Iron Man 2
Director : Jon Favreau
Screenplay : Justin Theroux (based on the Marvel comic book created by Stan Lee, Don Heck, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2010
Stars : Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark / Iron Man), Don Cheadle (Lt. Col. James Rhodes / War Machine), Scarlett Johansson (Natalie Rushman / Natasha Romanoff), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts), Sam Rockwell (Justin Hammer), Mickey Rourke (Ivan Vanko), Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury), Clark Gregg (Agent Coulson), John Slattery (Howard Stark), Jon Favreau (Happy Hogan), Paul Bettany (Jarvis), Kate Mara (U.S. Marshal), Leslie Bibb (Christine Everhart), Garry Shandling (Senator Stern), Christiane Amanpour (Herself), Philippe Bergeron (Detective Lemieux)
In recent years, the best of the superhero franchises have blazed a rather remarkable track record in which the second film in the series is the best. Starting with Bryan Singer’s X-Men films, whose X2 (2003) was a much stronger and more cohesive work that his initial X-Men (2000), the trend was enhanced with Sam Raimi’s vigorous and moving Spider-Man 2 (2004) and then solidified with Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), which for the foreseeable future will be the superhero masterpiece to beat. We can only surmise that these second efforts are so good because they are free to build upon the set-up of the first film, which tends to follow origin stories and focus on introductions. It also allows the series’ directors (which, more often than not, are the same) to really get into their groove and find their voice.
Thus, Jon Favreau’s Iron Man 2 has quite a bit to live up to, and to say that it fails to join the ranks of great second efforts should not diminish its enjoyment factor. Favreau and screenwriter Justin Theroux (who co-wrote Tropic Thunder) have put together a wildly entertaining popcorn spectacle, and even if they sometimes (well, frequently) err in their belief that bigger is always better, the movie still works. It’s stuffed to the point of being overstuffed, not only with characters and conflicts, but with additional set-up for what is clearly intended to be an expanded cinematic rendition of the Marvel universe (in this respect, it’s hard not to see the film as a cog in a much larger entertainment machine). Nevertheless, the characters are comfortable and familiar enough to ride out the rough spots and make us forget how generally unwieldy it all is.
Most of Iron Man 2’s strengths are the same that as those that fueled the first entry in the series, starting with Robert Downey Jr.’s turn as the brilliant, but egocentric billionaire industrialist Tony Stark, who at the end of the first movie had openly admitted to being Iron Man and was planning on retooling his Stark Industries, a behemoth of a weapons manufacturer, into something more humanistic and progressive. Despite his better intentions, Stark is still an avowed narcissist (with impeccable designer suits to prove it) who loves nothing more than being in the limelight, and his increased celebrity as an iron-suited superhero has gone to his head (which was already enormous to begin with). His ego-tripping and daredevil attitude is further enhanced by the fact that the glowing arc reactor in his chest, which he built to keep himself from dying after being shot full of shrapnel, is slowly poisoning him.
Meanwhile, we are introduced to the film’s new villain, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a grimy, heavily tattooed Russian physicist with a massive chip on his shoulder and a single-minded desire to take down Tony Stark for deeply personal reasons. Thus, he hijacks some of Tony’s technology and builds his own super-tech suit, which uses an arc reactor to fuel a pair of enormous whips powerful enough to slice through metal and concrete, which he amply demonstrates during a show-stopper sequence in which he interrupts the Monaco Grand Prix by slicing furiously speeding racecars in half (Favreau uses the sequence as a jaw-dropping exercise in how slow motion can be used to great effect). Stark saves the day just in time by jumping into a nifty, stripped-down Iron Man suit that can fit in a suitcase, but that is hardly the end of Vanko, as he is rescued and then put to work by Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), a smarmy competing weapons manufacturer so tired of living in Stark’s shadow that he is literally willing to make a deal with the devil to get ahead.
Meanwhile, Stark Industries is in disarray, so Stark promotes his long-time (and long-suffering) assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) to CEO while also taking on a new executive assistant in Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson), who is gorgeous, mysterious, and wields the kind of seriously wicked martial arts skills that make you suspect she wasn’t just promoted from “legal” as she keeps saying. Other returning characters include Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle, taking over for Terence Howard), whose loyalties are torn between his friend Stark and the military-industrial complex that employs him and wants Stark’s technology. The film rides on an undercurrent of individual-versus-the system tensions, with Stark remaining a steadfast “lone wolf” who insists that his technology is his own, while the boorish Uncle Sam wants to co-opt it to keep others from doing it first (this leads to one of the film’s best scenes, in which Stark goes toe to toe with Garry Shandling’s pompous, preening senator).
With its rock-’em-sock-’em AC/DC-fueled soundtrack, hyperkinetic visual effects, and unyielding narrative momentum, Iron Man 2 is anything but boring, although all that kinetic energy means that some things tends to fall through the cracks, particularly Mickey Rourke’s Vanko, who makes a serious impression in the first half of the movie, only to be shuttled off-screen for most of the second half before returning for the big climax (which, like Iron Man, involves a lot of heavy machinery battling it out, with visual coherence being the real loser). The film fails to ignite the complex hero/villain dichotomy that made The Dark Knight so stunning, even as it delivers with more than enough fireworks to light up the theater. The idea of Iron Man himself is still impossibly cool, especially the way the suit acts as both an enhancement of Stark’s massive, yet charming ego and a means by which he can hide from the world (especially from his daddy issues, which take center stage here, albeit without a great deal of psychological complexity). Downey Jr.’s performance continues to intrigue, and he holds the center of the film with his likable caddishness (it comes across as irrepressible energy, an emotional extension of all the iron in which he encases his body), even under constant threat of being drowned out by all the impersonal CGI. Thus, like its predecessor, Iron Man 2 successfully fits the summer blockbuster mold, but holds out just enough surprises to make it a worthwhile diversion.
Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Paramount Pictures