Directed by Jon Favreau
Released in 2010
"Style over substance." This complaint is often lodged at films that sacrifice an intelligent narrative structure, or even a basic plot, in favor of flashy, eye-catching effects. It is not a compliment for a movie to be described as such, but it is the approach to use when trying to reel in huge audiences. After all, look at Transformers 2: millions of dollars spent on visual overload while pennies reserved for a senseless story. Now this phrase does not apply to Iron Man 2 but a variation of it: Style over too much substance. That definitely sounds preferable to the former, and it is. The cluttered, unfortunately underdeveloped character plot lines are ultimately just distractions from the energy the fantastic actors and director present. This approach works perfectly fine, and Iron Man 2 ends up a more entertaining, absorbing package than the first.
This sequel picks up exactly where the last left off, when Tony Stark, played with the charisma and attitude that only Robert Downey Jr. can muster, declares to the world that he is, in fact, Iron Man. He becomes a national icon, beloved by the American public and, lacking any modesty whatsoever, believes that this attention is deserved. After all, as he so tersely states, he successfully privatized world peace. In no surprise whatsoever, Stark faces a few new adversaries, both at home and abroad. The United States government is seeking to get Stark's weapons in, supposedly, " the people's hands," to which Tony is vehemently opposed not only because it violates his rights but because no other country is even close to equaling Stark Industries. Cue Whiplash. This Russian brute, whose real name is Ivan Vanko, seeks to destroy the Iron Man due to possibly shameful incidents that haunt the Stark family tree. A failing arms tycoon, Justin Hammer, in an enjoyable, slimeball performance by Sam Rockwell, enlists the help of Vanko to execute the common goal they both share.
On top of this, Tony deals with the stress of physical atrophy from the machine that is, ironically, keeping him alive, as well as the detachment he is facing from his steadfast support and love, Pepper Potts, played with domineering confidence by Gwyneth Paltrow. Meanwhile, Lt. Col. James Rhodes cannot tolerate his best friend's self-destructive attitude and decides to make his own decked-out Iron Man after a scuffle. Yet even stacked atop this is the foreboding emergence of S.H.I.E.L.D., a superhero group led by Nick Fury, the badass motha himself, Samuel L. Jackson. Scarlett Johansson, Stark's new assistant, turns out to be a member of this group under the moniker Black Widow. Obviously, due to the size of this synopsis and the incoherency of it all, the story could have used improvement in editing and less character overload.
The sole flaw of this movie is not necessarily a discordant plot, because it does make sense if you pay attention, but a lack of character development besides the main stars. Iron Man obviously takes centerstage, and there is no lack of the typical superhero sequel middle section in which the protagonist has to overcome emotional and psychological problems, a la Spiderman 2 or The Dark Knight. Whiplash is also prominent throughout, his story being one of pain and vengeance. We see the pain in his character, plus a humorous faux-Russian accent as well. However, other characters like Lt. Rhodes are not as developed as they could have been. Nick Fury appears in merely two scenes, and by now it seems as if the filmmakers are just teasing us to his future involvement in an Avengers movie. Natalie Rushman, Scarlet Johansson in top, sexy form, does not have much prominence to the plot and serves more as eye-candy than anything else. Fine by me, but I will admit it is wasted potential.
The botched character progression is disappointing- because that is something the first did very well- but it is far from fatal. In fact, the movie is so fun overall that these problems are easily overlooked. The reason why Iron Man 2 succeeds so well is because it is full of fantastic, talented actors who are all over-qualified for their roles. Take Mickey Rourke, aka Whiplash, for example. Rourke, who gave one of the finest acting performances in years with The Wrestler, goes beyond what is required, or even expected, for this performance as Ivan Vanko. His Eastern bloc drawl is definitely cheesy, especially as he croons for his bird one too many times, but he brings an emotional depth to the character that is not necessary in a big budget action film like this one. His character seeks to destroy Tony Stark as a personal vendetta, and Rourke conveys this bloodthirsty pain with an energy that only a gifted actor can convey. Pair him aside the star of the film himself, Robert Downey Jr., and you have two actors that are surprisingly alike. Both were hot commodities in Hollywood years ago, but then had a self-destructive period where they disappeared into obscurity. Only in the last four years have these excellent actors, as Tony Stark says of himself in the beginning of this movie, risen from the ashes in "the greatest phoenix metaphor the world has ever seen." The first Iron Man takes the credit for Downey's true return, but now that the sequel contains both him and the other comeback hero of recent Hollywood history, we can enjoy the talents of yesteryear at their top form, today.
