Tony Stark. In the Marvel-verse, he is the eccentric billionaire weapons manufacturer turned superhero. In Jon Favreau’s follow up to the Marvel megahit “Iron Man”, Robert Downey Jr. is the undisputed star of the summer kickoff tentpole “Iron Man 2”. Stark is a man haunted by the sins of which he and his father are both guilty. In this sequel, the sins of the Stark family catch up to Tony in the form of criminally insane Russian physicist Ivan Vanko aka Whiplash. Nefariously connected to the Stark family legacy, Vanko will not rest until he has turned Tony Stark’s advanced technology against him and everyone he loves. Also on the offensive is weapons manufacturer and Stark rival Justin Hammer, who will stop at nothing to steal the Iron Man technology, and Vanko is the key to making that happen.
At the beginning of the film, Tony Stark justifies withholding of his benevolently destructive supersuit from the U.S. government with the reason that he and the Iron Man suit are a singular entity. If you take one, you take the other, and Mr. Stark bows to no one. There couldn’t be a more perfect analogy for Downey’s performance. For lack of a better phrase, Downey IS Tony Stark/Iron Man. Like Stark, Downey is all charm and wit when the flashbulbs are popping. When the spotlights finally dim, Downey shows a depth of emotion so subtle yet so present that it’s sometimes hard to imagine that it’s the same person. This was also true for the first film, and this is where the criticism lies. To be fair, it’s not Downey’s fault. He does everything that the role requires. The fault has to lie with the script. When Tony Stark comes face to face with the possibility that his Iron Man suit might be slowly killing him, it causes him to fall into a (brief) self-destructive spiral. This could have been a compelling section of the film, but the script passes over this character moment in favor of more comic relief. As a result, Downey gives the same performance in this film as he did in the last Iron Man movie, with a few brief moments of darkness that serve little more than to move the clunky plot forward.
The rest of the returning cast are all up to their jobs: As Pepper Potts, the new CEO of Stark Industries and the only woman Tony Stark will ever love, Gwyneth Paltrow is just as solid here as in the first film. Her character gets more face time, and her chemistry with Downey is apparent, but the role is little more than a flustered girlfriend who exists only to yell and be frustrated with Tony Stark. As Lt. Col. “Rhodey” Rhodes, Don Cheadle does a fine job, yet doesn’t really build on the character that Terrence Howard created in the first film. In another Avengers-setup cameo, Samuel L. Jackson brings wily fire to the mysterious eyepatched Nick Fury character, but I just kept waiting for Jackson to slip into some silver-tongued soliloquy from “Pulp Fiction” and then rule ass singlehandedly. I mean, he and Stark share breakfast at a classic diner, for crying out loud. Extra props go to Clark Gregg for reprising his role as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Coulson.
The new additions to the cast are also quite good: Sam Rockwell nearly steals the show as Stark wannabe Justin Hammer. Every scene that he and Downey share is gold. I would love to see the two of these guys do another movie together. Human method acting exercise Mickey Rourke was inspired casting for the vengeful Whiplash and he is indeed as menacing as he is in the film’s trailers. Rourke doesn’t get as much screen time as one would hope, and he actually disappears from the film for about twenty minutes during the second act. As S.H.I.E.L.D. operative Natasha Romanoff, Scarlett Johansson wears a Marvel-made tactical leotard very well and proves she can handle herself both as an action heroine and as a competing love interest for Downey. In a hilarious cameo as Senator Stern, Garry Shandling crawls out from his comfortable rock and shows these juniors just how sarcasm is done.
Jon Favreau can make a hell of a comic book picture. He’s obviously a director who loves the source material and loves to entertain. The action of “Iron Man 2” is shot with the audience in mind, designed to show the viewer just how powerful these weapons can be, and how much destruction they can cause. Retaining Matthew Libatique as Director of Photography, Favreau creates an Iron Man world that is backlit by technology and fueled by a playfulness that recalls swinging 60’s action romps. “Iron Man 2” is a fun movie for what it is. The criticism, again, lies with Justin Theroux’s script. I’m not sure how many constraints he may have been working with, since he was challenged with continuing Tony Stark’s storyline along with setting up characters who will undoubtedly be appearing in future Marvel films. Unfortunately, this left the plot of “Iron Man 2” very convoluted and disjointed. Characters appear and disappear for long periods of time. The film seems to be a collection of action scenes strung together by a weak revenge narrative and survives on the charm of its actors, specifically Downey and Rockwell. On a positive note, the dialogue is very cool and funny with enough puns to compete with at least half of the James Bond series. As a complete film, “Iron Man 2” fails to capture the magic of the first film, and while high expectations may have had something to do with that, the film doesn’t feel complete.
Overall, “Iron Man 2” is a fun summer blockbuster, but when you’re exiting the theater, you’re going to feel one of two ways: “I liked it. That movie was fun” or “It was awesome, and I can’t wait for The Avengers!!!” Both reactions were overheard in the theater as I exited. If you liked “Iron Man”, if you like Robert Downey Jr., or if you just want to have some well deserved fun watching some colorful expensive comic book explosions, blast off to the theater for this one. I give it a 2.5 out of 4 stars.
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