Status: In theaters (opened 5/7/10)
Directed By: Jon Favreau
Written By: Justin Theroux
Cinematographer: Matthew Libatique
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell
Iron Man 2 is a sequel that knows exactly what’s expected of it. A big summer superhero blockbuster follow-up needs to have new villains and more of them, and we get that. It needs to take its hero and put him through a simplified hero’s journey, and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) certainly experiences that. It has to up the ante in terms of characters, gimmicks, weapons, and stakes, and we get that, too. It’s a movie that knows what it should be, and succeeds in being just exactly that. This is a good thing, but a surprise or two would’ve been nice, as well.
We start by learning about a Russian physicist named Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) who aspires to be the anti-Iron Man. He has a personal vendetta against Tony Stark, but he also wants to ruin the entire Iron Man persona in the process of seeking his revenge. Then we meet Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), who aspires to be the anti-Tony Stark. He’s a rival defense contractor, who sees the same potential in metal warrior-suits that Jeff Bridges‘s character saw in the first film. These two offer a compelling one-two punch, and both Rourke and Rockwell hit their strides early and maintain near-perfect performances throughout.
On the other side—the good guys’ side—there’re some new faces as well. We get Scarlett Johansson as some sort of secret agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., the enigmatic group headed by Sam Jackson that was hinted at in the first Iron Man‘s post-credits coda. Tony’s relationship with his assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), finds itself in new territory, and like Rourke and Rockwell, the ladies also offer a nice dynamic, vying for Stark on different levels and taking turns toying with him along the way.
The odd man out in all of this is James Rhodes, Stark’s friend and confidant and eventual sidekick. In the previous film he was played by Terrence Howard, whose rapport with Robert Downey was one of the story’s most entertaining aspects. Due to a contract dispute, in the sequel the character of “Rhodey” is portrayed by Don Cheadle, who despite being an extremely accomplished and naturalistic actor feels somewhat out of place here. He dons an iron suit of his own and becomes War Machine, but he never manages to complement Downey quite as well as Howard did. Their relationship, and its lack of that extra spark, is probably the most disappointing aspect of the movie, but even then it’s still not bad, per se; it’s just not as enjoyably satisfying as the dynamic established in the first film.
All of these characters (and others) are surprisingly well-balanced by the solidly sound screenplay by Justin Theroux. Everything revolves around Tony Stark, and the character remains one that Downey seems able to play with ease. Despite the sequel-cliche tendency to overload itself with too many additional characters, Iron Man 2 manages to keep things focused on its main protagonist, allowing the densely talented supporting cast to fill out its story rather than diluting it. Director Jon Favreau (who also supplies some comedic relief in his minor role as Stark’s bodyguard, Happy) again does an impressive job of juggling character development with action. This time we get some additional insight into Tony Stark’s background, by way of learning more about his father (a nice role for Mad Men‘s John Slattery). We also get plenty of hints helping to build up to a forthcoming Avengers movie, with Clark Gregg providing most of the Easter egg-style fun.
In fact, there may be a little too much setting-up-of-things-to-come. I think that my biggest issue with this movie from a storytelling standpoint is that it doesn’t really feel like a complete, self-contained tale; rather, it’s a lot of exposition for future sequels and spin-offs with a side-plot (the story of Ivan Vanko) standing in for a full story arc. Luckily that side-plot is handled well, told fully, and brought to life by talented performers. I said of the first Iron Man that it just may be the perfect superhero movie, and while I don’t think Iron Man 2 is quite the perfect superhero sequel, it’s still a solid, entertaining film. It’s not on the level of Spider-Man 2 or X2—both of which I thought were superior to their already-pretty-damn-good predecessors—but it’s close. In the end it just feels a little bland because it’s aiming to be part of a continuum that exists outside of its own story, and so it saves things for later when it should be giving everything it’s got to the story at hand. But it’s a good movie nonetheless, and it fits just about right where it should be. Sometimes it’s better to not be surprised than it is to be disappointed, and that’s what Iron Man 2 does for me.