Downey Jr. carries the film on his shoulders with ease and grace. His conservative, playboy character stands in sharp contrast to a more noble hero like Bruce Wayne, but Stark is engaging because he loves himself as much as everyone else does. The opening scene, in which Stark is questioned by a United States Senate committee, shows how Tony believes he is above all others. Senator Stern - a hilarious, sordid and scarily plastic Garry Shandling - demands that the Iron Man suit be transferred to government hands, but Stark associates himself with the observing audience and turns the tables on the interrogators. Downey is a unique, gifted actor who can play with his food before eating it, and all the while with a sly smile. The script, written by Mulholland Drive star and Tropic Thunder co-writer Justin Theroux, gives him some winning lines, but the spot-on delivery is all attributed to Downey. When Tony Stark goes through his internal conflict in the middle of the movie, Downey bares a melancholic spirit, like one who is flying too close to the sun. This performance may not be as shocking or classic as his controversial turn as Kirk Lazarus in Tropic Thunder, but it may as well contain some of his finest acting yet. There's an energy pulsing through the screen when Robert Downey Jr. is on it; the film plays it wise and refrains from taking him off it.
The rest of the cast is stellar, by no means a necessity for a movie of this type. Thankfully, this is a different type of beast. Gwyneth Paltrow is a commanding, occasionally cold, yet commanding figure who, if absent, would leave Tony Stark helpless. Pepper Potts is no longer the naive, bewildered assistant that she was in the first: she actually bosses Tony around this time. By her side is Happy Hogan, the lovable yet bumbling bodyguard, played by Jon Favreau, also the director. Watching him struggle to subdue a goon while Black Widow easily clears a room of thugs is an interesting juxtaposition, to say the least. Black Widow, aka Natalie Rushman, aka Natasha Romanoff, is underutilized in her role but nonetheless provides to be a...pleasant sight on the screen. As Stark observes, she is unreadable in her motives, making her an intriguing character. "Rhodey," previously Terrence Howard but now played by a superior Don Cheadle, is given an imposing physical presence and is less of a pushover than the first. In fact, his strict, militaristic demeanor proves to be a main conflict in the movie. However, he still knows how to have fun, and Cheadle, who proved his acting prowess in Hotel Rwanda, is a winning actor. There is no dispute to the mastery of Samuel L. Jackson, who is painfully absent from most of the movie but a scene-stealer when on the screen. John Slattery, the boss from Mad Men, is an insightful father for Tony, revealed in old footage, and Clark Gregg plays a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who tries to control Stark but learns that trapping a lightning bolt is not a facile matter. The last lead actor is Sam Rockwell, who was so robbed of an Oscar nomination in last year's Moon, and will play a character well even when he is an annoying prick. Justin Hammer, his arms manufacturer persona, is a pathetic individual in all respects but given a humorous, pitiful edge by Rockwell. Summer blockbusters often have a large list of high-profile names on their poster, but rarely do all the actors fulfill their potential and deliver winning performances such as this film.
Typically, the star of the show for many will be the action. The acting is where this focus should be directed but the fight scenes are filmed with confidence and filled with visual wonders. Favreau, who also directed the first, is an excellent director who can balance the demands of action with the quality necessity of character development, even if the screenplay does not deliver on all fronts. The explosions look expensive, but do not carry a moronic aura when surrounded by an absorbing plot and cast of winning players. Michael Bay should take a hint here. This film actually outdoes Bay's vapid Transformers movies with the typical "flashy assembly of armor" scene. In the middle of a French speedway, Tony Stark uses the "Iron Man suitcase" (which curiously is light enough for Gwyneth Paltrow to carry without struggle) to put his metallic exoskeleton on. There is a ridiculous sense of detail and liberal use of clanking sounds, as well as the ludicrousness of the situation, that makes this the key scene for the visual effects crew behind the film. Favreau and the team behind him craft a dynamic, truly badass spectacle of what is really pieces of metal scraping against each other. Again, Michael Bay, take note.
Iron Man 2 may not bring that fresh, vivid guise that critics praised for the original, but it delivers with excellent acting and tons of more fun. What more is there to ask for a huge blockbuster like this? This may not be an equal to The Dark Knight as far as superhero sequels go but it ups the ante in every department, usually all to the film's benefit. It is unfortunate that Theroux's screenplay does not contain enough room for all the characters to properly flesh out, but Favreau and the actors take what they have and make something genuinely magnetic.
3.5 Stars Out of 5