suit, and is using that energy to try to kill him. Uh-oh.
Any critique of this film that you’ve read is largely a reaction to the fact that the first Iron Man was the best superhero origin movie of all time. Better than the first Superman or Spider-Man or X-Men or Batman (reboot). All four of those heroes had killer sequels which improved upon the first. The second Iron Man has more action, a more nefarious villain, and more revelations about what makes Iron Man tick– psychologically and physically. However, there are many introductions to important characters: War Machine, Black Widow, and Nick Fury gets some serious screen time for the first time. Perhaps it’s just the comic book nerd in me, but this film seemed less like a complete story on its own and more like a set-up– the origin story of The Avengers, if you will. My eye kept being drawn to the different characters and the directions of the story. It’s a less focused effort than the first. Another example of set-up hurting the forward motion of the narrative: the scene in which Tony gets very drunk and fights with Rhodey. As a plot device to get Rhodey to turn over his friend’s suit to the government, it’s flimsy at best. Instead, any comic-book nerd will know that Tony is the most famous alcoholic superhero of all time, and showing him get super-destructive when drunk sets up a future sequel or storyline in which alcoholism plays a major role. That must be the reason for this scene’s existence: set-up for the future. While I’m glad Favreau does so much setting up for what will certainly be a large-scale Avengers film (and hopefully an Iron Man 3), it left me like so many sequels that clearly have more story to tell– it felt incomplete.
However, Favreau makes this a very entertaining incomplete story. The dialogue is sharp and snappy– it’s surprising that the Iron Man films have been so much wittier and quippier than the Spider-Man films, as Spider-Man has always had the reputation for being the hero with the most one-liners. The chemistry between Downey Jr. and Paltrow is outstanding and perfectly balanced. Don Cheadle is a major improvement over Terrence Howard– Cheadle seems far more militant, and he can go toe-to-toe wit-wise with Downey Jr., proving a worthy counterpart. Anyone who has seen Mickey Rourke in a film in the last five years knows he can play tough guys, and it’s terrific fun watching him ham it up with his thick Russian accent. He’s good enough that you stop thinking it’s Mickey Rourke and you lose yourself in this Russian thug. Sam Rockwell is essentially the same character as Jeff Bridges played in the first– only far less effectively evil and far more weasely– but few people do weasely in Hollywood like Sam Rockwell, and he gets a big number of laughs with his attempts to out-Stark Stark.
There’s really only one or two fight scenes that seem like legitimate threats to characters we care about– the first attack of Whiplash on Tony Stark has especially high stakes, since Tony is not in his suit. When there are so many suit vs. suit battles, and characters are blasting each other with little immediate impact on the human inside the suit, it’s harder to feel how close our characters are coming to imminent death. One of the best scenes in the film is when Black Widow breaks into a building and has to fight a bunch of thugs, because for the first time in the film, it’s weaponless hand-to-hand combat, and it’s a breath of fresh air (it also helps that Johansson looks tough and is very eye-friendly in her catsuit). Still, much of the CGI is terrific, and the spectacle is kept on a high level. There are no missteps in the movie– the only thing keeping an audience member from full enjoyment is the unfair comparison to the first. It’s still a much better and much wittier action film than most that reach big screens. Even if Favreau’s focus wasn’t as sharp as the previous film, no one has ever delivered a better balance of comedy and thrills in the superhero genre. Perhaps Iron Man 2 seems like a busy set-up because, like so many good things, I’m left wanting more.