Originally published on May 8, 2010
Director: Jon Favreau
Writer: Justin Theroux, based on the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee, Don Heck, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby
I attended a packed midnight screening of Iron Man 2, and directly beforehand, in the same auditorium, a considerably less packed screening of the original Iron Man. The first is every bit as great as it was two years ago; it is charming, rich with character, brilliantly acted and directed, and with not a wasted minute. It’s the perfect blend of comedy, drama, and action, a genuine crowdpleaser in every sense.
Iron Man 2 is a crowdpleaser too, albeit the kind which pleases the crowd who wants everything they liked from the first duplicated and amped up. It’s bigger! louder! action-ier! It’s also a lot less satisfying, though not without its merits. Chiefly, it’s got Robert Downey Jr. in another indelible turn as Tony Stark, the billionaire weapons maker who had a change of heart after witnessing his tech in enemy hands on a trip to Afghanistan, where shrapnel left him with a bum ticker. There have been other great performances in recent superhero movies, like Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man or Christian Bale as Batman, but only Downey so thoroughly owns his character that I can’t read an Iron Man comic without hearing his delivery or inflection.
At the end of the first film, Tony came out as Iron Man, and is now cockier and more famous than ever, swooping into splashy expos amid scantily-clad dancers and dazzling pyrotechnics. But he’s hiding a secret: the palladium in the arc reactor keeping his heart working is also killing him. He hasn’t been able to find a cure, and resigns himself to death. As one last noble act, he appoints Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his assistant and will-they-won’t-they love interest, as the new CEO of Stark Enterprises, then proceeds to devolve into a drunken lout.
Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) is determined to snap Tony out of his stupor, fashioning electric whips and attacking Tony head-on at a racetrack, slicing the car in two. Rourke slaps the whips across the track with hulking menace, and the ensuing confrontation is a crackerjack setpiece, probably the movie’s best. Unfortunately, that’s the last time that Ivan, or anything else, comes across as a threat. Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) is a weapons expert called into a Senate hearing to determine if Tony should hand over the Iron Man suit to the U.S. government, and is supposedly one of Tony’s major competitors. But he’s such an incompetent buffoon that we never take him seriously.
And that’s the biggest problem with the movie. You can tell that everyone involved had fun making it, but maybe they had a little too much fun. Everything is so light and breezy that none of it holds any weight. The first movie succeeded in large part because it nimbly mixed the emotional character stuff with the glossy popcorn stuff, but here, they’ve almost entirely done away with emotion. Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane had such great presence as a villain because you knew his relationship with Tony, and thus every action he took was undoubtedly personal. Rourke’s Vanko is supposed to have held a life-long grudge against Tony, but it’s never fleshed out and the character is ultimately treated as another of the film’s many sideshow distractions.
Don Cheadle replaces Terrence Howard as Tony’s best friend Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes, and there again the depth is sorely missing. With Cheadle in Howard’s shoes (and later his iron-clad boots), the feeling that he and Tony have built a solid rapport over many years vanishes. Scarlett Johansson is a more fitting addition to the cast as Tony’s new assistant Natalie Rushman. Her big scene at the end is possibly the most giddily exciting part of the movie, and certainly the stand-out moment of a contrived climax.
Then there’s Samuel L. Jackson as Sgt. Nick Fury. If you’re a nerd like me, you know that Jackson made a brief appearance after the credits in the original, and here he expands on his role as the leader of SHIELD, the secret government agency spearheading the Avengers Initiative. Iron Man 2 purposely sets up team effort The Avengers, due in 2012 after next year’s Thor and Captain America films, and written and directed by geek god Joss Whedon (automatically making it this writer’s most anticipated movie of at least the next several years). And while all of that’s cool, and I really did enjoy it, part of me wonders if Marvel’s increasing effort to tie all of their movies together has robbed the Iron Man series of keeping its own personality. I mean, yeah, it retains its Personality with a capital P: quirky, charismatic, and funny. But with The Avengers coming our way, there’s nowhere Iron Man 2 can really take its hero.
Which is a shame, because the characters are what make these movies. Vanko and Hammer can throw as many robots at Iron Man as they want to, but what I’ll keep returning to is the moment near the beginning where Tony hasn’t told Pepper he’s dying, yet tries to convince her that they should just forget all the board meetings and run off to Paris. Or the quiet scene where Tony watches old footage of his late father Howard (Mad Men‘s John Slattery, perfectly cast) delivering a message just for him. I won’t lie to you, Iron Man 2 is fun, and an enjoyable way to spend two hours. But it’s a trifle, and sacrifices a lot of what made the original so special at the altar of clanking Hollywood machinery.