Iron Man 2 (2010)
Directed by Jon Favreau
Written by Justin Theroux
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Don Cheadle, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson & Garry Shandling
When we last saw Tony Stark (Downey), he was strolling into a smoky old bar to meet General Ross at the end of Edward Norton’s The Incredible Hulk. His final words delighted dorks the world over, myself included: “What would you say if I told you we’re putting a team together?” Well, lets not get ahead of ourselves.
This sequel picks up right where the original left off, as Stark reveals to the world in a televised press conference that “I am Iron Man.” It would seem the team will have to wait. This time, instead of being in the room for that presser, we watch it unfold live on Russian television, piped into the home of one Ivan Vanko (Rourke). Tony doesn’t know it yet, but he and Vanko are connected, and Ivan has an axe to grind with the Stark family.
That may be the least of his worries. A prickly senator (Shandling) is demanding he turn over the Iron Man armour to the U.S. military immediately. A rival arms developer by the name of Justin Hammer (Rockwell) is stealing his defense contracts. His best friend (Cheadle, replacing Terrance Howard) doesn’t quite have his back, and walking around with a fusion reactor in his chest is having a greater effect on his health than he might have thought.
There is an expectation on the second instalment of a superhero franchise for it to take a Herculean leap forward in quality. X-Men, Spider-Man, Batman Begins… All were greatly exceeded by their sequels (though that last one may be debatable). Does Iron Man 2 manage this feat? Not quite. But it’s not worse either. Instead of trying to out-do his previous effort, Favreau seems content to continue telling that same story. All of those aforementioned sequels benefited from being able to skip a lot of exposition already dealt with in the first film and get right down to telling a more complex and engaging story. While Iron Man 2 may not be bound by having to tell Tony’s origin story, it is bound in other ways.
Which brings us back to “the team.” Favreau has been given the difficult task of not just establishing Tony/Iron Man as characters, but establishing the larger world of the Marvel Movie Universe that these characters inhabit. Marvel is putting great care into setting up their Avengers film slowly, so that we aren’t overwhelmed with too many characters and back-stories at once. It’s an unprecedented approach, and the payoff should be rather significant when The Avengers assemble in Summer 2012. But for now, there is still much exposition to get through. Not that I’m complaining. Some have called the movie’s second act too chatty and boring, but I almost get more enjoyment from these characters out of costume than in them. The scenes between Stark and Nick Fury (Jackson) are some of the film’s best, and do the most to set up future Marvel films.
Yet while the world Tony inhabits is getting larger, in many ways the plot takes a more narrow focus than that of Part 1. It is less about Stark’s role in the military industrial complex and its effect on global politics, and more about the man himself and his own issues. This is still a James Bond-style globe-trotting adventure, but where the first film dealt with external consequences, this one is all about personal tolls.
The movie does improve on the original in a couple of ways. Most importantly for a smash-bang summer blockbuster like this, the action is handled far more competently than before. Favreau was a bit out of his element in this regard on the first film, and instead of hugging in close on his battling robots like the Transformers films, he held his camera back and let us take in everything from a distance. While this was by no means a bad decision, the action is a lot more stylish this time out, while still keeping a clear focus on what’s actually happening. This is thanks in large part to the inclusion of Genndy Tartakovsky in the storyboarding process. Tartakovsky is the brilliant artist behind Samurai Jack — the man knows how to draw action, and his skills are apparent in this flick. The very first scenes of Iron Man flying down to Earth were like a shock of adrenaline to my system, and hooked me into the movie immediately.
This may be hard to believe, but it’s also a much funnier film than its predecessor. A lot of praise for that must go to Justin “Tropic Thunder” Theroux’s script, though it’s not too hard to out-do a movie that didn’t even have a script in the first place. While there are plenty of pithy one-liners to go around, he’s helped by the quality of the cast that’s reading his material. I found Rockwell to be absolutely hilarious in this movie, and it rarely had anything to do with his dialogue. Justin Hammer is a cheap knock-off version of Tony Stark in every sense, and Rockwell plays him with a desperate confidence you can’t help but laugh at. He and Rourke lack the fierce menace of Jeff Bridges’ Obidiah, but their scenes together strike a fine balance between comedy and intimidation. It’s good stuff.
Cheadle outshines Howard in every respect, and is a welcome addition to the cast. His first line is brilliant: “It’s me. I’m here. Deal with it.” He may as well be speaking directly to the audience. Favreau also gets a bit more to do as an actor this time out, and is quite good as well. And I simply can not get out of this review without mentioning Scarlett Johansson. While some of her acting is a bit wooden, the flirting between her and Downey is highly entertaining. She’s sexy as all hell and she straight-up kicks ass. If Marvel were to announce a solo movie starring just her character, I would buy my ticket today.
As for Downey, what needs to be said? He owns the screen every time he’s on it. It was true of the first film, and it’s true here as well. His charm powers these films like an arc reactor.
So is the sequel better than the original? I’m going to say yes. Marginally, but yes. What it lacks in depth it makes up for with an abundance of entertainment value. Summer starts here, and it’s going to take quite an effort to make a film that’s more fun than this.