We’re safe. America is secure. You want my property – you can’t have it! But I did you a big favor. I have successfully privatized world peace.
Let’s face it. There are too many sequels made that don’t do justice to the first movie. This especially happens when it isn’t part of a trilogy, but is simply a continuation of the film’s world and the next in a line of potentially numerous films. Now that the soon-to-be-made 4th film will officially stop it from being a trilogy, Pirates of the Caribbean is a good example of this kind of series. Dead Man’s Chest was just a convoluted story that worked only on one level; that its characters were from a much better movie. And since there would have been a 4th film if the 3rd didn’t suck so very badly, I put Spiderman 3 into this position as well (Peter Parker performing at a jazz club like Ron Burgundy does not a good movie make). Iron Man’s sequel could have gone down this tremulous road. But comic book fans can breathe a sigh of relief this time. Iron Man 2 is not only a good movie, but a great companion to the first film and a great springboard for the new cinematic Marvel universe.
The sequel starts off 6 months after billionaire/boozer/womanizer/technological genius Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) announces to the world that he is, in fact, Iron Man. Since then, he’s been slowing down terrorism (hence the quote at the top), building Stark Expo (the institution that his father had dreamed would bring people closer to the future he imagined) and being more-or-less the coolest guy in the world. But the technology keeping shrapnel out of his heart is also slowly poisoning him and he’s running out of time. His father’s disgraced former colleague has a bloodthirsty son named Ivan Vanko, aka supervillian Whiplash (Mickey Rourke) who is determined to destroy Tony by any means necessary. Stark Industries’ arch rival (Sam Rockwell) secretly employs Vanko to make the ultimate weapon that will take our hero down professionally, but the criminal has other plans.
So much of this film hindered on Downey’s performance and this is really his movie. In his very first scene (in which he hosts the opening of his expo with scantily-clad Iron Women dancing behind him), he is cool and suave and very cocky. But as soon as he walks off the stage, the truth about his health is spread all over his face. As he tests his blood (which becomes more and more toxic), you see real humanity in Tony. Of course, he hides it from those around him and the clever quips he uses as a defense mechanism are some of the most enjoyable parts of the movie. In his heart (no pun intended), Tony is a good person who wants to live up to the name hero and that comes through in Downey’s performance.
Gwyneth Paltrow reprises her role as Pepper Potts, Tony’s personal assistant and friend/potential love interest. I know some people were put off by the two characters constant talking over each other in the first film, but I kind of liked it. If these two people existed in real life, they wouldn’t wait to let the other person talk (partially because they know each other so well they can anticipate the other’s reply before they say it). This also happens in Iron Man 2 and I was fine with it. They have the chemistry for these two roles. In preparation for his fast-coming death, Tony makes Pepper the CEO of Stark Industries, which does alter their relationship. It’s not actually mentioned in the movie, but I got the feeling that her worry from the first film that people would think she’s sleeping her way to the top is still strong in her mind. Something missing was the scene between Pepper and Tony that was shown in one of the first trailers for the film. They have a few moments of banter/flirting before Tony jumps out of the plane, wryly declaring, “You complete me!”. It was a great moment and it made me want to see the movie, so it was a disappointment not to see it in the completed film.
Rourke is very creepy as Vanko. You do really wonder how Tony is going to stop him (although it doesn’t help that Tony gives him valuable pointers on his weapons after the villain is arrested early on). When some goons take his pet bird, I was on the edge of my seat, anticipating the violent backlash. While the violence happens off-screen, the bloody results prove how dangerous this man is. Add that to a person who truly believes he is avenging a noble man and yet has no problem killing huge numbers of people if it serves his purpose and you have a sinister villain. My big problem was Rourke’s accent; I couldn’t understand the majority of what he says in this movie. Some of the time it doesn’t matter as much, but when the character is giving the hero (and audience) important exposition, we really need to be able to know what he is saying.
The other antagonist is Justin Hammer, the CEO of Hammer Industries. He is played by Sam Rockwell, who I absolutely loved in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (as Zaphod Beeblebrox, the slightly unhinged President of the Galaxy). I saw a good amount of Zaphod in Hammer, but with much less genuine confidence. The sad fact is, Hammer is kind of an anti-Tony. None of his products really work and he isn’t cool at all. He more or less wreaks of desperation. He has also been selling his weapons to the North Koreans. Lucky for the US, none of his weapons work. In fact, it’s implied that his cheap imitation of Tony’s supersuit maimed an unfortunate Korean soldier. It makes sense that he would then use the only asset he has (his money) to get someone like Vanko who can make him look better than Tony Stark. Rockwell is effective as the lame, desperate Hammer, but his performance gets almost too annoying. I was glad to see his face smashed against a table before the movie’s end.
