Iron Man was never Marvel’s premiere superhero on the comic book page, but on the big screen he’s their centerpiece. 2008’s Iron Man was a rousing success and set the foundation for creating a singular cinematic universe where Marvel’s heroes exist side-by-side. As with the majority of sequels, Iron Man 2 ups the ante with more action, more FX, and more characters as Marvel Studios marches ever closer to the magnum opus of The Avengers.
Set a mere six months after the original film, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is riding high on a wave of newfound fame as Iron Man. He’s more than eager to feed our ultra-modern society’s hunger for celebrity. He stages the Stark Expo, an elaborate science fair, appearing in front of thousands of adoring fans and backed up by a bevy of gorgeous Ironette dancers. But, underneath that flippant, care-free demeanor, all is not well in the House of Stark.
The power core within Tony Stark’s chest is keeping his heart pumping, but is also poisoning his blood, the toxicity levels increasing with each usage of the Iron Man armor. A government subcommittee headed up by the officious Sen. Stern (Garry Shandling) demand that Stark turn over the Iron Man technology to them. Meanwhile, in Russia, a downtrodden physicist named Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) builds his own miniaturized reactor feeding energy into a pair of tendrils. Turns out, Vanko’s father Anton helped Tony’s father, Howard (John Slattery), build the original Arc reactor before being deported back to Russia to live and die in abject poverty.
Vanko fails to kill Stark on a Monaco racetrack, but manages to attract the attention of rival industrialist Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell). Hammer desperately wants to be Tony Stark, except he lacks the smarts. So he hires Vanko to build him an army of armored warriors and make Iron Man “look like an antique.” Taking hits on all sides, Tony shirks responsibility, handing the company over to Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and finding solace at the bottom of a bottle. After Tony shows up drunk in full armor at his birthday party, his best friend Rhodey (Don Cheadle) steals the Mark II suit and turns it over to the military. Fanboys will giggle with glee as it’s pimped out with an arsenal of weapons into War Machine.
Bolstering this cavalcade of characters is Scarlett Johansson as Tony’s new personal assistant who is actually an undercover SHIELD agent. Fans will know her as the Black Widow. Scarlett busts out an array of MMA and Lucha Libre maneuvers while almost busting out of her skin-tight leather leotards. Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury (who first appeared in a post-credits scene in the preceding film) gets a meatier role as does director Jon Favreau as Tony’s driver/bodyguard Happy Hogan.
Clark Gregg returns as SHIELD Agent Coulson as do Leslie Bibb as reporter Christine Everhart and Paul Bettany as the voice of Tony’s artificial intelligence, JARVIS. Kate Mara makes a one scene appearance as a federal marshal and not as Bethany Cabe as previously rumored. Plus, there’s the obligatory cameo by Stan Lee (one of the best yet).
An ensemble of A-list actors were gathered together for the Iron Man and Iron Man 2 is no different. Mickey Rourke already looks like a comic book character so casting him as Ivan Vanko (a combination of supervillains Whiplash and Crimson Dynamo) was a no-brainer. A tried and true method actor, Rourke researched his role by visiting a Russian gulag and speaking with gangsters and criminals. As Vanko, he’s covered in tattoos and sports a shit-eating grin full of gold teeth. He just may be the most bad-ass physicist to walk the planet. Yes, even more than Stephen Hawking.
Sam Rockwell, who was once in the running to play Tony Stark, is another welcome addition. A master of the art of the smarmy, Rockwell absolutely excels as the underhanded Hammer. He’s one of the few actors who can go tit-for-tat with both Downey and Rourke. Also thrown into the mix is Don Cheadle, replacing Terrence Howard amidst rumors of dissention on the set and an escalating salary. Cheadle fits seamlessly into the cast, confronting Tony at the senate hearing with the meta-textual line, ”I’m here now. Deal with it and move on.”
The excellent performances are not just due to a talented cast, but also to a talented director. As a writer/director/actor, Favreau cut his teeth on the independent film Swingers, which he starred in and wrote. Owning to those indie roots, he knows the importance of story and characters above all else. Favreau has also cited Robert Altman as an influence for giving his actors free reign to improvise during filming. The improvisation is never more evident than in the Howard Hawksian interplay between Tony and Pepper. That freedom has allowed Robert Downey Jr. to bring Tony Stark to life as a deep and fully realized character. He’s also kept Favreau and screenwriter Justin Theroux on their toes with both men having to rewrite the script on the fly throughout production. Theroux is also an actor turned writer. He made a memorable appearance playing a filmmaker in David Lynch’s mindbender Mulholland Drive. He also co-wrote Tropic Thunder which impressed Downey enough to bring him on to the sequel.
The use of such a multitude of actors and characters may be a little worrisome. The downfall of many superhero sequels (Spider-Man 3, X-Men: The Last Stand) is throwing in too many characters and too many plotlines. Thankfully, Iron Man 2 isn’t muddied up by an unwieldy amount of personalities. Each character and subplot is melded into the central narrative and converges towards the climax and resolution. They do not all get the appropriate screen time they deserve, but it works. Well, for the most part…
If Iron Man 2 has any faults, they lie in the saggy middle section. After a rousing racetrack battle between Iron Man and Vanko, the film pumps on the brakes for the second act. Tony alienates those around him while dealing with his illness and issues with his later father who appears in vintage film reels like a hybrid of Howard Hughes and Walt Disney. Whenever superhero sequels come along, those involve always mention how the second movie will be even better because they’ve gotten the origin story “out of the way.” However, Iron Man deftly weaved the origin story into the picture thus making the hero’s journey of Tony Stark making it every bit as important as the action scenes. With the origin out of the way, it seems the filmmakers were unclear as to where to go with Tony Stark. The second act of the sequel treads familiar territory as Tony works in his lab while his enemies scheme behind his back. It unfolds a little too much like the original film.
Favreau may not have the greatest command over action, but what he does here gets the job done. For a big-budget spectacle, Iron Man 2 is surprisingly light on action with only three major set pieces in the film. The opening fight on the racetrack is pulled off well and the final showdown is a wondrous multi-tiered battle with a picture perfect melding of practical and CG effects. The only drawbacks with each sequence are the anti-climactic endings. They build and build then fizzle out at the finish. Iron Man has yet to face a foe that is on equal footing. I suppose we have to wait for inevitable debut of arch-nemesis, the Mandarin, in Iron Man 3 to finally find someone who can really menace our hero.
Iron Man is the crown jewel of the Marvel movie oeuvre. Along with The Dark Knight, it made 2008 the pinnacle year for the comic book movie. If it is all downhill from there, Iron Man 2 makes sure it isn’t a steep drop, but a slight stumble. By the lofty standards of the original film, the sequel doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor. Iron Man 2 feels more like a stepping stone to further the Marvel’s movie universe (which I’ll spoil below) rather than a film to stand on its own. However, it’s still damned good entertainment. Damn, damn good entertainment.