Two years ago Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. teamed up to breathe live into one of Marvel Comic‘s lesser known superhero stories. That story of course involved wealthy industrialist playboy Tony Stark (think Bruce Wayne without the brooding) and an almost indestructible suit of his own making that turned him into the hero known as Iron Man. Early scenes from this movie at Comic-con caught audiences by surprise and around the globe the Paramount marketing machine slowly started generating more and more interest for this soon to be iconic character. The unknown became mainstream when the movie exploded onto screens with a light, air feel that stood it apart for that summers other big comic adaptation. Unlike The Dark Knight, Iron Man revelled in the sunshine, the bright colours and the flamboyant personality of Downey Jr. as the almost too lifelike narcissistic, motor-mouthed genius, with an air for the theatrical. It was first-rate entertainment, and while a little lacking in action in some eyes, set a marker that any potential sequel would have to best. Will the sequel is here and after a marketing campaign that has bombarded us with images, videos and sneak peeks, will the movie be able to match the expectation of a world hungry for more metal-suited action?
Iron Man 2 kicks off 6 months after the events of the original, with the whole world now aware that Tony Stark is Iron Man. Everyone wants a piece of him, the media want his picture, the government want his suit, his company wants his leadership and his assistant Pepper Potts…well she just wants…him. A potential foe comes in the form of Ivan Vanko, a physicist from Russia whose dad was harshly treated by Tony’s own father Howard, and has vowed revenge on the Stark family. Also keen to get to Stark is business rival Justin Hammer. Long left in cold of Tony’s large shadow Hammer is determined to beat his competitor by any means necessary, even if that means financing Vanko on his murderous quest. Complicating matters further for poor Tony is the relatively minor issue that the arc reactor in his chest, the very thing that is keeping him alive, is slowly killing him through palladium poisoning. So as you can see it ain’t easy being a hero. Never fear though as help is on hand in the form of old friend Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes, and Nick Fury and his band of fearless SHIELD agents, the most shapely of which (Natasha Romanova) joins on to become Stark’s new assistant.
Robert Downey Jr. is Tony Stark, of that there can be no doubt. He effortlessly inhabits the guise of the self-absorbed, self-promoting, self-acclaimed saviour of the world with the ease of a man putting on his favourite shoes. It also does no harm at all that he looks good in a suit, whether designer or metal. As a man that has battled his own personal demons and come out the other side he is uniquely suited to portraying the inner turmoil that plagues Stark, but he also never lets it get in the way of the more fun nature of the character, shrugging it all off as if it was someone else’s problem. Aside from the brilliant RDJ there’s Mickey Rourke, another actor that has undergone a career resurgence in recent times, and another whose had more than his fair share of personal problems. Ivan Vanko is a troubled soul, familiar with hardship and prison life, and hell-bent on avenging Howard Stark’s role in his father’s and his own miserable predicament. Rourke who fully emerged himself in Russian prison life to get a feel for the role is obviously having a ball here, his character displaying great wit but inherent danger and instability. A truly menacing man. On the flip side of this is Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer. Hammer’s over-the-top antics and efforts to copy Stark’s eccentricities are delightfully played by Rockwell, easily stealing any scene that he enters. Hammer is this guy you just hopes gets punched and it’s a testament to Rockwell that he somehow seems relatable, pitiable even. Gwyneth Paltrow‘s Pepper Potts and Jon Favreau’s own Happy Hogan are both given more screen time and yet still fail to add any more to their characters than we saw in the first one. Samuel L. Jackson is back as Nick Fury for more than a fleeting cameo, although his and Clark Gregg’s appearance as Agent Coulson do little more than help set-up the forthcoming Avengers movie. Also due to take part in that project is Scarlett Johansson who plays the dual identity role of SHIELD agent Natalie Romanova and future Avenger Black Widow. She gives a good performance and also manages to look damn good in tight leather. Don Cheadle takes over the role of Tony’s best friend Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes, vacated by Terrence Howard and makes a good foil for Stark’s lone gunslinger. The real treasure though in this movie is Garry Shandling as Senator Stern, a politician determined to take the Iron Man “weapon” for the US Army and who loathes the very sight of Stark. Shandling’s sarcastic wit and withering looks are a comic delight.
Visually Iron Man 2 looks amazing, the action sequences are outstanding and the transformation of Iron Man, War Machine and Whiplash are epic. The Monaco Grand Prix showdown on its own would be worth the admission price. The soundtrack, which is dominated by AC/DC sets the tone brilliantly while the audio is sharp and bombastic as required from an action flick. The vibrant colours shine from the screen and Favreau’s assured camera-work mean that the fight scenes are framed perfectly. Technically, it’s a tour-de-force. One of the last movies biggest flaws was that it was all a perceived build-up to the climatic showdown between Iron Man and Jeff Bridges Iron Monger. So when this battle failed to live up to what went before grumbling began. Climatic battles though are usually a huge anticlimax (the exception being Helm’s Deep in LOTR: the Two Towers) and Iron Man 2 suffers some of that same problem. It helps then that the action sequences dispersed in between, especially the Monaco Grand Prix, are of incredibly high quality. That said the climatic battle here is pretty damn good, it just features a lot less Ivan Vanko/Whiplash than you would like. And that’s true for the whole movie, the Hammer/Vanko v Stark stuff is the meat and bones of the story but it is distracted by the ancillary characters, Stark’s personal struggles, and the need to set-up the Avengers movie to follow. Even Stark’s personal problems are glazed over, hopefully to reappear at some stage in an adaptation of the Demon in a Bottle storyline, and this leads to the movie feeling like a rehashing of Iron Man 1, rather than a sequel expanding and exploring the character. The movie is suspended between great action sequences at the beginning and end, while the middle is left for padding out plot-points and introducing the motley crew of hangers-on and nobodies. This causes the movie to lose momentum, but thankfully there’s a knock-down brawl in the middle to raise the energy levels.
Ultimately the movie feels like a missed opportunity, but it’s easy to see Marvel’s intentions here, we already know Iron Man and it’s crucial that they generate interest in Captain America, Thor and the others to follow. Despite that the movie is outrageously entertaining, and the central performances are brilliant. Aside from that saggy middle piece it has everything you could want from a summer blockbuster and I’m sure once I get over my initial disappointment I’ll grow to admire it more.