Considering this is his first time in the role, I thought Don Chedle wasn’t bad as Rhodey, Air Force Leutenant and Tony’s best friend. In the film, Rhodey struggles between his loyalty to his friend and obeying government orders to take the Iron Man suits away from Tony. As the secretly dying Tony gets more and more reckless, Rhodey realizes that his buddy is becoming a danger to himself and those around him. He actually stands up to his friend for perhaps the first time in his life (figuratively and literally) and it’s in this film that he takes one of the suits and becomes the superhero War Hammer. My one criticism with Chedle is simply that the chemistry isn’t as strong between him and Downey as it should be. It just doesn’t feel like the same character that was in the first film (because it really isn’t) and the two characters aren’t on screen enough to build a real repore this time around. By the end, I started to see some of the chemistry those two need, but it just wasn’t as strong as it should have been. I was also disappointed a little by the scenes of them fighting each other in their respective suits. The CGI doesn’t look as good as it should in those moments.
Scarlett Johansson is ok as Black Widow, who is undercover as Tony’s new assistant. It’s not that her acting was particularly bad, but it didn’t wow me, either. I hate to say it, but she was kind of just there for eye candy for most of the film. Maybe that is ok for some fans (especially the teenage males in the audience), but the character could have been portrayed by a stronger actress and been given a real personality. That being said, her big action scene was actually one of the more entertaining parts of the movie for me. I’m not surprised the action scenes were so fun, considering Samurai Jack creator Genndy Tartakovsky was one of the storyboard artists. And I thought it was kind of cool that Jon Favreau (who has directed and acted in both Iron Man movies) got to have his own action scene, even if he only apprehends one guard while Black Widow takes down many, many more in the same amount of time.
There were some great cameos in this movie. Garry Shandling plays the US Senator who wants the Iron Man suit to become government property. He has this fake cheeriness to him that is so very like a public official. Marvel supergod Stan Lee has a cameo, but I won’t tell you what it is. Props go out to Mad Men actor John Slattery, who sports the Walt Disney look and mannerisms as Tony’s father in some 1960s Tomorrowland-like promotional videos for the public. You also get to see some of his more personal side and there are some nice moments there as Tony learns more about his dad, if only too late. Tony’s strained relationship with his father is mentioned in the film, but it could have been built up more before Tony gets to see those videos. Considering it’s mentioned he was a part of the SHIELD Initiative, I hope Slattery comes back for the Captain America movie. And while it’s not a cameo, the hypocrite journalist from the first film shows up and Pepper calls her out, which made me happy. I also really loved the gadgets in this movie. It sometimes leans towards too futuristic, but it was so much fun to watch that I let it slide. There is some fun holographic computer stuff and the style of the inventions were just so visually cool. You really admire Stark for his talents in crafting such cool inventions. He might be a jackass sometimes, but he really is a genius. And I was very happy that his clumsy mechanical arm robot has some screentime. I like to think the little guy is the R2D2 of this series.
Now, the plot was fun and the characters were good, but there is a bigger reason this sequel is a success. For those of you less-than-familiar with the world of comic books, the Marvel universe is huge! And just like Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman in DC Comics, the Marvel Superheroes interact, join together and have relationships with each other. Up until the last few years, unfortunately, comic book movies haven’t had characters from different franchises interacting (Tobey Maguire’s Spiderman never got to work beside the X-Men). That changed when the first Iron Man came out, and diehard fans that were patient enough to wait for the credits to end were given a squeal-worthy scene of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) telling Tony, “You’ve become part of a bigger universe. You just don’t know it yet.” When Hulk came out, Downey had a cameo as Tony Stark, further solidifying this new universe. So, with the Captain America, Nick Fury, Thor and Avengers movies being made, we have a bunch of great moments in Iron Man 2 dealing with these characters, but in minute ways. Nick Fury does have a scene, which Samuel L. Jackson does with so much relish. The dynamics between Fury and Stark are so much fun to watch, mostly because Fury is so very deadpan while Stark is such a smartass. SHIELD Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) mentions going out to New Mexico for a “secret assignment”. We also get to see an iconic object in the Marvel universe used to more-or-less prop one of Tony’s inventions upright. And fans, make sure to stay after the credits. I wouldn’t dare ruin it for you, but it’s pretty cool. I have to stress, it isn’t just the inside jokes for the fans that make these moments so great. It’s that the filmmakers for all these movies are working together to make a universe where movies interlap and the plot in one film can greatly affect the next in a technically different series. This is the kind of thing that happens in comics all the time, which means we are redefining what a comic book movie can be.
It’s a very exciting time to be a nerd.
Overall: A fantastic compliment to the first film, Iron Man 2 is smart, funny and damn entertaining, not to mention a catalyst for the Marvel Universe. I can’t wait to see what happens next.
4 out of 5 stars