Iron Man 2 (United States, 2010)May 05, 2010
With superhero movies, it's almost axiomatic to state that the second film is the best of the series. The reason isn’t difficult to divine: having dispensed with the obligatory origin tale, the movie-makers can weave a more compelling yarn. So why does Iron Man 2 provide a compelling counter-example? That's not to say the second installment of the Marvel comic-turned-movie hero's adventures isn't worth seeing, because it provides a couple hours of the kind of entertainment one expects from a summer blockbuster. But it isn't up to the level of Iron Man. Perhaps the reason is that, in the case of this particular superhero, the origin is the most interesting story. Maybe the first movie did such a good job of fleshing out the character that additional forays into the life and mind of Tony Stark were doomed to, if not disappoint, then at least not overwhelm.
Curiously, this American-made motion picture debuted a week earlier in most foreign markets than in its own backyard, which makes for an unusual distribution pattern. Presumably, the promotional wizards at Paramount Pictures feared that opening the movie in the United States before the calendar officially read "May" might in some way invalidate Iron Man's claim to raise the curtain on the "summer season." I guess the producers aren't overly worried about screen-cap torrents from overseas, nor should they be. Anyone who would substitute a crappy image viewed on a computer screen for the real thing is missing out on one of the chief pleasures associated with watching this bigger-than-life tale. (And, thankfully, there's not a 3D version to be found!)
Iron Man 2 picks up shortly after the completion of the first film. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), having revealed himself to be the man in the metal suit, has been a one-person force for world peace, settling conflicts large and small across the globe. In secret, however, he is suffering from palladium poisoning, with the device that keeps his heart beating gradually releasing toxins into his blood. Recognizing the death sentence, he does what any man in his situation might do: positions the world for life after him while partying. He hands over control of his company to his faithful assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and allows his best friend, Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), access to one of his "spare" suits. Meanwhile, he refuses to cede control of his Iron Man intelligence to the U.S. government.
The film provides Iron Man with new foes: a would-be Tony Stark entrepreneur named Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), whose approach recalls the fatuousness of Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor, and Russian physicist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), who has developed his own Iron Man suit, with a few nasty enhancements. Iron Man 2 also ramps up the involvement of S.H.I.E.L.D. With a Mace Windu-like extended cameo, Samuel L. Jackson returns as Nick Fury (his appearance in the first film was limited to a post-credits "Easter Egg"). Another familiar face from Iron Man is Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg). He is joined by the double-jointed and combat-ready Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson), who goes undercover as Stark's new assistant.
It's difficult to say whether the main problem with Iron Man 2 is that it suffers from too much plot or too little. There's certainly a surfeit of exposition - so much so that it interferes with the pacing. For the first 90 minutes of its 125-minute running time, the movie is sluggish, with action sequences few and far between. There are a lot of scenes of Tony being an asshole, plenty of setup for The Avengers movie (which is still at least two years in the future), and a fair amount of dialogue that doesn't amount to much (although screenwriter Justin Theroux delivers a few good one-liners - I especially liked the one about the Hammer-oids). The slowness of the first three-quarters is mostly redeemed by the kick-ass final half hour, which features the no-holds-barred battle one is expecting, although all the metal-on-metal crunching echoes the climax of the first Iron Man.
For a movie that begins with the fertile foundation established by its predecessor, Iron Man 2 does disappointingly little to advance the mythos or provide fans with reasons to enthusiastically cheer the film's existence. As a villain, Ivan Vanko promises more than he delivers. For the most part, the narrative treats him as an afterthought until late in the proceedings. More time is devoted to Hammer who, admittedly, is the more intriguing character and, depending on how he his handled in future installments, could prove to be a diabolical opponent. What happens late in the movie hurts him in the two places where he can feel pain: his bank account and his ego.
As was the case with Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. owns the film. His innate charisma, his ability to deliver cutting lines of dialogue with the perfect inflection, and his capacity to overcome narrative shortcomings are reasons why Iron Man 2 works better than one might suspect. It's a little disappointing that the chemistry he shared with Gwyneth Paltrow in the first film has been diluted here. Scarlett Johansson adds a dose of sex appeal, but her role is superfluous; one suspects she will have more to do in the future. The re-casting of Rhodes (from Terence Howard to Don Cheadle) is a misfire. Cheadle is an excellent actor, but this part isn't right for him, and his attempts to fill Howard's shoes serve only to make us aware of how well the other actor played the part.
Another minor source of discontentment relates to the special effects, which are less convincing than those in the first film, perhaps because there are more of them and they call attention to themselves with greater frequency. The "superhero abilities" evident in the first movie work better than they do in the second. For the most part, it's a minor thing, but there are scenes in which this provides a momentary distraction.
One wonders whether there will be a third Iron Man or whether Marvel's future focus with respect to this icon will be relegated to the superhero ensemble of The Avengers. Perhaps Iron Man 2's post-credits sequence, which teases Thor, is an indication. (There's also a none-too-subtle reference to Captain America in the middle of the movie.) If there is another Iron Man, hopefully the filmmakers will come up with a different sort of foe for the title character. The concept of Iron Man fighting enhanced versions of himself has been taken about as far as it can go. Despite being a re-tread, it works here because there's energy and excitement in the final battle, but that well probably has likely run dry.
Iron Man 2 (United States, 2010)
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, Samuel L. Jackson, Clark Gregg
Screenplay: Justin Theroux
Cinematography: Matthew Libatique
Music: John Debney
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures