The original Iron Man's success came something like a bolt from the blue; a very welcome superhero debut that nailed its playful tone and established itself as the first part of a much bigger universe. The sequel, however, comes with certain expectations attached: now we know the character's origins, he kinda has to... y'know, do something.
While it doesn't quite step things up to a higher level - it's very much more of the same - Iron Man 2 is a satisfactory continuation of the Iron Man
saga, with a cache of cool most superheroes would kill for. And yeah, it'll leave you jonesing for The Avengers in a big way.
The reason why I, and everyone else, loved Iron Man was the masterstroke of casting Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark; not only that, but the remodelling of the character to accommodate Downey's excess of personality. Compared to the sombre Bruce Waynes of the comic-book world (oh boo-hoo my parents are dead, I'm a sympathetic billionaire), he was a breath of fresh air, and the last reel reveal of his secret identity set up the sequel perfectly - here is a hero where what you see is what you get.
What Jon Favreau has wisely done in Iron Man 2 is keep things frothy and avoided the temptation to edge into darker territory - seemingly mandatory for the cookie-cutter superhero sequel (must have been a rainy day when they shot those dark clouds on the poster, I guess). Like The Dark Knight
, Stark has to deal with escalation - now people know the name and face of Iron Man and they want a piece of him, whether it's out-and-out villains like wronged Russian Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) or assclown government officials like Senator Stern (Garry Shandling).
But where usually this might lead the characters into moral mazes and shadowy confrontations, Favreau keeps things light and Downey keeps the tempo high. Stark's battle with the bottle is touched but never dwelled upon - in fact, the scene where Tony gets wasted (and pees in the suit) is when the movie is at its funniest. Characters still quip at inopportune moments; Stark still has a rapier wit and enjoys some great one-liners; there's levity even in scenes you suspect should drag. Favreau figures we had fun in the first movie, so why shouldn't we keep the party going? Not many superheroes get a "fuck you" from a high court official.
Naturally, this comes at the expense of any real danger. Rourke's villain gets a decent back-story but fails to do anything with it, save for his awesome battle scene at the Monaco Grand Prix. The final showdown, in which Don Cheadle's War Machine joins the fray, doesn't really feel like much is at stake - Whiplash's whips don't really seem all that effective (hint: if your victims have time to banter while they're in your death grip, you're doing it wrong). When you play your movie for laughs, it's tough to make your audience sit up and take notice when you're trying to be sincere for even just a moment.
One criticism that I've read is that there's a little too much going on at times, and I can honestly say that, compared to say Spider-Man 3 - the benchmark for 'I literally have no idea what the fuck is going on here' - Iron Man 2 is a relatively smooth ride. There are several balls to be juggled here, sure: Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow serves only as eye-candy (no complaints) and a neat connection to a larger Marvel universe, while Nick Fury's inclusion has little to do, certainly with what's going on in this
movie. Are we really much further down the line than we were at this point in the last movie? Perhaps not. But at 124 minutes, it's a compliment to say I wished it was a little longer.
There's simply too much to enjoy to look at your watch, even if there are maybe three major action scenes - the rest is all character interaction, plain and simple. Gwyneth Paltrow has a rounder role this time around, still sparking off Downey Jr with some decent chemistry and a great line in back and forth. Johansson's Black Widow gets one decent scene, but it's a cracker - all legs and twists and kicks and twirls. Well hello there, young lady. (*opens beer*)
And Sam Rockwell? He damn near walks away with the movie. As Tony Stark wannabe and weapons manufacturer Justin Hammer, his role is underwritten, but Rockwell weaves pure gold from mere scraps. He smiles, he seethes, he smarms - he even does his little dance. He genuinely rivals Downey in terms of sheer screen charisma. He would have made a fantastic Iron Man in another universe
Apply a critical eye to Iron Man 2 and flaws will flash up in big red letters, but they're only there if you're looking for them. The rulebook says you can't have a hero who's invulnerable, but Iron Man is pretty much untouchable. It also says you can't introduce a villain and then give him nothing to do for the next hour, but the movie survives on its early propulsion. By rights, a superhero sequel should be darker, more intense and more dangerous, but Favreau is happy just to stay cool. That's all Iron Man's job has ever been, and frankly, that's fine by me.
Now, let's have The Avengers in double-time, yes?